Military history

Chapter 11

Goats’ Milk and Hay Bread

The British were none too happy when they heard about the formation of ACRU and the impending mission to Mihailovich’s headquarters, suspecting that it was really just an attempt by Donovan to reestablish an OSS presence in that part of Yugoslavia. They were at least partially right. Donovan wanted to rescue the airmen for humanitarian reasons, but he was far too savvy to overlook the strategic potential of sending in a mission.

Five days after the special ACRU team was created, Donovan sent an urgent message notifying its members that Mihailovich had contacted the Yugoslav embassy in Washington with the news that about one hundred airmen were waiting for rescue. This was not news to anyone by this time, of course, though it may have been the first time that one of Mihailovich’s many pleas for a rescue officially made it to the desk of someone who could act on it. Aware that Vujnovich and everyone else in Bari already knew Mihailovich was hiding the airmen, Donovan nevertheless used the official communication from Mihailovich as an opportunity to move the rescue forward and to pursue his own goals with ACRU. Donovan forwarded the message from Mihailovich as if it were urgent news.

You are requested, therefore, to act on this soonest, using this chance as a means of establish [sic] a clandestine intelligence team in Yugoslavia. In order that our colleagues may not take advantage of our present position, you must act soonest.

In other words, get the OSS team in there fast, while we have this message from Mihailovich as our reason for going in right away, and before “our colleagues” the British can interfere.

Vujnovich didn’t need to be persuaded. He was in agreement with Donovan’s intentions and he was working hard with the ACRU team to organize the rescue. But as soon as he got the go-ahead from Washington, Vujnovich realized he was facing a big challenge. With the rescues that already had been carried out in Yugoslavia, the idea of going in to pick up downed airmen was not radical in itself, but the situation had changed a lot in the past year, and Vujnovich knew this rescue would not be like the ones before. There was no real support from the British and only a grudging acceptance of the president’s order, unlike previous missions that had been carried out as joint operations between the Allies with complete cooperation. And the previous missions had brought out a few dozen airmen, mostly by shuttling them through Yugoslavia’s underground railroad to a safe zone where they could be picked up in relative safety. As recently as December 1943, OSS Lieutenant George Wuchinich parachuted into Yugoslavia with two other agents and, while pursuing other mission objectives to gather intelligence, managed to rescue ninety downed airmen over a four-month period.

With everything changed in Yugoslavia, and with so many more men awaiting rescue than ever before, this mission would be different.

Musulin had told him there were about one hundred airmen waiting in Pranjane, Vujnovich thought. One hundred. That number alone meant that the rescue was exponentially more difficult and dangerous than any that had been carried out before. How do you get one hundred sickly, injured airmen out of enemy territory without the Germans noticing? There were far too many to just try to slip them out on a small plane, and moving them all to a border where they might sneak across was out of the question. They risked being caught if they ventured away from Pranjane, and Vujnovich knew that one hundred men can’t move anywhere with stealth. He decided there was only one way to rescue these men. They would have to go in and pick them up from Pranjane, right where they were. It was the only way, he kept telling himself, partly to convince himself that he wasn’t organizing a suicide mission. It’s the only way to get them out. We have to go pick them up.

The numbers complicated everything. If it were a dozen airmen needing rescue, it wouldn’t have been such a wild idea to just send an OSS plane to land somewhere nearby and then sneak back out of Yugoslavia. Or you might be able to move through occupied territory until they reached a border that could be crossed. But with one hundred men, how many planes would that take? How many times would they have to land, pick up the airmen, take off, and fly home without being caught? Once was risky, but more than that was just foolhardy, wasn’t it? Maybe so, Vujnovich decided, but there was no other choice. So Vujnovich’s plan began to take shape: The OSS would organize a rescue by first sending in agents to prepare the airmen, and then the Fifteenth Air Force would send in a fleet of planes to land in enemy territory and bring them home. When Vujnovich approached his counterparts in the air force, they had him coordinate with an air force officer who suggested the rugged C-47. The ubiquitous C-47 filled many different roles in World War II—everything from troop transport and cargo delivery to paratrooper drops and rescue missions. The plane’s versatility led to the nickname Skytrain. The two-engine plane had a roomy interior that could be outfitted any way the user wanted, with seats, guns, or radios, or left empty to hold anything you needed hauled from point A to point B. They were the primary utility plane of the American military, serving all over Europe and playing a key role in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. In civilian life, it was known as the DC-1, DC-2, or DC-3. With a wingspan of ninety-five feet and a length of sixty-three feet, the C-47 was a big, bulky plane, but it required a crew of only four. When outfitted with seats as a passenger plane, a C-47 could carry only a dozen people in addition to the crew. The airmen in Yugoslavia would be picked up by C-47 cargo planes with mostly empty interiors, making it possible to carry more. But under the conditions of this rescue, the planes would probably carry no more than a dozen passengers per plane.

