WWII US airman seeks justice for late Serb general [Draza Mihailovich] / Milton Friend to testify in Serbia / The Washington Post Oct. 28, 2010
Aleksandra’s Note: A number of media outlets are carrying this great story today, October 28, 2010, that has been provided by the Associated Press News Service.
By DUSAN STOJANOVIC
October 28, 2010
BELGRADE, Serbia — An American whose U.S. Air Force bomber was shot down over the Balkans during World War II is on a new mission in the region: Correct a historic injustice against a former Serb guerrilla leader.
In the summer of 1944, Lt. Col. Milton Friend’s B-24 Liberator was downed by German fighter planes over central Serbia. He said Gen. Draza Mihailovic saved his life — and those of 500 of his fellow airmen — in the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines during a war.
The former Air Force navigator, now 88 and living in Boynton Beach, Florida, is to testify at a Belgrade court Friday at a hearing to exonerate the Serb general, whom Yugoslav communists sentenced as a Nazi collaborator and executed in 1946.
Mihailovic was not “a villain, but a hero,” Friend said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press.
“He saved 500 people and helped them rejoin their families. He did not save only 500 lives, but thousands of their future generations now living in the United States,” Friend said.
About 500 U.S. pilots and other airmen were downed over Serbia between 1942 and 1944 while on bombing runs targeting Adolf Hitler’s oil fields in neighboring Romania, according to U.S. government field station files, stored in the National Archives.
Along with the Americans, some 100 British, French and Canadian airmen also were saved in the rescue operation, dubbed “Halyard,” a word meaning a rope used to raise or lower a flag.
Friend said the airmen were hidden in villages by Serbian guerrilla fighters, known as Chetniks, who were led by Mihailovic. The prewar military officer launched the first Balkan resistance against the Nazis in 1941, before also turning against the communists led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
“Mihailovic told us that an American escape committee has been formed and that an airstrip will be built to help our rescue,” said Friend, adding that he spent two months sheltered by the Serbs.
“They fed us as gave us rakija” a strong Serbian plum brandy, Friend said. “Of course, at first we thought it was water, but we soon found out we were wrong. I still have the taste of that brandy in my mouth.”
Three American intelligence agents strapped with radio transmitters were airdropped on Aug. 2, 1944, near Mihailovic’s headquarters in central Serbia to set up the rescue operation, Friend said.
One of the three OSS agents was Capt. George Musulin who played football at the University of Pittsburgh and also was on the Pittsburgh’s Steeler team, in 1938 called Pirates, Friend said.
“He landed with his parachute on a chicken coop and killed some chickens because of his size,” Friend said. “He immediately offered 10 dollars to the villagers, but they, of course, refused.”
Dozens of U.S. military cargo planes flew in over the months to pick up the airmen. Serbian villagers had helped them build an airstrip by the village of Pranjani, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital, Belgrade.
According to historians, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt then decided to follow British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s lead and abandon support for Mihailovic in favor of Tito’s partizans, the strongest grass-roots guerrilla force fighting the invading Nazis and Italian fascists.
“This was a purely political decision,” Friend said. “In the first two years of the war, there were no partizans fighting the Nazis in Yugoslavia.”
Increasingly isolated, Mihailovic was alleged to have later collaborated with the Germans. After the war, when communist Yugoslavia was established, he was sentenced to death in what many claimed was a rigged trial.
He was put to death in 1946, and his remains were buried at a secret location because the communists feared the grave could one day become the shrine for his loyalists.
U.S. President Harry Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovic the Legion of Merit for the rescue. However, historians say the honor was classified secret by the U.S. State Department for decades to avoid disrupting the friendly U.S. policy toward Tito.
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this report from New York.
WWII US Airman (Milton Friend) Tells Court About Serbia Rescue
Aleksandra’s Note: Media organizations, both national and local, and worldwide have published this story issued by the Associated Press News Service (AP) and the Canadian Press News Service (CP).
BELGRADE, Serbia October 29, 2010, 01:38 pm ET
A former U.S. soldier told a Serbian court Friday how he and his fellow service members were rescued during World War II by fighters led by a Serb guerrilla who was later executed as a traitor by the postwar Yugoslav communist authorities.
Milton Friend, now 88 and living in Boynton Beach, Florida, testified before a court reviewing the 1946 verdict against Gen. Draza Mihailovic.
Friend is one of some 500 U.S. Army soldiers whose planes were shot down over the Balkans during the war and who were rescued by Mihailovic’s fighters.
The soldiers were hidden in villages by the Serbian guerrilla fighters, known as Chetniks, who were led by Mihailovic. The prewar military officer launched the first Balkan resistance against the Nazis in 1941, before turning against the communists led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
The U.S. then organized what became the largest rescue operation of Americans behind enemy lines during a war. The operation prompted U.S. President Harry Truman to posthumously award Mihailovic the Legion of Merit.
However, in Yugoslavia, Mihailovic was accused of treason by the new authorities and executed after a brief trial in 1946. The Communists said Mihailovic had collaborated with the Nazis and that his troops committed atrocities against non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.
Friend denied this during the hearing at Belgrade’s Higher Court. He said that the U.S. airmen had tried to testify in favor of Mihailovic during the initial trial in 1946, but that the then communist Yugoslav authorities rejected that.
“This is why I am here now,” he told the judges.
Friend said that back in 1946 he and the other U.S. Army airmen were “astonished” to hear about Mihailovic’s arrest. They chartered a plane and flew to Washington, collecting more than 600 pages of testimonies in favor of Mihailovic.
Friend described Mihailovic as “warm, pleasant and calm.” He said that Mihailovic wore no insignia or emblems to mark his military ranks during their two meetings.
The proceedings to exonerate Mihailovic were launched at the request of his followers and relatives who claim the trial against him had been staged and politically motivated.
(This version corrects that Friend was then flying with the U.S. Army, not the U.S. Air Force, which became a new branch of the military in 1947.)
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