Trying to right a wrong WWII airmen honored for role in rescue operation
By Jack Kelly
July 31, 2009
OSHKOSH, Wis. — Art Jibilian hoped his presence here at the largest private air show in the world would, in a small way, help right a terrible wrong that had been done so long ago.
Mr. Jibilian, of Fremont Ohio, and surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering squadron of black fighter pilots, were honored here yesterday at AirVenture 2009 for their roles in Operation Halyard, the greatest rescue of downed American airmen in World War II.
Two former Western Pennsylvania men also played prominent roles in planning and executing that 1944 mission in the former Yugoslavia.
Mr. Jibilian recounted that rescue yesterday to members of the Experimental Aviation Association at the suggestion of Brian McMahon, a Toledo real estate developer and EAA member. He also presented a plaque honoring the black airmen who flew cover while C-47 transport planes landed and took off from a runway hacked out of a mountain by hand.
“This means so much, not for me but for General Mihailovich,” Mr. Jibilian said yesterday, referring to the guerilla leader whose involvement in the rescue was largely suppressed until recent years.
Mr. McMahon said he was fascinated to learn about the former Toledo man’s prominent role in Operation Halyard after picking up a copy of “The Forgotten 500,” a 2007 book by Gregory A. Freeman about the mission.
Mr. McMahon previously arranged for the University of Toledo, from which Mr. Jibilian was graduated in 1951, to honor him. His next target is Hollywood.
“This story would make a heck of a movie,” Mr. McMahon said.
Between Aug. 9 and Dec. 27, 1944, rescuers spirited 512 airmen, most of them Americans, out of the former Yugoslavia under the noses of the Nazis. To accomplish the daring mission, members of the Office of Strategic Services — the forerunner to the CIA — had to fight not just the Germans, but the British, who tried to sabotage their efforts.
Many of the Americans fliers had been shot down while striking at oilfields in Ploesti, Romania, the principal source of oil for the Nazi war machine.
As the radio operator on the OSS team, Mr. Jibilian, then 21, was crucial to the success of the mission. Even more critical was the involvement of former Western Pennsylvanians George Vujnovich and the late George Musulin.
An Ambridge native who later became an executive with Pan American World Airways, Mr. Vujnovich ran OSS covert operations in Yugoslavia from the 15th Air Force base in Bari, Italy during the war. Mr. Vujnovich wanted to lead the rescue mission himself, but was forbidden to do so.
So he turned to Mr. Musulin, a giant of a man who played tackle for Pitt’s Rose Bowl team in 1936 and later played for the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the OSS from the Office of Naval Intelligence. After the war, the native of Franklin, Cambria County, joined the CIA, from which he retired in 1974. He died in 1987.
The biggest hero of Operation Halyard, however, was Gen. Draza Mihailovich, the leader of Chetnik guerrillas in Yugoslavia. It was mostly Gen. Mihailovich’s men who assisted American fliers who parachuted from crippled airplanes, and fed and hid them from the Nazis at great risk to themselves. They also helped the fliers and OSS men construct a makeshift runway near Gen. Mihailovich’s headquarters in Pranjane from which they were airlifted to Italy.
But it was Allied policy to deny Gen. Mihailovich and his Chetniks support, or even credit for their contributions to the Allied cause. That’s why the British tried to stymie the mission, and why — after it succeeded — the British and the U.S. State Department insisted it be hushed up.
That policy was chiefly the work of James Klugmann, a Communist mole in the Special Operations Executive, the British counterpart of the OSS.
As an intelligence officer for the Yugoslav section of the SOE, Mr. Klugmann was in a position to invent triumphs for the Communist Partisans, to attribute to the Partisans victories over the Nazis that were actually won by Gen. Mihailovich’s Chetniks, and to fabricate “evidence” of Chetnik collaboration with the Nazis.
“Every time a message came in from Musulin about some success Draza Mihailovich had, (Klugmann) assigned it to the Communists,” Mr. Vujnovich, now 93 and living in New York, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The next day it would be on the BBC.”
Mr. Klugmann was able to censor messages from OSS operatives in Yugoslavia because the OSS relied on British radio operators in the early days of the war. The British had much better radios for clandestine communication and the OSS had few radio operators in the region.
That was why Mr. Jibilian’s arrival was so important to the success of Operation Halyard.
