By Aleksandra Rebic
On the face of it, they appear to be ordinary old men, going about their daily business, happy to be alive. But they have a story to tell, each and every one of them. They’ll never tell you they weren’t scared. They won’t lie to you that way. They’ll never tell you that it was “nothing”. They were scared to death, and it was something indeed. They are gentle souls. And they understood how important it was to tell their story, not for themselves, but for us.
One of the great fortunes of my life is to have been alive while these men were on this earth, so that I could meet them face to face and hear their stories firsthand. I’m not part of the “greatest generation,” but I’m proud to say that I’m a product of it. Though I’m not smart about a lot of things, the one thing I am smart about is to understand and appreciate the value of what men such as these contributed to our country and to history. They are the survivors of the battles waged in war and are our most valuable historians. They are our teachers and our guides. They are our national treasure. And their story illuminates for us the great things men are capable of and the natural heroism that comes with being faced with death and not allowing fear to get the best of us. Illuminated, too, is just how important and essential alliances between peoples are when one country’s people comes to the aid of another’s through splendid acts of unselfishness and mutual respect. Such is the story of the Serbian people loyal to General Draza Mihailovich and the Americans whom they sheltered and saved in WWII Yugoslavia in 1944.
On June 17th and 18th, 2009, as part of the “Lest we Forget” week long war veterans commemoration in Southwestern Michigan, “Operation Halyard”, the “Halyard Mission” was honored during the “Forgotten 500 Reunion” arranged by Clare Musgrove, one of the last of the surviving American airmen rescued by the Mihailovich forces during Operation Halyard, in cooperation with “Lest we Forget” directors Don Alsbro and Rich Ziebart. Neither of these two men were involved in Operation Halyard, but their interest was peaked when in the World War II class given as a ‘continuing education course’ at Lake Michigan College in Michigan, Gregory Freeman’s The Forgotten 500 was chosen as the book the class would read. If anything proves the power of how important books are – putting the story to paper – this is it. Countless people who knew nothing of “Operation Halyard” now know the story, because of this one book that continues to draw attention and draw people in to hear the story….
Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Daniel Christy of California, who had been invited to speak at the Forgotten 500 Reunion, I was invited to be a part of it and tell the story of who General Draza Mihailovich was. On the road to Michigan, I had no idea what to expect. It became immediately evident, once I began listening to the casual presentations at the Park Inn in Stephensville on Wednesday, June 17th , the first of the two day “Forgotten 500 Reunion” event, that as casual as this all appeared to be, it was going to end up anything but ordinary. What I didn’t anticipate was the impact it would have on all of us who attended.
The presentations at the Park Inn were already underway as I walked in. I found a place in the back and got settled as Colonel Don Alsbro, US Army, (ret.), President of “Lest We Forget”, reminded us that “when a veteran dies, a library burns.” As an aspiring writer and someone who believes in documenting everything that they can, these words resonated immediately. Colonel Alsbro described how his father had died when he was only 9 years old. His father had quit high school in 1917 to go off to WWI.
“I never got to ask him about his experiences…and in 1972 all the records of the servicemen up to 1933 were burned in that big fire in St. Louis. How I wish he had put his story in writing. So all you veterans sitting in this room, if you haven’t written your story, please do it.”
After the event, I asked Colonel Alsbro how he came to be involved in the “Forgotten 500” Halyard Mission Reunion and this is what he had to say:
“I did not know what to expect, especially since we had so many people who had to change their plans due to health concerns. That is why we couldn’t put a finalized program together until the very end when we saw who showed up. I greatly enjoyed speaking with Art Jibilian, the radio operator. He really inspired me. The reason that I became interested in ‘Operation Halyard’ was because of Clare Musgrove who is featured on many of the pages of the book. He has lived in the community for 40 some years but no one was aware of his military experience until the book came out. Clare does not talk about himself very much. He is well respected in the community. After reading the book and talking to him I came up with the idea of combining the reunion with the WWII re-enactment. I am not a WWII vet but a Vietnam vet with 32 years experience in the military, and I formed ‘Lest We Forget’ 4 years ago. For the reunion, Dick Ziebart, Jimmy Butt, Clare Musgrove, and Arden Pridgeon, all WWII vets put together this reunion which actually feature two groups: The Night Fighters (Dick Ziebart) and Operation Halyard (Clare Musgrove).
