“The Forgotten 500,” was a very interesting read, and quite reflective of many stories. It was a remarkable story of courage, the dangerous life of a an American bomber crew, flying B-24s, B-17s and some A-20s, flying from Bari, Italy to bomb the oil refineries located at Ploesti, Romania, their ultimate ,rescue, and the internecine politics of WW II.
Certainly, the focus of the story started with the OSS and the inspired leadership of General William “Wild Bill Donovan,” of the OSS, an agency created by the enlightened and unparalleled leadership of the late president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Donovan, the legendary head of the OSS, during the 2nd World War and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at the Argonne Forest. He was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as an officer with the 165th Infantry, formerly known as the Fighting 69th, which of course was part of the famous Rainbow Division. It was nicknamed the “Rainbow Division”, because it was the first division composed of men from all over the United States. This division was home to the famous fighting Tennessean, Sgt. Alvin C. York, who captured and knocked out 20+ German machine gun nests, single-handedly and captured over 130 of the enemy himself.
The mission of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, was to replicate, in a way, the actions of Britain’s SOE, and in a real sense it was quite successful. Like the SOE (Special Operations Executive), it was designed to operate overseas and behind the lines in Axis-occupied territory. Some of its main recruits, not unlike their British opposites, were first generation Americans and foreign-born young men and women who could infiltrate into enemy territory, find the indigenous resistance elements, communicate in the language of the region, and bring communications equipment, arms and expertise when it came to sabotage. In the “Forgotten 500,” the contribution of these remarkable and heroic men is inestimable. Their bravery and commitment was second to none. The key operatives were basically Yugoslavian-Americans, who were either emigres or were the children of immigrants. They created the mechanism that would eventually rescue over 500 downed American pilots and crew who had been shot down on their return flights from Ploesti, the most heavily protected site in the history of air warfare.
The courage and sacrifice of the Serbian people, and their love for the Americans, was quite apparent throughout the book. In fact, the Serbia part of greater Yugoslavia, lost a higher percentage of their people than any other national group in WW II. The brutality they faced from the Ustashi. was almost unprecedented. The Ustaše (also called Ustashas or Ustashi) was a Croatian racist, terrorist, and Nazi-like movement. It was engaged in terrorist activities before World War II. Under the protection of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the Ustaše ruled a part of Yugoslavia, after Yugoslavia was occupied by Italy and Germany. At the end of World War II, the Ustaše were defeated and expelled by the Yugoslav Partisans. Their leaders were executed. It is said, they made the Nazis look like Boy Scouts.
Of course, some of the subplots involving Tony Orsini, Arthur Jibilian, George Vujnovich, brought the remarkable Operation Halyard to fruition were riviting. Nick Lalich, Clare Musgrove and George Musulin added to the the drama of the whole effort. The escape of George Vujnovich and his new bride Mirjana Lazic, from Yugoslavia to Bulgaria to Cairo to North Africa, was worthy of an historical novel on its own. The recollection of Mirjana being under the protection of Magda Goebbels when she flew eventually to Sofia, Bulgaria was priceless. Here she was with a price on her head, with the papers that hardly would protect her from the Gestapo, and she is inadvertently protected as the First Lady of the 3rd Reich. What irony! Their whole romance, marriage, and escape is what fairy tales are made of! At every twist, and turn of their harrowing exodus, one expected imminent disaster. But, the commitment of these diverse and remarkable men to take on the exquisite challenge of rescuing these air crews is almost unprecedented. The ability to land C-47 Skytrains (the civilian DC-3) in enemy territory, under the eyes and ears of the Germans and their Utashi allies was also beyond comprehension. Of course, without the help and protection of the Chetniks and their heroic leader, General Mihailovich’s cooperation, along with the hospitality and sacrifice the Serbia community of Pranjane, none of this could have been actuated. Mihailovich is the real, forgotten hero of the resistance effort against the German occupiers.
The last piece of the puzzle that makes up this incredible saga, was staged against the backdrop of the civil war between the pro-Western Chetniks, led by Mihailovich and the Communist forces, the Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito. This struggle had been part of the strife that had been part of the Balkans since time Romans and the Turks. Yugoslavia had been an amalgam country, carved out of parts of the old Austro-Hungary Empire after WW II. It contained many peoples, who were ancient rivals, which included the majority Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnian-Herzegovinas, the Muslims, Macedonians, Slovenians and Montenegrins. Basically it was most probably a struggle between the Serbs who were East Orthodox Christians and Croatians, who were Catholics. Much of the crimes of the Croats, who were often part of the Ustashi were excused or rationalized by Pope Pius XII and the Roman Catholic Church, As, I had said earlier, their barbarity was almost unprecedented.