For Americans, World War II was a fight against Germany, Italy and Japan. In Yugoslavia, things were more complicated.
Yugoslavia was cobbled together from parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire after its collapse at the end of World War I. Its largest population was Serbs, but it also had Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians and Montenegrins, many of whom disliked being in a kingdom ruled by Serbs.
When Germany invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, the Serbs opposed the invaders. But the Nazis received a friendlier welcome in other parts of Yugoslavia. Although the Royal Yugoslav Army was quickly crushed and surrendered unconditionally on April 17, 1941, Draza Mihailovich, then a colonel, kept on fighting.
Also opposing the Nazis were Communist Partisans under Josip Broz — a Croat better known by his nom de guerre, Tito — although they didn’t join the fight until after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Tito wanted to rule a Communist Yugoslavia after beating the Nazis. Gen. Mihailovich, a royalist inclined towards the West, stood in the way.
In November, 1941, the Partisans attacked the Chetniks. From that point, the two guerrilla armies fought each other more than they fought the Germans.
In addition, Gen. Mihailovich found himself in a four-sided civil war. This was the stew of ideological and ethnic hatreds into which Art Jibilian parachuted on March 15, 1944.
“Jibby” had been drafted into the Navy in March, 1943. He was at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago learning to be a radio operator, when an OSS recruiter came to visit.
The OSS desperately needed radio operators, the recruiter said. Was he willing to volunteer for hazardous duty behind enemy lines? He was.
While waiting in Cairo, Egypt, for his first assignment, Mr. Jibilian volunteered again when he heard Col. Lynn Farish was looking for a radio operator for a team he was taking into Yugoslavia. After being forced to rely on British radio operators to get out reports during an earlier mission, Col. Farish insisted upon an American radio operator this time, even a rookie.
The mission, into territory controlled by the Partisans, went badly after the Germans located the OSS position through direction-finding equipment.
Dodging bombs and bullets, the three-man OSS team fled higher into the mountains, running so fast they had to jettison their equipment, including the radio. After six nights of cold and hunger, they evaded their German pursuers.
As they made their way back down the mountain, peasants told them about American airmen hiding from the Germans. They found a dozen, and were able to contact their base in Cairo. On June 16, the airmen and the OSS team were rescued.
Airmen await help
George Vujnovich learned from his Serbian-born wife, Mirjana, who’d escaped from Yugoslavia earlier in the war, that many more downed airmen were hiding in Yugoslavia. Gen. Mihailovich had been sending radio messages about the airmen for months, but the British ignored them.
One of those messages was intercepted by an American listening post in Algiers, which passed it on to the Yugoslav embassy in Washington, D.C., where Mirjana was working.
“She wrote me a letter with the names of the airmen and asked me what we could do about it,” Mr. Vujnovich told the Post-Gazette.
After graduating from Ambridge High School in 1934, George Vujnovich went to Yugoslavia, from which his parents had emigrated to America in 1912, to attend medical school. He and his wife-to-be were in Belgrade when the Germans attacked.
Because America wasn’t yet in the war, Mr. Vujnovich could leave the country. Despite their hasty marriage, it was dicier for his wife. The Gestapo was looking for Yugoslavs with connections to the Americans or the British, and she was on their list.
After a risky, roundabout trip through Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt and West Africa that took more than a year, Mirjana made it to Washington, D.C., and George joined the OSS.
When he proposed the rescue mission, the British and U.S. State Department opposed it. But Gen. Nathan Twining, commander of the 15th Air Force, wanted to get “his boys” back, and OSS chief Bill Donovan lent crucial support. Still, President Roosevelt agreed to a demand from Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Mr. Vujnovich not be permitted to lead the expedition. Though few in the OSS knew Yugoslavia better, George Vujnovich was too fond of Gen. Mihailovich, too suspicious of Tito for British tastes.
“I was [angry],” Mr. Vujnovich said. “But I couldn’t do anything as a soldier, because I was under orders.”
In addition to Mr. Musulin, who had spent months with Gen. Mihailovich the year before, the OSS team also included Mr. Jibilian, who volunteered to go back despite his harrowing experience weeks before.
They almost didn’t make it. The team relied on British air support, but four attempts to drop them were aborted. The British pilots, apparently deliberately, twice flew to the wrong coordinates. On the fifth attempt, the British tried to drop the team into an ongoing battle.