LWF does a variety of patriotic programs. We’ve written a book of WWII Vets stories, produced 2 very large re-enactments, patriotic concerts, brought in Medal of Honor recipients, produced patriotic programs in schools and at community events, participated in many parades, travelled to WV to honor Frank Buckles, the only American WWI vet still living and much more. The motto of LWF is “To brighten the future, we must illuminate the past” and that is what we tried to do with the ‘Forgotten 500’ reunion. Patriotism is NOT being taught in our American public schools like it was 20-30 years ago. Our young people don’t know who we fought in WWII and why we fought!
We now have 65 members and are making a huge impact in our community. It is our hope that communities throughout the US will see what we’re doing and duplicate what we’re doing.”
Rich Ziebart, the other director of the event, had this to say when I asked him how he got involved:
“My part in the Halyard Mission came about more by accident than planning. I am a veteran of the W.W.II ‘Night Fighters’ and serve as the representative for the 417th Night Fighter Squadron. We had a planned reunion on the same date and place as the Halyard Mission. I asked if we could assist by holding a joint banquet for the two organizations as we were booked at the same hotel and would be holding separate group meetings as well as a joint meeting to get acquainted.
I was asked to also help find as many American Flyers that jumped over Yugoslavia and were rescued to invite them to the reunion. I was also given a list of names of Serbs such as yourself to contact and invite. I had the pleasure of talking to many flyers who were rescued. It was a joy to listen to their stories and how thankful they were that they were saved by such caring people. Most could not travel due to poor health and age.
Clare Musgrove who lives in our area was one of those Americans saved by the great Serb Draza Mahailivich and is listed in the book “The Forgotten 500”. His story is in the first 65 pages. The writer is Gregory Freeman and he chose the name for his book “The Forgotten 500” to show the number of Americans saved by Draza’s Army. I have listened to the entire book on CD’s. It is a great book and it tells the history of the people who saved the downed flyers as well as other stories and pictures of the day. Clare suggested the idea of inviting as many as possible to what would probably be the last time to have this group together and give a push to clear Draza’s name and have a memorial built in his honor.”
I was glad that I had arrived on time to hear Night Fighter Bob Bolinder tell his story. Though many of us in that room knew the Halyard story well, we would now have the opportunity to hear from others who had faced difficult circumstances in war and had made it out alive.
“None of us were heroes…” he said. “We went through pilot training, we were training how to fly an airplane, how to get it up and back down again, and our mission was to engage the enemy and destroy the enemy. I flew 43 missions for the 422nd Squadron in Europe and I didn’t see an enemy airplane until my 30th . That’s when I finally saw a German plane, saw the German cross that identified it. Radar was very primitive in those days – we had to identify everything visually.
The Air Force was looking for volunteers for a new program, the “Night Fighters” and our role would be to provide night cover for the First Army. We didn’t know what radar was in those days…we had to get close enough to see the German cross to identify a plane as an enemy plane.
The thing that is most significant in my combat experience in WWII happened at the start of the 2nd week of the Battle of the Bulge – it was Christmas Eve 1944 – a Sunday afternoon. Our Colonel called us in to tell us that he’d just been advised by headquarters that our Squadron was going to defend the base. Well, somebody raised their hand and asked ‘With what, Colonel?’
He said, ‘Well, the officers have their 45s and the enlisted men have their carbines, and those will be the weapons we’ll use…’ And I’m thinking, ‘and the Germans have their panzer tanks and their tiger tanks…’”
Laughter in the room…
Mr. Bolinder continued…
“We were dismissed and I went back to my bunk and I knew I was going to die. 21 years old – my 21st birthday was June 6th, 1944, D-Day – and I was going to die.
By the same token, I was a professing Christian and the first thing I thought of when I got back to my bunk in the tent was to go to my Bible. I had my Bible that I carried with me and I opened it…I had no idea what I was going to read, but I opened my Bible and the first verse that my eyes fell upon was the first verse in the 46th Psalm. You see – “
His voice breaks, and he is in tears.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” his wife in the audience speaks the verse for him.
He repeats it and continues:
“I get very emotional. The whole Psalm was like it had been written for me, at that moment in my life.
Now, did it change the course of the war? Well, no, it didn’t change the course of the war, but it changed my head, it changed my attitude, and I knew that if I was going to die, it was alright.”