That’s a lot of landings and takeoffs to get one hundred men out, Vujnovich worried. He didn’t yet know that his challenge was even bigger than that. Because of the lack of intelligence coming from Mihailovich’s camp after Musulin was pulled out, he did not yet know that the number of men in Pranjane had surpassed one hundred and was growing bigger every day.

“And another thing,” the Air Force officer told Vujnovich. “Those boys in Pranjane will need to build an airstrip. There is no suitable landing area around Pranjane, so it will be up to the airmen and the villagers to build a landing strip big enough for a C-47.”

Vujnovich knew the airmen and the villagers had no tools other than whatever farm implements might be around, so they would be building the airstrip pretty much with their bare hands. He had to hope they could find a flat enough area to make the landings possible, and that they could build the makeshift runway without attracting attention from the Germans just a few miles down in the valley. Nazi planes flew overhead all the time, prompting the airmen to dive for cover lest they be discovered, so it was going to be a challenge to build an airstrip for C-47s without being caught. And the consequences were substantial. If their efforts to prepare for the rescue gave away their location, Vujnovich knew the Germans would respond in one of two ways: Either they would come in immediately to raid Pranjane, kill the airmen and probably do worse to the villagers and Chetniks who helped them, or they would wait until the rescue attempt so they could do all of that and kill the rescuers.

Secrecy was paramount, so the C-47s would go into Yugoslavia just a few at a time, without fighter escorts, to keep the mission clandestine. A big pack of C-47s and fighter planes would only draw attention and invite attack.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, the air force officer informed Vujnovich of one last detail: “The planes will have to go in at night, landing on that rough little airstrip in pitch-black darkness. It’s the only way to improve the cargo planes’ chances of going undetected by the Germans.”

Vujnovich understood the necessity of a nighttime rescue, but he could hardly believe how difficult this mission was becoming. Vujnovich was no pilot, but he knew that a dark landing on an unfamiliar makeshift runway would challenge even the most experienced fliers, and if one of the planes crashed in the dark, that would be the end of the rescue. No more planes could land; dozens would die in the crash itself; and the commotion would probably bring in the Germans to finish off the rest.

This was an audacious plan, a rescue attempt unlike any ever attempted by the OSS or anyone else. Vujnovich knew that his career was on the line with this mission because he had pushed so hard for it and because he was betting so much on what 20/20 hindsight surely would call a desperate, ill-advised folly if it failed. His own future was not a priority at the time, however. Vujnovich felt a great responsibility to get it right, to make sure he was working through every possible scenario, because so many lives depended on this rescue being completed smoothly. Not only were the airmen’s lives at stake, but Vujnovich was putting a great many more on the line: the villagers in Pranjane, the Chetniks, and the dozens of OSS agents and air force fliers who would carry out the mission. Vujnovich went over the details again and again. There was so much risk involved, so many ways that the whole plan could fall apart, but there was no other way to get them out. They had to make this work. They had to.

Vujnovich started putting together a team for the mission to Yugoslavia. He was reluctant to hand over such an important and risky plan to someone else, not to mention that he might be sending agents to their deaths, so Vujnovich’s first intention was to go into Yugoslavia himself. He was more of a desk officer by this point, but he was fully trained as a field agent and he knew the language. That plan didn’t get off the ground, however. When Vujnovich briefed his superiors about his intention to lead the mission, word spread to the State Department, which was not happy that this mission was going forward at all. The idea of Vujnovich, known to be a die-hard anti-Communist, parachuting into Yugoslavia made them uneasy. Who knew what this brash Communist-hating OSS officer would do if he were allowed into Yugoslavia to meet up with Mihailovich?

So one day the State Department liaison to the OSS in Bari came to Vujnovich’s office and handed him a telegram. The message said, Former naval person objects to George Vujnovich going into Mihailovich’s headquarters. Therefore he will not be sent. It was signed by President Roosevelt.