“They were hoping we would just drop into the battle and just disappear,” Mr. Jibilian recalled. “They obviously didn’t want us to go in there.”
A furious George Musulin insisted upon an American plane with American pilots. On their sixth attempt, on Aug. 2, 1944, the OSS team landed successfully.
In Pranjane, just 30 miles from a German garrison, 200 airmen and 300 Chetniks built, with their bare hands, a 700-foot dirt airstrip on a plateau just 50 yards wide halfway up a mountain. That was the absolute minimum length needed to land the C-47s that were to carry the airmen to safety. The plateau was surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges just two miles away.
Four C-47s made it in on the night of Aug. 9 and carried several dozen airmen to safety, barely clearing the woods at the end of the runway. But the night operations were dangerous, and took so much time that Mr. Musulin worried the Nazis would notice. He decided to gamble all on a daylight rescue.
At dawn on Aug. 10, six C-47s and an escort of about 30 fighters, most of them P-51s flown by the Tuskegee airmen, arrived. The fighters bombed and strafed German positions within 50 miles while the C-47s circled for landing. No sooner were they airborne than another six C-47s appeared. A total of 272 airmen were rescued without a casualty.
“This was an extraordinary feat of airmanship,” said Jeff Underwood, the historian for the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.
For the airliner version of the C-47 (the DC-3), the minimum distance required for takeoff was 900 feet, and 1,600 feet to land, Mr. Underwood said.
Mr. Musulin was ordered out of Yugoslavia after the rescue. He also was threatened with court martial for disobeying an order to offer no aid to Gen. Mihailovich because he arranged for shoes to be brought in for mostly barefoot peasants in the area.
Mr. Jibilian remained behind. The rescue scenario was repeated several times until the last of the airmen under Gen. Mihailovich’s protection –512 in all — were evacuated on Dec. 27.
“We asked Mihailovich to come out with us,” Mr. Jibilian said. “In fact, we begged him. He said no. ‘I’m a soldier, this is my country,’ he said.”
Gen. Mihailovich was captured by the Partisans and accused of collaboration with the Nazis. After a show trial, he was executed on July 17, 1946.
The airmen he’d rescued and members of the OSS vigorously protested the arrest, demanding the right to testify at his trial. But Tito refused, and the State Department offered no help.
Art Jibilian was one of the few OSS members to work with both the Partisans and the Chetniks.
“Having spent two months with the forces of Marshal Tito, and six months with Mihailovich, the contrast was amazing,” he said. “The Partisans shadowed us, never leaving us alone with the villagers. They were always tense, and the villagers seemed ill at ease in their presence.
“On a few occasions we were able to shake our guard and talk to the people,” he said. “One question they always asked us is ‘Why are the Americans backing the Partisans?’ ”
“It was night and day between the two,” Mr. Jibilian said. “When we were in Mihailovich territory, we were free to go wherever we wanted, talk to anyone we wanted. It was clear the villagers loved Mihailovich.”
The official silence about Gen. Mihailovich continued because the State Department was trying to woo Tito from allegiance to the Soviet bloc. Mr. Churchill later told a Belgian newspaper his handling of Yugoslavia was his biggest mistake during the war.
At the insistence of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, President Harry S. Truman in 1948 awarded the Legion of Merit, the highest award the United States can give to a foreigner, to Gen. Mihailovich posthumously. But the award remained secret until 1967, when former U.S. Rep. Edward Derwinski of Illinois demanded it be made public.
In 2005, a delegation including Mr. Jibilian and Mr. Vujnovich went to Belgrade to present the Legion of Merit to Gen. Mihailovich’s daughter, Gordana.
Originally scheduled as a public event with media coverage, the medal presentation was changed to a small affair in a private home, attended by no representatives from the U.S. embassy in Belgrade.
“Embassy personnel told us they couldn’t do anything because the State Department wouldn’t allow them,” Mr. Vujnovich said.
But the historical record was corrected two years ago with the publication of Mr. Freeman’s book.
“I first became aware of this during the conflict in Bosnia,” Mr. Freeman told the Post-Gazette.
“The story was amazing, and so was the fact that it had hardly been told, But I didn’t want to tell it in the context of the violence that was going on then, so I put the project off for five years.”
Jack Kelly can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1476.
Jack Kelly writes a nationally syndicated column, chiefly on national security issues, and covers fitness for the Post-Gazette’s health section. He is a former Marine, Green Beret, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.