Young Bob Bolinder survived, and the war ended a few short months later. And here he was, 65 years later, telling us his story, and I knew that these two days in Michigan were going to be something quietly extraordinary for I was among extraordinary men, whose humility and gentleness struck you immediately, considering the magnitude of what they had been through in their lives. These were gentle souls and their gift to us was their story.
The best thing for me about the event that unfolded was that the Serbs were part of it. Their contribution to such stories was going to be highlighted and Americans who had never heard of ‘Operation Halyard’ or General Mihailovich or his Chetniks, would now learn about something very special, something worth thinking about and remembering and passing on to future generations.
Clare Musgrove, one of the last surviving rescued American airmen of the ‘Forgotten 500’ was introduced to us by Colonel Alsbro:
“Until ‘The Forgotten 500’ came out, people who had worked for Clare Musgrove never even knew he was in the military or that he fought in WWII or about what he did. Now, everyone in the county knows Clare!Since this book came out, Clare has talked to school kids all over, telling the story of Operation Halyard.”
Musgrove took to the podium and described ‘The Forgotten 500’ as being a book that, in addition to telling the story of the American airmen in WWII,
“…tells the story of the problem that we had with the English (British) allies in trying to deliver the O.S.S. people to the ground in Yugoslavia so that they could align with the Chetniks and get us out of the predicament that we were in.”
He then turned to Arthur “Jibby” Jibilian, the radioman who was the only remaining survivor of the OSS Halyard Mission crew directly involved on the ground with the rescue operation and tells us that
“Jibby got all the secret messages from Yugoslavia to Italy without the Germans finding out.”
I had noticed OSS veteran Arthur Jibilian sitting in the front row immediately after I’d walked in and situated myself at the back of the room. After all the years of corresponding with him, writing his story, and talking with him on the telephone, I would finally have the opportunity to meet him face to face. This opportunity alone would have made the trip to Michigan worth it. Arthur would turn out to be everything that I had imagined: Kind, warm, funny, smart, with a fierce memory for detail and a sincere heart. This was a dedicated man who had made it his life’s mission to tell the Mihailovich story and the role that the Serbs played in saving over 500 American lives from behind enemy lines in World War II. How humbling it is to know such a man.
As the evening continued, JoAnne Musulin de la Riva, daughter of George “Guv” Musulin, the commanding officer of Operation Halyard, who had passed away many years before, was introduced from the audience. We would all have the pleasure of hearing her thoughts on Halyard and what this event meant to her the next evening, at Lake Michigan College.
Slobodan Mapic, a Serb immigrant who was in the audience that June 17th day, would rise and tell the story of how he and his friends had hidden downed American airmen from the Germans for two and a half months in a cemetery in Serbia so that they would not be discovered by the Nazis.
Arthur Jibilian then rose, indicating that he, too, had some stories to share that day.
Don Alsbro shared the following with the audience, with his arm around “Jibby”:
“We started planning this reunion in December of ‘08. A year ago, last June of 2008, Jibby’s doctor told him he had less than two months to live – [having been diagnosed with leukemia], but he called me in December and said ‘I’m living and I’m coming to your reunion!’”
Jibilian took to the podium, which was almost taller than he was, and began telling his story about the horse that Captain Musulin had given him in Serbia, the memory of which he cherishes to this day. He shared with us how he came to volunteer for the OSS as a radio operator who knew how to dispatch secret messages undetected by the enemy from behind enemy lines, a skill that was desperately needed as he would soon learn upon becoming involved with ‘Operation Halyard’.
“All you had to do was to wave the American flag at a 20 year old back then and he was ready to go,” said Jibilian.
He described how General Mihailovich began his resistance against the Nazis and what a true hero he was. It quickly became clear that Arthur Jibilian was more interested in talking about Mihailovich and Musulin than he was in talking about himself. Once he got started, he wanted to continue and we wanted him to, but his daughter Debbie and wife Jo, who are with him wherever he goes taking good care of him, reminded Jibby that there was still “tomorrow” and that he needed to rest. He reluctantly complied, but it was striking that after all the years of telling the same stories, he had never grown tired of it. He has never grown tired of telling the story of the Halyard Mission and what it should mean to all of us, Serbs and Americans. He has been “beyond dedicated”, reminding me of another tireless warrior who would have loved this reunion – Major Richard L. Felman – who was lost to us ten years ago, but who dedicated the last 50 years of his life to “not allowing the Halyard story to be forgotten.”
Next to speak was Raymond Daniel, one of the “Night Fighters”, and author of “Remember Yesterday” a compilation of stories dedicated to ‘keeping the memory alive’.
