“The Forgotten 500” By Gregory Freeman Richard J. Garfunkel October 11, 2018

“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.




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A lifelong New Yorker, who now lives full-time in Palm Beach County, Richard was raised in Mount Vernon, New York and he was educated in the Mount Vernon public schools He graduated from Boston University with a BA in American History. After spending a year on Wall Street as a research analyst with Bache & Co., he joined a manufacturing and importing firm, where over the next twenty-five years he rose to the position of chief operating officer. After the sale of that business, Richard entered into the financial services field with Metropolitan Life and is a Registered Representative, who has been associated with Acorn Financial Services which is affiliated with John Hancock Life Insurance Company of Boston, Ma. Today, he is a retired broker who had specialized in long-term care insurance and financial planning. One of Richard’s recent activities was to advise and encourage communities to seek ways to incorporate “sustainability and resiliency” into their future infrastructure planning. After a lifetime in politics, with many years working as a district leader, which involved party organizational work, campaign chair activity and numerous other political tasks, Richard has been involved with numerous civic and social causes. In recent years, Richard served in 2005 as the campaign coordinator of the Re-Elect Paul Feiner Campaign in Greenburgh, NY and he again chaired Supervisor Feiner’s successful landslide victory in 2007. Over the next few years, he advised a number of political candidates. He has served as an appointed Deputy Supervisor of the Town of Greenburgh, with responsibilities regarding the town’s “liaison program.” He was a member of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board of the Town of Greenburgh, NY. Richard has lectured on FDR, The New Deal and 20th century American history in the Mount Vernon schools, at the Westchester Council of Social Studies annual conference in White Plains, and at many senior citizen groups, which include appearances at the Old Guard of White Plains, the Rotary Clubs of Elmsford and White Plains, and various synagogue groups around Westchester. In the winter of 2006 Richard was the leader of the VOCAL forum, sponsored by the Westchester County Office of Aging, which addresses the concerns of Westchester County’s Intergenerational Advocacy Educational Speak-out forums for senior citizens. Richard has given lectures for the Active Retirement Project, which is co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Center on the Hudson, the Greenburgh Hebrew Center, and other groups around Westchester County. Richard also is the founder and Chairperson of the Jon Breen Memorial Fund, that judges and grants annual prizes to students at Mount Vernon High School who submit essays on public policy themes. He also sponsors the Henry M. Littlefield History Prize for the leading MVHS history student. Richard serves on the Student College Scholarship Committee of Mount Vernon High School. In past years Richard chaired and moderated the Jon Breen Fund Award’s cablecast program with the Mayor and local and school officials. Richard has been a member of Blythedale Children’s Hospital’s Planned Giving Professional Advisory Board, and was a founding member of the committee to re-new the FDR Birthday Balls of the 1930’s and 1940’s with the March of Dimes’ effort to eliminate birth defects. Their renewal dinner was held at Hyde Park on January 30, 2003. Richard is currently an active contributor to the Roosevelt Institute, which is involved in many pursuits which included the opening of the Henry A. Wallace Center at Hyde Park, and the Eleanor Roosevelt – Val-Kill Foundation. In 2007, he proposed to the City of Mount Vernon an effort to develop an arts, educational, and cultural center as part of a downtown re-development effort. Richard was a team partner with the Infrastructure & Energy Solutions Group. IEFG which has developed innovative strategies for the 21st Century. Richard hosted a weekly program on WVOX-1460 AM radio, called “The Advocates,” which was concerned with “public policy” issues. The show, which was aired from 2007 until May 15, 2013, has had amongst its guests; Representative Charles Rangel, Chairperson of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, along with hundreds of others. All the 300 shows are archived at http://advocates-wvox.com. Richard currently gives lectures on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR and the Jewish Community, The New Deal, FDR and Douglas MacArthur, 20th Century American Foreign Policy Resulting in Conflict, and Israel’s Right to Exist. Richard lives in Boynton Beach, Fl, with his wife Linda of 44 years. They have two married children. Their daughter Dana is a Rutgers College graduate, with a MS from Boston University, and is the Assistant Director of Recruitment at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Their son Jon is an electrical engineering graduate of Princeton University and a senior software architect at NY/Mellon Bank in NYC. Richard J. Garfunkel rjg727@comcast.net Recent Appearances: KTI Synagogue, Rye Brook, NY- Long Term Care & Estate Conservation- Anshe Shalom Synagogue, New Rochelle, NY- Long Term Care- American Legion Post, Valhalla, NY- Long Term Care and Asset Protection- Doyle Senior Ctr, New Rochelle, NY-Long Term Care and Asset Protection- AME Methodist Ministers, New Rochelle, NY, LTC and Charitable Giving- Profession Women in Construction, Elmsford, NY, LTC and Business Benefits- Kol Ami Synagogue- White Plains, NY, Long Term Care and Disability - Beth El Men's Club-New Rochelle, NY-Long Term Care-Is it Necessary- Greater NY Dental Meeting Javits Ctr, NY, NY- LTC and Disability- IBEW Local #3 , White Plains, NY, Long Term Care and Asset Protection, Health Fair -Bethel Synagogue, New Rochelle, NY-LTC and Disability, Heath Fair- Riverdale Mens Club CSAIR- Riverdale, NY- LTC- Life Weight Watchers of Westchester and the Bronx-LTC and Tax Implications Sunrise Assisted Living of Fleetwood, Mount Vernon, NY-LTC Sprain Brook Manor of Scarsdale-LTC- November 15, 2001 Sunrise Assisted Living of Stamford, Connecticut, February 2002 Kol Ami Synagogue, White Plains, NY, February, 2002 The Old Guard Society of White Plains, NY, April, 2002 The Westchester Meadows, Valhalla, NY August, 2002 Kol Ami Synagogue, White Plains, NY, October, 2002 JCC of Scarsdale, Scarsdale, NY, November, 2002 The Westchester Meadows, Valhalla, NY, January, 2003 The Rotary Club of White Plains, NY January, 2003 The Westchester Meadows, Valhalla, NY April, 2003 Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, NY January, 2004 Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon, NY March 2004 Kol Ami/JCC of White Plains, NY November, 2004 The Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, January 2005 The Sunrise of Fleetwood, Mount Vernon, April, 2005 The Woodlands of Ardsley, assisted living, November, 2005 The Woodlands of Ardsley, assisted living, December, 2005 The Woodlands of Ardsley, assisted living, January, 2005 Rotary Club of Elmsford, April, 2006 Kiwanis Club of Yonkers, June, 2006 Greenburgh Jewish Center, November, 2006 Temple Kol Ami, White Plains, February, 2007 Hebrew Institute, White Plains, March, 2007 Temple Kol Ami, White Plains, NY, April, 2007 Westchester Meadows. Valhalla, November, 2007 Hebrew Institute. White Plains, November, 2007 Art Zuckerman Radio Show- January, 2008 JCC of the Hudson, Tarrytown, February, 2008 Matt O’Shaughnessy Radio Show, March, 2008 WVOX –Election Night Coverage, November, 2008 WVOX – Inaugural Coverage, January 20, 2009 The Advocates-host of the WVOX Radio Show, 2007- 2010 Rotary Club of Pleasantville, February, 2009 Hebrew Institute of White Plains, May, 2009 JCC Hudson, Tarrytown, December, 2009-10-11-12 Brandeis Club, Yonkers, March 25, 2010

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