By Elizabeth Milanovich
a quarterly Serbian magazine
published in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
More often than not, a war story is about killing and bloodshed. This is not one of those stories of death, but rather one of life. In fact, it’s about an incredible and unprecedented rescue in the hills of Yugoslavia during WWII. This is a story which should have been told long ago, but for political reasons was suppressed until recent years. It’s now told in a book authored by Gregory Freeman, ‘The Forgotten 500’. It is very aptly titled, and involves the heroics and sacrifices of Serbian villagers and Yugoslav Royalist forces led by General Dragoljub Mihajlovic (Draza Mihailovich). And, it also involves the heroics of an American, Arthur Jibilian, who introduces himself in that book as follows:
“I am the radio operator, “Jibby” in this book. We owe a debt to Mihailovich and the Serbian people for saving so many American lives. The SERBIANS WERE THE ONLY ONES IN THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA THAT FED, SHELTERED, AND RISKED THEIR LIVES FOR THE AMERICANS. Mihailovich’s abandonment by the Allies and subsequently being labelled a traitor was, in Winston Churchill’s words, “…My greatest blunder in WWII..”. I am proud of being a part of the Halyard Mission and, FINALLY, seeing the truth regarding Mihailovich’s contributions in WWII being publicized. This book will go a long way in clearing his name…..and it is exciting, easy reading, and hard to put down once you start it.”
This long suppressed story is all the more interesting and significant because the events of the 1990s, which led to bloody civil-religious wars in Yugoslavia and caused her dismemberment, had origins in the WWII period 1941-1945. Both in the 1940s and 1990s, the machinations of Western countries greatly complicated and exacerbated adverse events and outcomes. And, in the 1990s, the end result was that Yugoslavia was no more.
In order to write this article I also relied on a few websites, the aforementioned book, and the helpful input of WWII hero Arthur Jibilian and other individuals familiar with WWII events in Yugoslavia.
Excerpt from the website of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York athttp://www.teslasociety.com/jubilian.htm:
“The following text was taken from WTOL:
On Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008, at 11 a.m., at the Air National Guard facility at Toledo Express Airport, Art Jibilian of Fremont received a special Congressional award.
Mr. Jibilian played a vital role in one of the last untold stories of World War II, The Forgotten 500. In a remarkable mission, more than 500 U.S. airmen were rescued from the hills of Yugoslavia. At the time, the area was controlled by the Nazis, who were hunting for the American airmen.
Brave Serbian villagers hid the Americans, even though they faced death if they were caught. Mr. Jibilian volunteered to parachute behind enemy lines and coordinate the rescue. He helped build an airstrip in the middle of the forest. He and his team organized the villagers and the downed airmen, and brought the C-47s into the makeshift airstrip. The airmen were rescued.
Mr. Jibilian’s heroism is documented in a book by Gregory Freeman: ‘The Forgotten 500’. It is a fascinating story that is all the more spectacular because it is true.
The impressive facility of the Air National Guard at Toledo Express Airport was full of people, national guardsmen, commanders of the National Guard, congressmen and senators of the State of Ohio. Many of the National Guardsmen and Congressmen spoke at the ceremony.
A Serbian delegation, who came from Cleveland, Ohio, also attended the event and was greeted warmly.”
[WTOL is the CBS affiliate in Toledo, Ohio serving Northwest Ohio, Southeast Michigan, and southwest Ontario, Canada.]
On September 20th, 2009, Serbia’s President Boris Tadic was feted at a reception in Cleveland, Ohio. One of the dignitaries present at the event was Ohio Senator George Voinovich. Apparently Senator Voinovich has been a great supporter of giving General Mihailovich and the Halyard Mission their rightful place in history. Arthur Jibilian was also there, by special invitation, and met both President Tadic and Senator Voinovich and presented them with autographed copies of ‘The Forgotten 500’.
From www.generalmihailovich.com by Aleksandra Rebic:
“Arthur Jibilian, shortly after the Tadic reception, learned that he is in full remission. Jibilian, who is 86 years old, was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in the spring of 2008 and given only a couple of months to live. Over a year later, “Jibby” is still going strong and has attended numerous events over the course of the last year honoring the Halyard Mission Rescue Operation which successfully evacuated and saved the lives of over 500 American airmen from Nazi occupied territory in WWII Yugoslavia. The operation was brilliantly executed by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the forces of General Draza Mihailovich of Serbia. This was Jibilian’s first time meeting with the President of Serbia.”