“If you have a story,” he said to the veterans in the room,“put it in writing cause that’s the only way our young folks will know and understand.”
Dan Mandich, President of the ‘Organization of Serbian Chetniks Ravne Gore’, emotionally thanked the organizers of the event and spoke for all of us who had come to honor the veterans:
“I’m truly humbled. You’re my Dad’s generation. You’re all heroes…I, too, am a veteran, fought in Vietnam as a marine, but emotions at gatherings like this overcome one. When something’s dear to your heart, it’s hard to be stoic and articulate…It’s a pleasure to be with you. You guys are living history.”
As the first day of the “Forgotten 500 Reunion” in St. Joseph, Michigan wound down, and the veterans began exiting the room, a few of us stayed behind to chat and share our impressions. This was my opportunity to introduce myself to Arthur Jibilian, taking his hand and smiling broadly.
“You know me!” I said.
He didn’t. He’d never seen a photo.
I told him I was his ‘Chetnik friend from Chicago’ and then he immediately knew. We hugged like the old friends that we were. I was ecstatic that this opportunity had presented itself. After all the years of corresponding with “Arthur”, I had wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to meet him face to face. When I finally did on June 17th, I felt like I had just met royalty. This was the living, breathing face of ‘Halyard’.
I would have the opportunity to spend time with him again the next day, but for now, he needed his rest. I couldn’t help but be grateful, for very selfish reasons, that he appeared so healthy and strong. He was 86 years old and had been given only two months to live a year ago last June. But that’s the kind of men the Halyard Mission heroes were, I thought to myself.
The evening at the Park Inn in Stephensville, Michigan ended for me with time spent chatting with Vera Dragisich, Secretary of ‘The Movement of Serbian Chetniks Ravne Gore’. She reminded me that we had actually shared a class together at Northwestern University, of which we were both Alumni, back in the 1980s. I was amazed to learn that she now held the position in the organization that my own father had held many years ago under the leadership of Voyvoda Momchilo Djujich! That’s how small the world is!
Joining us in conversation was JoAnne Musulin de la Riva and Clare Musgrove. We could have chatted all night it seemed.
I felt like I was at a family reunion, and indeed I was. This was the “Halyard” family, Americans and Serbs together, sharing a common, unbreakable bond, just the way it should be. Though he was not physically in the room nor had been in the room at any time that day, the spirit of General Draza Mihailovich was so very present. He was there with us, and we with him.
Had there been nothing planned for the next day, Thursday, June 18th, this single evening would have been enough to leave me with fond memories and illumination for the rest of my life, but more was indeed to come, and it would just get even better.
That beautiful summer night as I drove to my hotel a few miles away, looking forward to the next day’s festivities, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I was. Future generations will not have this opportunity. They will never have the honor and privilege of meeting these people face to face, hearing their stories as told by them in their own voices, and tangibly sensing the enormity of what they had accomplished, what they had lived through, what they had done for their country and for their allies, and how humble and gentle and dedicated to the preservation of a noble legacy they had remained through all these years.
And they had lived to tell their story in my lifetime. For that alone I will be eternally thankful.
July 4, 2009
May 10, 2005, Boris Pavelic and Bojana Oprjan-Ilic acknowledged and conceded that the ceremony was tantamount to official U.S. government recognition of Draza Mihailovich’s role as an ally of the U.S. during World War II in the news dispatch: “USA Nevertheless Decorates Chetnik Leader Draza Mihailovic.”
Eight Bailed Out is invaluable as an account of the unprecedented rescue of U.S. airmen behind enemy lines during World War II by Chetnik guerrillas under Draza Mihailovich. Major James M. Inks offered his personal, eyewitness account of the conflict in Yugoslavia. Based on his wartime experiences in Yugoslavia, like U.S. Air Force Major Richard L. Felman and U.S. Navy radioman Arthur Jibilian, U.S Air Force Major James M. Inks emerged as the most outspoken and vociferous supporter and advocate of Draza Mihailovich and his legacy. He concluded that the abandonment of Mihailovich and his forces was a major U.S. foreign policy blunder and tragedy from which lessons should have been learned:
“At this late date, it does not matter greatly, I think, what or who it was who influenced that betrayal. Recriminations over the past only distract us from the job that lies ahead. What matters now is that we should have learned the lesson of the past.”
Was the lesson of the past learned?