Vujnovich knew that “former naval person” was a common euphemism for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had served as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I and the early part of World War II. The picture was clear to Vujnovich: The Communists had convinced Churchill that he was not sufficiently pro-Tito and anti-Mihailovich, so it was too risky to let him go. Vujnovich would have to find someone else to lead the mission, and he didn’t have to look far. His second choice for leading the mission had always been the obvious one—Musulin.

Musulin was eager to go back into Yugoslavia. He hadn’t wanted to leave in the first place and had done everything he could to avoid following orders, so he jumped at the chance to lead this critical mission. He knew how difficult it would be, but he also knew how much those men needed help. He had been with them already. He knew the Americans streaming into Pranjane were hanging on the hope that one day the Americans would come for them. Vujnovich didn’t even have to ask. He knew how badly Musulin wanted to return, so he simply told him one day, “George, they’re not going to let me go. You’ll lead the mission.” Musulin was overjoyed, a big smile piercing the bushy black beard he still sported. They needed three agents altogether, and Musulin worked with Vujnovich to pick the other two members of the team, looking for men who could speak the language and whom he could trust with so many lives.

To work alongside Musulin, they chose another OSS agent who spoke the local language. Sergeant Mike Rajacich, from Washington, DC, and of Yugoslavian descent, had arrived in Bari only days earlier, but he had served in Cairo since October 1943 and came highly recommended. Rajacich mentioned to Vujnovich that if he needed another agent with the right language skills he could count on Nick Lalich, a handsome young OSS officer with a big black mustache. The son of Serbian immigrants, Lalich was in the Cairo OSS post and assigned to the activities in Yugoslavia. Both of these men could be trusted with this important mission, and Musulin seemed comfortable with the idea of taking Rajacich in as the second agent. Lalich wasn’t needed at the moment, but Vujnovich was glad to know he was available.

The team was not yet complete, however. This was to be a three-man team and every infiltration team like this needed a radio operator. Even though the OSS had access to the most advanced radio equipment available, World-War-II-era radios that could transmit from one country to another were bulky, temperamental devices that required a skilled operator, a far cry from the push-and-talk radios of the modern military. OSS agents often were hindered by the need to carry around a suitcase-sized radio, most frequently disguised as an actual suitcase, and not just any OSS agent could use the device effectively. For this mission, Vujnovich knew that it was crucial to have reliable communication from the field so that the difficult rescue could be coordinated properly, and that meant sending in someone with the best possible radio expertise. When he considered the agents available, Vujnovich was pleased to find one who not only had proven himself an excellent radioman but who also had been behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia before. Arthur Jibilian, a compact, amiable fellow from Toledo, Ohio, wasn’t the most cocky of the OSS agents and didn’t inspire fear at first glance—unlike say, Musulin, whom you wouldn’t want to see charging toward you in anger—but Vujnovich knew he was a combat veteran who could take care of himself in Nazi territory.

Only a couple months earlier, Jibilian himself was on the ground in Yugoslavia running from the Germans and hoping he would make it back alive. He had spent two months gathering intelligence behind enemy lines, this time with Tito’s forces, narrowly escaping death many times. The experience had taken him a long way from the Art Jibilian that people knew before the war. A second-generation American of Armenian descent, Jibilian was raised by his cousins Sarkis and Oksana Jibilian because his father had fled the Turks during a Turkish/Armenian war, after his own father was beheaded. Jibilian’s father came to America to escape a similar fate, leaving his mother, two brothers, and one sister behind in Armenia, but eventually the Turks drove the family out, with one brother and Jibilian’s sister dying in the process. The mother and the surviving son escaped to the United States to join his father, and Arthur Jibilian was born soon after in 1923. The family had settled in Cleveland by the time he was born, but any dreams of an idyllic American life were shattered when Jibilian’s mother committed suicide only eighteen months after he was born, the pain of losing her other children and the terror she experienced in Armenia too much for her to bear. Jibilian’s father left soon after and so did his older brother, leaving the young American-born boy to be cared for by cousins in Toledo.