The following paragraphs are excerpted from Arthur Jibilian’s biography about his introduction into the WWII theatre in Yugoslavia. In his own words:
“… I was informed that a Lt. Eli Popovich would be interviewing radio operators for a mission into Yugoslavia. Col. Lynn Farish and Lt. Popovich were going into Yugoslavia and needed a radio operator. Col Farish had been in Yugo before, but had had no radio operator, being dependent of the British Missions to relay his reports. This was not acceptable to him, or to OSS. I was thrilled when Eli (we were quite informal in OSS) selected me.
We parachuted into Partisan territory, on March 15, 1944. Initially, I failed to make radio contact with base and everyone, including me, began to doubt my competence. Finally making contact, we discovered that base had not been listening for us as the mission was scheduled to be cancelled. We were just getting comfortable, when the Germans, using a direction finder, locked in on my radio signals. When I began transmitting, German Stukas and Messerschmits strafed and dive-bombed out positions.
We were forced to jettison every piece of excess equipment when the Germans sent a contingent after us. They pursued us for six nights and five days. We were in summer khakis and as we climbed the mountain trails, the air became colder and colder. We ran into snow, sometimes sinking so deep that we had to help each other lift our feet out of the drifts. When we stopped for a 10 minute break, we were soaked with sweat and the clothes literally froze to our bodies. When we started to march, we quickly generated enough heat to melt the ice.
We had little to eat, subsisting on goat cheese and bread with straw, given to us by the Serbian peasants. We all became very ill due to the harsh conditions.
Going back down, we finally got to a warmer elevation. We also heard of some airmen that the Serbs were hiding from the Germans. We had to go though a German ‘checkpoint’ to reach them, or take a long eight day march around the checkpoint. We decided to risk the checkpoint. We were told we could bribe the guards (Farish had $20.00 gold pieces) and they would allow us to sneak through in the dark. We got half-way through when something went terribly wrong. Flares went up and a searchlight began probing for us. I fired at the searchlight and it went out. I think everyone shot at the light, so cannot take credit for hitting it. Amid all the confusion, we all made it through safely. We picked up about a dozen airmen who had been shot down while bombing the oil fields of Ploesti. We brought them out with us.
This mission lasted only two months, but was the toughest two months, mentally and physically, in my life. We were sent to a rest camp in Naples, Italy. I had lost a lot of weight, but, being young, it didn’t take me long to regain it, especially with the relative abundance of good things to eat.
I was awarded the Silver Star for this mission and am extremely proud of it.
Shortly afterwards, Col Kraigher of the 15th Air Force, contacted OSS. He had received word that there were 50 American airmen in the area of Pranjani, Yugoslavia. These airmen were shot down while bombing the oil fields of Ploesti. Gen. Draza Mihailovich, leader of the Chetniks, had gathered these men, protected them, fed them, and brought them all together in one area so that the Americans could “rescue” them. The Halyard Mission, composed of Capt. George “Guv” Musulin, Lt. Mike Rajacic and Navy Radio Operator Arthur “Jibby” Jibilian, volunteered to parachute in and evacuate them. The mission would take seven to ten days, it was estimated.
In order for readers to appreciate what follows, I must digress for a moment and give a little background. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, Gen. Mihailovich took off into the hills and waged guerilla warfare against the Germans. He was hailed as a hero by the Allies, and, when possible, supplies were dropped to aid him in his fight against the invaders. Several British missions also were dropped in to help him and gather intelligence information. One individual from OSS, Capt. George “Guv” Musulin, also parachuted into Mihailovich’s headquarters. He had no radio operator and relayed information through the British. A movie titled ‘THE FIGHTING CHETNIKS’ was made, depicting Mihailovich’s courageous fight against the Nazi invaders.
When the Germans invaded Russia, Josip Broz, better known as Marshal Tito, also organized guerillas to fight the Germans. Mihailovich welcomed him. Tito started a campaign to communize villages. Mihailovich asked him to stop, saying that they were soldiers, not politicians. “Let’s drive the Germans out of our land, and then we can worry about the type of government we want”, he told Tito. Nevertheless, Tito persisted and civil war broke out between the partisans of Marshal Tito and the Chetniks of Mihailovich. …”
The tragic story of General Draza Mihailovich is not well and widely known in the West. It was suppressed for political reasons during the Cold War. After the fall of communism in Yugoslavia, the truth of this hero of WWII continued to be concealed by remnants of Tito’s regime and the sons and daughters of communists who came into power.