Thus, with this age-old, racial and religious conflict as a background, along with the labeling of Draza Mihailovich as a collaborator with the Germans and Italians by the British, the American Command was confused, misinformed and helplessly divided. The British wanted a post-war, hegemony in Southern Europe, especially regarding their control over Crete and Cyprus, along with their long-time relationship with Greece. The British High Command were greatly influenced by the Soviet mole, the intellectual and rabid communist, Paul Klugmann, who was part of the Cambridge Spy Ring, at Cambridge University (members of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret debating society, which included Philby, Burgess, Blunt, Maclean and Cairncross). It was Klugmann who greatly influenced British antipathy towards Mihailovich with falsified information. It would take decades to recognize his duplicity.
This influence which steered the British government towards Tito would condemn a nation of 15 million to be under the yoke of communist rule until the death of Tito in 1980, and the eventual dismemberment of Yugoslavia.
Thus, with this Soviet-Partisan activity, the Americans were unduly influenced and marginalized. These actions would eventually bring about the victory and post-war ascendency of Tito, the influence in Yugoslavia of the Soviets under Stalin and the brutalization of the Chetniks and the death of Mihailovich, a true friend of America and a foe of communism.
Eventually, despite the delaying tactics of the British, along with their support of Tito, and their efforts to practically thwart the rescue of this growing number of American air crews, the American minds were changed. This policy change brought on the direct action taken by American OSS operatives, to get the rescue mission started. George Musulin, who was incredibly frustrated by the British, finally got to George Vujnovich’s door and said that an All-American team was going back into Yugoslavia and would actuate the rescue, one way or another. Vujnovich, was happy to comply.
Of course, together with the penetration of the OSS agents into region, the Chetniks, under the command and protection of General Mihailovich, the indigenous Serbs of Pranjane and the American air crews, the effort to make a landing strip adequate enough to accommodate the C-47s commenced. In fact, they did it quite well. Eventually, the first wave of C-47s made a night landing. Initially, only 4 out of 6, C-47s were able to fly in, and out at night onto the small airstrip. But, within a short time, a vast armada of C-47s flew in during daytime, backed up by a combat air patrol of P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings (called the Forked Devils by the Germans). The fighters attacked German bases within 50 miles circumference of Pranjane, and there was no resistance at all regarding the multiple landings of the C-47s. These planes usually could hold 25 passengers, but because of the short takeoff length, afforded by the makeshift airstrip, they had to limit their human cargo to 12 or 15 passengers, to insure they would be able to climb above the bordering trees and surrounding mountains. In the end, with multiple sorties, over 347 men were to be rescued and eventually another 150 or so, were later picked up and rescued, without the loss of life. Once in the air, and with fighter escort, reflective of Allied air supremacy, the flights were uneventful.
Of course, the secrecy of this operation had to be maintained for several obvious reasons. The first was that there would be other downed pilots and crew who would need the same escape pipeline, and the second was to protect the heroic Serbs of Pranjane from retribution from the occupying Germans.
Of course, as we all know, the war ended, the fliers were all rescued, the Germans were driven out of Yugoslavia, and with the help of the Allies, Tito and his Red-Star hatted Communists were triumphant as the Chetniks were defeated and Mihailovich became a hunted man, with a price on his head. The Allies soon recognized their colossal error, with regards to Tito, but the main burden for that failed policy fell into the laps of the British. Churchill was voted out of office in an historic landslide, and he later admitted it was his greatest mistake. Frankly, he made many mistakes.
The American were never part of the ongoing operations in the Balkans, except to help their shot down, air crews, who had bailed out over Balkan territory. Eventually after 18 months or so, on the run, Draza Mihailovich was captured. He had many opportunities to escape, but seemed to be resigned to his fate. Maybe he felt that as long as he remained at-large in Yugoslavia, there was resistance to the Communists. Eventually he was captured, indicted and tried for treason. When news of his show trial reached the West, the former OSS men, who had a great deal of experience with him and the American air crews, who were rescued, fed and protected by the Chetniks and General Mihailovich, protested, almost in vain, to the American government. But, that was a hopeless journey and Mihailovich was convicted and in July, of 1946, not long after his conviction he was executed by a firing squad.
Eventually, as the real story penetrated the Truman Administration, through Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a new reality about the Chetniks, his leadership, and help for the American crews emerged. He was awarded one of America’s highest decorations, the Legion of Merit. But, in the climate of Cold War power politics, the awarding of the medal was kept a deep, dark, secret. Despite the continual protestations of the former OSS men and the grateful surviving American crewmen, the American government’s effort to trying to keep Tito out of Stalin’s immediate orbit was in full force. Justice for the Chetniks was eventually forgotten, as time moved, and the men, who were closely involved, had other “fish to fry,” Eventually they had to get on with their lives. Eventually, the “secret” about Mihailovich was exposed to the general public about the rescue, his loyalty to the American cause, his fight against communism, and the mistake in policy that abandoned Yugoslavia to the communists and Stalin. Mihailovich and the Chetniks became unwitting pawns in post-war, high-level politics.