Jibilian—known as Jibby to friends—had only recently graduated from high school when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Like so many other men of his generation, he marched right downtown to enlist in the military, and like a great many of them, he wanted to join the Navy Air Corps to be a flier. But he missed a letter on the eye exam and was advised to come back and try again in a couple weeks. Before he could get back to the recruiting office, bad news came to the household. His cousin Sarkis, whom he looked to as a father figure, was diagnosed with lung cancer and Jibilian decided he had to stay with him instead of enlisting right away. Sarkis died on January 19, 1943, and before he could try enlisting in the Navy Air Corps again, he was drafted into the regular navy, not the air corps. With Sarkis’s death, Jibilian felt all alone and saw the draft notice as an acceptable alternative to pursuing life in Toledo on his own. There was no longer anything to keep him there, so he was happy to arrive at boot camp on March 15, 1943. A series of exams revealed that Jibilian could be a good radioman, so before long he started learning Morse code and navy protocol for radio communications.

One day in boot camp, Jibilian heard that there would be a visitor from the OSS and that he wanted to meet anyone who spoke a foreign language. Jibilian spoke Armenian, but he wasn’t sure how useful that would be when the country was fighting Japanese and Germans. He went to the meeting anyway and was interviewed by a lieutenant commander from the OSS who confirmed that, indeed, they weren’t so interested in people who spoke Armenian. “But we are interested in radio operators. We’re in desperate need of some good radiomen,” he explained. “And who knows? That Armenian might come in handy someday.” When Jibilian asked about exactly what a radioman would do for the OSS, the lieutenant commander explained that they accompanied other agents into the field, usually parachuting into enemy territory, and used the radio to relay intelligence such as troop movements. They also might take part in sabotage such as blowing up bridges. Jibilian was thinking about whether he should volunteer for that kind of assignment when the OSS man spoke again.

“Let me make one thing very clear,” he said. “These missions are extremely dangerous. Every time you go out there’s a good chance you won’t come back. This is a volunteer assignment; you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

Jibilian appreciated the officer’s candor and he continued pondering the possibilities while the other man sat and waited for him to decide. He took only a short moment before speaking up, saying, “I’m interested. I’ll volunteer.” The OSS officer was glad to hear it and shook Jibilian’s hand, telling him he was making the right choice and doing a tremendous service to his country. Jibilian hoped so. He felt good about the decision, but he had just volunteered for something far more dangerous than anything he probably would have been assigned in the army. The danger actually was one thing that pushed him toward volunteering, not because he was a big risk taker but because he knew he was different than a lot of guys in boot camp who had families, wives, even children to go home to after the war.

I’m more expendable. I don’t have any immediate family and maybe it’s better that I take a dangerous assignment than let it go to some guy who has people waiting for him at home. Shoot, I don’t even have a girl. So if anybody is qualified for a dangerous assignment, it’s me.

At least it should be more interesting than sitting on a ship out in the ocean and tuning a radio, he thought.

After the initial excitement and anxiety about volunteering for the OSS, Jibilian didn’t hear anything more about it until just before he had completed his training for becoming a radioman. He was beginning to think the OSS had forgotten about him or didn’t need him anymore, but then he received orders stating he was on “detached temporary duty with the Office of Strategic Services.” So Jibilian was in the OSS after all. The orders said he was to report immediately to the Farm outside Washington, DC, the same place that Vujnovich and scores of other agents had been trained in spy craft. There he underwent the same training as every other agent, learning to kill and avoid being killed, but the OSS also provided specialized training in the use of the radios that spy teams took into the field. The radio set consisted of a transmitter, a receiver, and a power pack, all fit into a small suitcase that, the agents hoped, could let them mingle into a crowd of refugees or at least look reasonable as you were walking down a road in Europe. After that training, Jibilian and some other agents in training were sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they spent a week—instead of the typical four to six weeks—learning how to parachute out of a plane. Not long after, he found himself at the OSS post in Cairo where, in his downtime, he managed to make contact with members of his family from Armenia.

Jibilian was still waiting for his first mission when he heard that OSS Lieutenant Eli Popovich was looking for a radio operator to join him and Colonel Lynn Farish on a trip behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. Farish had already made one trip into Yugoslavia, but he had been unsatisfied with having to rely on British radio operators to get his reports out. He insisted that for this mission they should take an American radioman. There weren’t that many available, so the rookie Jibilian got the nod. He was thrilled to be selected, as he was eager to actually put his skills to use. The mission, code named Columbia, was launched from Brindisi on the night of March 15, 1944. Popovich, Farish, and Jibilian parachuted into Yugoslavian territory held by Tito’s Partisans. When Jibilian hit the ground, the most grueling two months of his life began.