Following a staged and phony WWII trial by the victorious communists in Belgrade, Gen. Mihailovich was executed on July 17, 1946. Even today his grave has not been identified, while Tito’s splendid burial site ‘The House of Flowers’ is still fully maintained in Belgrade. In his book ‘Ally Betrayed’, David Martin wrote:
“Ever since the fall of 1943, the Allied press had been accusing Mihailovich as a collaborator and a traitor ….It is an irony of history that Tito should have been the creation of the capitalist democracies, Great Britain and the United States.”
The facts are that General Draza Mihailovich was recognized as the first anti-fascist guerrilla in occupied Europe. His substantial contributions to the war effort were recognized and are the subject of tributes by Generals Eisenhower and DeGaulle, by three top ranking British officers, Harwood, Tedder, and Auchinleck, and by many others. In late 1942, the British officers jointly sent the following wire to Gen. Mihailovich, “With admiration we are following your directed operations which are of inestimable value to the Allied cause.” In 1948, President Truman posthumously decorated Gen. Draza Mihailovich with the highest USA decoration for a foreigner, the Legion of Merit. The decoration was kept secret for many years.
Arthur Jibilian, in his own words, about Gen. Draza Mihailovich:
“Gen Mihailovich was a great and, yet, simple man. He was very approachable, had a delightful sense of humor and loved his country passionately. We begged him to come out with us but he said, ‘I am a soldier, this is my country. I was born here, will fight here and die here.’
OSS personnel and Allied airmen wanted to testify at Mihailovich’s trial, but Tito refused to give permission. Had we been permitted to testify, the truth of Mihailovich’s deeds would have come out.”
More excerpts from the final paragraphs of Arthur Jibilian’s biography:
“… The Allies now had to justify their abandonment of Mihailovich. They did this by simply stating that he was a collaborator and would no longer support him. All aid was given to the Partisans of Marshal Tito, who used the guns and ammunitions against Mihailovich more often than against the Germans. With their superior weapons and firepower, the Partisan kept the Chetniks on the run, even though the majority of the Serbian people supported Mihailovich. All Air force personnel were told that, if shot down over Yugoslavia, they were to seek out the Partisans of Marshal Tito, as the Chetniks would cut off their ears and turn them over to the Germans.
As a result of these “political concerns” our mission was delayed and/ or aborted a dozen times. We were to jump on July 3, but it was not until August 2, 1944, that we finally jumped into Pranjani.
We found not 50 Americans, but 250! Many were in bad shape, having been wounded by flack and/or sustaining injuries upon landing or while attempting to evade capture by the Germans. I cannot say enough about the care and protection that our wounded received from the Chetniks and the Serbian people. They risked their lives to shelter and protect our boys. The peasants fed the wounded when they, themselves, had nothing to eat. You must remember that the land had been ravaged by the Germans and the Civil War further depleted the resources of the farmers, giving meaning to the phrase “they were dirt poor”.
On August 10, the C-47s escorted by P-51 Mustangs and P-38 lightning fighters, arrived. While the fighters strafed Cacak, the C-47s landed, were loaded, and departed quickly.
Gen. Mihailovich informed us that there were many more American airmen throughout his territory and he would funnel them to us, if we so desired. We received permission to stay and, what started out as a 10 day mission, lasted almost six months, during which we evacuated 513 Shot down American airmen, and “several” British, French and Italians.
The Ranger mission was also evacuated, leaving Capt. Nick Lalich and me as the sole mission in Mihailovich territory. We stayed until Dec. 27, 1944.
After a quick physical, a long, hot shower, I collapsed into a bed. The next morning, I had a hearty breakfast. Food never tasted so good! However, my elation was tempered with the thought of the poor Serbs who had sacrificed (and were still sacrificing) for the Americans.
Having spent two months with the forces of Marshal Tito, and six months with Mihailovich, the contrast was amazing. The Partisans shadowed us, never leaving us alone with the villagers. They were always tense, and villagers were ill at ease in their presence. Once, when we were alone with a family, we were asked: “Why are the Allies backing Tito?” I had been told to simply say: “Only God knows”. Being deeply religious, they accepted our answer.
In contrast, villagers flocked out happily, strewing flowers in Mihailovich’s path and singing and celebrating his return. All available food was scrounged so that a virtual feast could be prepared. The villagers donned their native costumes and danced and sang in Mihailovich’s honor. It was obvious that they literally adored him.
The “ten day mission” stretched to almost six months, and the rescuing of 513 Americans will live forever in my memory.
We followed the Fifth Army’s advance up the “boot” until my orders came to return to the States. OSS returned me to the Navy and I was discharged in September 1945.
