Many things have been said of the Serbs as a nation throughout history. Of all these things, at least three most certainly stand to be true: we are stubborn, we don’t respond well to authority and we are always quick on our feet. If there’s a loophole, we’ll find it. And if there isn’t, we’ll make one. The greatest example of these characteristics is also the least known. Let me take you back to the summer of 1944, a pivotal year in the history of the world and one that saw over 500 airmen of the Allied forces kept alive and safe by the illiterate peasants of a mountain village in Serbia…
It’s late August of 1944 in Nazi occupied Serbia and the peasants have already sacrificed much of their already meager crop, setting time aside to build a hidden, improvised airstrip near the village of Pranjani on a mountain with an elevation of almost 500 meters. It was a heavy, humid summer with temperatures ranging from the low twenties to the mid thirties (Celsius) and the regular onset of thunderstorms didn’t help in their efforts. In other parts of the world, the Allies were preparing the biggest rescue mission ever. Yes, ever. Why haven’t you heard of it? Because it was planned and executed that well.
Over the years of the Nazi occupation throughout Europe, many airmen were downed during bombing, Intelligence and even rescue missions. Over 500 of them fell somewhere over central Serbia and survived. They practiced escape and evasion techniques until they reached either members of the courageous and friendly village populations or any of the resisting local troops. In cooperation with Allied forces, those same locals and troops organized an amazing feat: Operation Halyard. Operation Halyard was a massive Allied airlift operation behind enemy lines, the largest in history in fact. It was lead by General Draža Mihajlović and members of the American Office of Strategic Services and carried out by the General’s Chetnik guerillas and the Allied forces.
General Mihajlović kept his headquarters in the Gornji Milanovac and Pranjani region because, while he knew his men had good knowledge of and could conquer the rough mountain terrain, the Nazi troops couldn’t begin to fathom survival in this sort of foreign terrain. Both his troops and the downed airmen, mostly US Air Force, would be as safe as they could be here. This didn’t make Operation Halyard any easier however. The plan was to fly huge C-47 cargo planes and land them smack-dab in the middle of enemy territory during the most massive war the world had ever seen. They would then need time to load the airmen on board and fly out safely again, all from an improvised airstrip on the peak of a rugged mountain. The odds they too would be shot down were huge and the results – simply amazing. The cargo planes and those following came in and got out without any major glitches. The Operation was carried out between the months of August and December of 1944 and over 500 souls were home, safe and sound, for the new year that would bring so much change.
Today, testimonials of some of these survivors tell us of the warm hospitality they were afforded by those who didn’t even speak their language. A common goal against repression, occupation and worldwide mass murder made all barriers disappear – they were welcomed and cared for as one welcomes and cares for family.
In an Open Letter to US troops in the former Yugoslavia from over 500 MlAs saved by the Serbian people during World War II, Richard L. Felman, Major USAF (Ret) recalls: “While we were there, those of us who were wounded were given whatever medical supplies they had even at the deprivation of their own troops. If there was one piece of bread in the house, or one egg, it went to the American airmen while the Serb went hungry. If there was one bed or one blanket, it went to us while the Serb slept on the bare ground. No risk of sacrifice was too great to insure our safety and well being. One experience which is forever seared in my memory is the time a village with 200 women and children was burned to the ground by the Germans because the Serbs would not tell them where they were hiding us. To this day, I can smell the terrible stench of their burning flesh. One does not forget such things.”
Major Felman, who passed away in 1999, shortly after writing the above quoted letter, dedicated much of his life to tell the world of his lifesaving experience. Due to his great efforts, perhaps above and beyond the call of personal and moral duty, US President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded General Draža Mihajlović with the US Legion of Merit award for his contribution to the Allied victory during World War II. This too was kept under wraps for political reasons, so as not to offend the then communist government of the former SFR of Yugoslavia, and General Mihajlović’s daughter, Gordana, finally accepted the award on her father’s behalf in 2005.
In 2007, Gregory A. Freeman wrote a very descriptive and compelling account of what is arguably still the greatest airlift rescue mission in history in his book The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II. On August 15th of this year, Air Force Attache’ for the U.S. embassy in Serbia Lt. Col. John Cappello, soldiers of the U.S. military’s 1194th Engineer Company, and U.S. Marine Corps Security Guards from the U.S. Embassy attended the 65th anniversary of the Halyard Mission in Pranjani to pay tribute to the Serbs “who saved the lives of over 500 U.S. Airmen and Allies during World War II”. Daniel Sunter, the executive director of the Euro-Atlantic Initiative said, “We’re trying to build bridges between Serbia and the United States using history.” Yet, Operation Halyard was an event that bridged and forever intertwined several nations and hundreds of lives.
My question is: Are we willing to wait another 65 years to learn of the great feats that are happening today? My answer is, plain and simple, loud and clear – NO. Please, remember to read the fineprint on the pages of History. It will make all the difference when you sign your contract with Time. To all those involved in the success of Operation Halyard – I personally salute you all for a mission well executed and a lesson learned. Thank you.