Once they landed in the wooded hills at the base of a mountain range, the team made sure the area was safe and then Jibilian set up his transmitter to try to contact the OSS post. He was eager to prove himself and do his job, but he was also nervous. The adrenaline coursed through him and his heart pounded as he manipulated the controls of the radio, trying to get a signal through to Cairo and listening for a response. There was nothing despite repeated tries. He kept sending the signal over and over, waiting for a call back, and when nothing came, he decided he had to use more antenna. Popovich and Farish watched with concern as he unreeled more of the wire antenna hidden in the suitcase, hoping it would boost the signal strength but also knowing that he was increasing the chances that the Germans could use a direction finder, known as a DF to radiomen, to electronically home in on the broadcast and find the trio of spies. It was risky, but it worked. Jibilian finally got a signal to Cairo and felt he had redeemed himself with the other two more experienced agents. They were surprised to find out why it had been so difficult make contact. It hadn’t been Jibilian’s fault at all. His radio signals were going through just fine, but no one was listening for them in the Cairo OSS post because they thought the mission had been cancelled.

After straightening out the mix-up, the team was getting comfortable in their hiding spot and Jibilian continued transmitting some information to Cairo. Suddenly he heard planes overhead.

“They put a DF on us!” Jibilian called to the other two, instantly realizing what had happened. He turned off the radio’s power supply and hastily packed it all away. Popovich and Farish grabbed their gear and prepared to run as Jibilian slammed the radio suitcase shut and grabbed his own bags. They were already sprinting deeper into the woods when the Messerschmitts and Stuka dive bombers opened fire on their location, strafing them with large-caliber machine guns that would tear them apart instantly. The planes continued strafing, climbing, turning, and coming back for another attack. The trio narrowly escaped being killed as rounds hit the trees and the ground all around them, and then they thought they had made it up high enough in the hills so that the pilots didn’t know where they were. They were exhausted from running uphill, scared for their lives, while hauling all their gear. Jibilian fell on top of his radio suitcase, his chest heaving, gasping for air. But they had only a brief respite before the planes were on them again. The pilots must have guessed that they ran uphill into the more dense wood cover, and they were repeatedly strafing the area in hopes of a lucky hit. The men started running again and it wasn’t long before Popovich and Farish dropped their gear bags. Jibilian hung on to the heavy radio set as long as he could, but he couldn’t keep up. One of the other men looked back and yelled at Jibilian to drop the radio, and he welcomed the order. The radio set fell away like almost all of their other gear as they continued running, dodging trees in the dark and trying to outpace the plane attacks.

The OSS team remained on the run for five days and six nights. After escaping the initial attack on the first night, they knew the Germans were onto them. That was confirmed the next morning when they saw planes overhead looking for any sign of the spies, and they could see ground units moving into the area to hunt them down. They had no choice but to run and keep running, to get higher into the hills where it was harder for the German troops to follow and where they might find more hiding places. Their mission to gather intelligence had been abandoned for the moment and they were in the most basic of all mind-sets: running for their lives. Dressed only in their summer khakis, which had been appropriate at lower altitudes, they ran higher and higher into the snowy mountain trails, the air growing colder with every step. Eventually they ran into snowdrifts, some so deep that they had to pull each other out before continuing on. When they stopped to catch their breath, their sweat-soaked clothes froze to their bodies, thawing again once they started to move on.

As they reached higher elevations the trio thought the Germans were not quite so close on their trail and they slowed their pace. They would have slowed anyway, since they were all exhausted. Making their way along mountain trails used by the locals, they ran into local villagers who were pleased to see Americans. Though these were not Mihailovich supporters, like those harboring the airmen in Pranjane, these villagers were just as gracious and welcoming to the needy Americans. Jibilian and the other men lived on only what the local peasants could spare, a bit of goat cheese and bread made with hay to extend the meager flour on hand, perhaps a pear picked from a tree. The hay bread was tough and dense, but it was filling. The strange food and exertion gave all three men a bad case of diarrhea.