I obtained employment with the VA in Washington, DC. Reading the ‘Washington Post’ one morning, I came across a small article on the front page: ‘Tito’s forces capture Mihailovich’. I was stunned and shook up. Knowing that Mihailovich felt abandoned by the Allies, I decided to tell the story of the Halyard Mission to the ‘Washington Post’. I saw the editor and told him my story and how Mihailovich had saved 513 American airmen.
I did not know it, but the rescued airmen had kept in touch with one another. They met at Ft. Stephens in Chicago and sent a 20 man delegation to Washington. They contacted me and we organized a ‘Mission to Save Mihailovich’ campaign. We distributed pamphlets, contacted the State Department, our senators, and representatives. We asked only:
l. To let the rescued airmen testify at his trial;
2. To allow OSS personnel to testify at his trial;
3. To move the trial to a neutral country so Mihailovich would get a fair trial.
Even though we knew Mihailovich was doomed, we felt that if we could at least see him and let him know that we hadn’t forgot him, he would die more peacefully.
Tito’s reply: ‘This is an internal matter and will be handled by us’.
We tried valiantly, but Washington is a town full of very powerful lobbyists and our efforts paled in comparison with the money and influence they had.
Mihailovich was tried and executed as a collaborator. In his last speech, he concluded by saying: ‘The truth is for everyone’.
This is the truth. The story of a hero and martyr.”
To sum up, from the Tesla Memorial Society website:
“… ‘THE FORGOTTEN 500’ is one of the greatest rescue and escape stories ever, but hardly anyone has heard about it. And that’s by design. The U.S., British, and Yugoslav governments hid details of this story for decades, purposefully denying credit to the heroic rescuers and the foreign ally who gave his life to help allied airmen as they were hunted down by Nazis in the hills of Yugoslavia. …”
Sixty years later:
In September 2004, Arthur Jibilian received an invitation from the Serbian government to participate in the dedication of a memorial plaque in Pranjani, the site of the first evacuation of 250 airmen. Arthur Jibilian and George Vuynovich, representing the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), were there. Of the WWII rescued pilots, only Clare Musgrove and Bob Wilson were able to attend. Others were not able to make it, and too many of the others did not live to see this day, among them the late Richard L. Felman.
Ohio Congressman Robert Latta has introduced a Bill recommending that Arthur Jibilian receive the U.S. military’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Such recognition is most deservedly merited after so many years of politically induced silence. An excerpt from Julia Gorin’s website, August 9, 2009:
“… Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH) has introduced a Bill to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Arthur Jibilian for risking his life to rescue downed U.S. airmen in German-occupied Serbia in 1944.
As usual, only the local TV station WTOL in Ohio has carried this story of national and international proportion.
However, about a week ago there was a huge breakthrough when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran the most extensive bit of history to ever see mainstream print on this subject. …”
The entire article may be read on Julia Gorin’s website athttp://www.juliagorin.com/.
For the past while, Mr. Jibilian has been showered with an assortment of richly deserved tributes.
Now, ‘Jibby’ awaits receiving the really big one, the Medal of Honor.
[ My thanks to Aleksandra Rebic, Milana Bizic, the Tesla Memorial Society, and Julia Gorin for the wealth of information on the internet, from which I was also able to extract information for my article. Many thanks to Gregory Freeman for writing a great book, without which I probably would not have written this article. I’m most grateful to Michael Djordjevich for sending me a copy of ‘The Forgotten 500’, and for supplying me with some valuable information. Of course, I’m especially grateful to Arthur Jibilian and his daughter Debbie for their very helpful advice and for sending me his biographical information. My apologies for any pertinent information which may have been omitted inadvertently due to space limitations.]
My thanks to Elizabeth “Liz” Milanovich for sharing her story for “Vidovdan” with me and for her good work on behalf of making the truth about Mihailovich known. She is a pleasure to work with.
Elizabeth is of Serbian background, born in Canada. She has always had a keen interest in history, world events and current affairs, with a special interest in the homeland of her parents. She learned to speak Serbian at an early age, and perfected it somewhat over the years. However, she says, she’s not fluent in Serbian, but considers herself quite fluent in English. She contributes articles in English to a Serbian magazine, ‘Vidovdan‘, published quarterly in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Elizabeth has traveled often to the former Yugoslavia, during and after the Tito era. She believes that many Serbs lost their way during that godless era, which set the Serbs back immensely. For decades their religion and traditions were neglected. As well, she feels it remains very sad how WWII hero Gen. Draza Mihailovich has been so mistreated.
In 2004 Elizabeth had the opportunity to visit Kosovo. She returned again in the autumn of 2008, and was able to see a wide swath of Kosovo. Suffice it to say, she says, those were bittersweet visits.