After about a week, the Germans gave up on finding the spies and the OSS team felt they could make their way back down the mountain to a lower elevation. As they made their way down, some of the local people told them of American airmen who were hiding from the Germans and awaiting rescue. These were not the same airmen being aided by Mihailovich in a different part of the country, but rather a smaller group of only a dozen. Their original mission compromised and all their equipment lost, Jibilian and the other agents decided it would be better if they accomplished something before they simply tried to escape from Yugoslavia. So they gathered as much information as they could from the sympathetic locals and determined where the airmen were. If they could, their plan was to go find the airmen and somehow get them out with them.

The distance to the airmen was not great, but there were plenty of Germans in between. Popovich, Farish, and Jibilian figured out that the best way to get to the airmen was by going through a German checkpoint at a bridge. The only alternative was an eight-day march around the checkpoint, and the trio wasn’t up to that, what with their exhaustion, diarrhea, and lack of food. And besides, finding a way through a German checkpoint with subterfuge or cleverness was exactly the kind of task at which OSS agents excelled. Jibilian had never done it, of course, because this was his first mission, but he remembered his training from the Farm and trusted the other agents to know best. With no radio to use, Jibilian relied on a submachine gun instead. The weapon was considered a good choice for a young, inexperienced agent like Jibilian, the thinking being that you didn’t have to be accurate if you could throw enough lead at the enemy in a hurry. He was ready to do whatever Popovich and Farish needed to make this rescue happen.

About eighteen of Tito’s Partisans joined up with the OSS agents to help with rescuing the airmen, and after some discussion, the agents decided that good old-fashioned bribery was the best way to get through this checkpoint. The Partisans told them that the guards could be bought off, and Farish still had some twenty-dollar gold pieces he had brought for just such an occasion. Using a go-between that the Partisans trusted, the group made contact with the German guards at the checkpoint and offered to pay them if they would allow passage. The Germans agreed, the gold pieces were delivered, and the group planned to cross the bridge the next night at a specified time. The agents knew they were taking a gamble, but bribery had proven quite effective in such situations before. If the guards were satisfied with their gold pieces, the deal was that they would know the group was coming at the appointed time and simply let them pass unmolested.

It was pitch-black as the group headed toward the bridge, the three Americans leading the way. They wanted it dark so they could travel without being noticed, and as they approached the bridge everything looked fine. Jibilian, Popovich, and Farish hid in the bushes near the bridge for a while to watch and see if anything was amiss, and then they checked with the Partisans to ensure that all seemed right to them. Everything did, and as the designated time approached, the group moved out onto the road and headed toward the bridge. They moved in a quick trot, eager to get over the bridge but also wary of surprising any Germans at the checkpoint. The moment of truth came when they approached close enough for the guards to see them. The Americans froze, everyone else waiting behind them and ready to bolt at the first sound of gunfire. But then Jibilian saw the two guards look directly at them, look at each other, and then turn their backs. The bribe had worked. They were letting the Americans and the Partisan fighters through.

The group hustled on up to the checkpoint and started across the bridge, needing to go only a few dozen yards to relative safety. But just as Jibilian and the other agents reached the middle of the bridge, flares soared into the sky and a spotlight came on that lit them up like daylight, followed immediately by machine-gun fire. Either the bribe just didn’t work with these Germans or the go-between the Partisans trusted had double-crossed them. Bullets hit all around the group and some of the Partisan fighters went down. Men were pushing and shoving, no one really knowing which way to run, everyone trying to get out of the searchlight’s beam. In the frenzy, Jibilian kept getting glimpses of the river below the bridge and prayed that he wouldn’t end up there. The look of that dark water at night, so far below, was about as scary as the idea of being shot. Jibilian and nearly every other man on the bridge opened fire on the spotlight, which soon went out, allowing them to sprint off the bridge and into the darkness again.

Over the next month, Jibilian and his team eventually found the dozen airmen and made contact with the OSS post in Cairo. The OSS men took the airmen, many of them weak and injured, from the villagers who had harbored them, traveling on foot and by oxcart for days to a spot that intelligence had identified as a possible pickup point. Popovich, strong but not especially large at six feet tall, carried one wounded man on his back for nearly two days. On June 16, 1944, a plane landed on an open field and picked up the agents and the airmen, ferrying them back to Bari, a small-scale rehearsal for what would come later in Pranjane.

Jibilian was awarded the Silver Star for his work on this mission, and those two months turned him from an expendable novice to a seasoned OSS agent. He was immensely proud of having helped retrieve those twelve airmen from Yugoslavia, and when he heard there were at least a hundred more, he knew he had to go back.

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