Military history

Chapter 12

An All-American Team

When Vujnovich explained the plan for rescuing the downed airmen in Pranjane, now known by the randomly assigned code name Operation Halyard, not one of the three men chosen for the mission batted an eye at the enormous risk they were taking. Parachute into enemy territory and organize the most daring rescue ever? Sure, can do. Build an airstrip right under the German’s noses? No problem.

But they did have one question for Vujnovich. Will we be working on our own or with the British?

The answer, unfortunately, was that Operation Halyard would be a joint operation with the Brits. Predictably, the British were not pleased with Roosevelt’s approval of the rescue mission, but the complex agreements governing joint Allied operations in Italy required British and American spy teams to work together when putting agents in Yugoslavia. In many cases, the British were responsible for actually getting American agents into enemy territory, and until recently they had been responsible for all radio communication on the ground. The OSS had only just begun sending in their own radiomen, so Jibilian would fill that role instead of a British agent. At least they had that going for them. Vujnovich had his doubts about letting the British help at all, but he went along with it because he didn’t want to jeopardize a mission that already was on weak support.

The Operation Halyard trio also were warned not to interfere with international relations while on their mission. Your mission is to go in and get those men out, nothing more, they were told. A lieutenant commander from the Fifteenth Air Force specifically ordered them not to make “any military or political commitments on behalf of the United States of America or other Allied nation, or to make any commitments or promises for the furnishing of supplies or other material aid to any political or military group.” In other words, this wasn’t their opportunity to set right anything they didn’t like about the way the Allies worked with Mihailovich and Tito. They trusted Musulin to follow this order, and Vujnovich had been kept out precisely because they didn’t think they could trust him to comply.

As much as Musulin rankled at the continuing betrayal of Mihailovich, he was focused more on making this mission work. Vujnovich worked with Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian to plan their entry, thinking at first that they would have to make a blind drop into Pranjane, meaning they would arrive without Mihailovich’s forces knowing they were coming. This was always a risky move because even the friendlies on the ground might shoot you if they didn’t know who was dropping in without calling first. But as the planning proceeded, Vujnovich learned that the British had reestablished radio contact with Mihailovich and arranged for the trio to arrive between July 15 and July 20. Mihailovich’s men would be looking for them on those days. As that window was almost closing, the rescue team caught a break with the weather on the evening of July 19 and drove to Brindisi, about an hour south of Bari and where most mission flights originated. There they climbed into a C-47 painted black to make it harder to see at night. They were eager to go in and get the rescue started, so their adrenaline was pumping as they neared the drop zone. The trio checked their gear, double-checked their parachutes, gave one another hearty slaps on the shoulders and stood in the dark body of the cargo plane, waiting for the jump light to switch from red to green, followed by the British jump master’s signal to go out the door and into the dark night over Yugoslavia.

And they waited.

Musulin finally asked the jump master what was wrong, and he relayed the pilot’s report that there was a problem with the ground signals.

“No ground signals over the drop zone!” the jump master shouted over the airplane noise, in a British accent. “We’re sending, but there’s nothing on the ground!”

He was referring to the way Allied planes confirmed that they were over the right drop zone and that the friendly guerillas on the ground were there to receive the agents. When the time and location of the drop was arranged, the air force had informed Mihailovich that the plane would send a specific signal of light flashes and that the men on the ground must respond with another light signal. The plane was sending its designated signal, but there was no return flash on the ground. Without the confirmation signal, the agents could find themselves alone once they hit the ground, or worse, the Germans may have found out about the drop and were waiting for the spies to land. No ground signal meant no drop. The jump master informed Musulin that the plane was heading back to Brindisi, and the trio had no choice but to abort the mission.

Vujnovich was not happy to see the agents return that night, but it was not an uncommon sight. Missions often were aborted at the last minute when something went wrong with equipment, or the plane got lost, or intelligence revealed new information. Better to come back and try again later than throw the agents out over the wrong drop zone or right into the hands of the Gestapo. The agents planned their next attempt, and on another night they again drove to Brindisi and boarded the C-47, flying into Yugoslavia.

This time the plane had to turn back because of a fierce storm over the mountains in Yugoslavia.

The next time, it was flak on the way to the drop zone. Too much antiaircraft fire to get through safely.

So far it seemed like just the routine reasons a mission can be aborted. But then Musulin and his team started getting suspicious about the British who were supposed to be flying them in. Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian soon realized that the British were not just unenthusiastic about the mission. They were actively sabotaging it, or at least that’s how it appeared to the American team.

The outright hostility of the British was made evident on the next attempt to jump into Pranjane, a few days later. Musulin learned that on the first attempt, when there were no ground signals, the problem actually was that the pilot had flown to the wrong coordinates. They were in the wrong place, so that explained why there was no welcoming party. Knowing that, Musulin wanted to double-check the coordinates soon after they took off on their fourth attempt to go rescue the airmen. He went forward and asked the pilot to confirm their destination. The pilot read out the coordinates he intended to take the men to and, as soon as he checked the spot on his own map, Musulin exploded in anger.

“That’s Partisan territory!” he yelled. “Where the hell did you get those coordinates?”

The pilot, visibly intimidated by the large and very angry American, explained that he had been briefed on the mission by his British superiors and he was just following orders. That answer did not satisfy Musulin, and then his blood pressure went a few ticks higher as he noticed a Partisan soldier sitting in the back of the plane.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Musulin screamed, incredulous that a Tito supporter was sitting on the plane that supposedly was going to take them to Mihailovich territory. What in the world is going on here? Are they trying to sabotage this mission?

The pilot’s answer did not improve the situation. He explained that the Partisan was assigned to act as the jump master for this mission. He would be the one who told Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian where and when to jump. Oh, hell no.

“No son-of-a-bitch Communist is going to push me and my men out of this plane,” Musulin boomed. “We’re aborting this mission. Forget it!”

The three Americans were astounded that the Brits had so completely fouled up their efforts to get into Pranjane, but they still had a hard time believing that their tea-sipping allies were actually trying to sabotage Operation Halyard. Could they really be so opposed to Mihailovich that they would jeopardize the lives of these agents, not to mention preventing the rescue of a hundred airmen? The answer came on the next attempt.

All three of the men were on high alert when they boarded the plane the next time, watching for any sign that the British were undercutting their mission in any way. Musulin checked the coordinates and they seemed right. There was no damned Communist on the plane, at least none that was actually wearing the red-star cap of a Tito Partisan. All seemed well and the trio thought they might finally get into Pranjane this time. The jump site neared and the team again double-checked all their gear, confirmed their plans once they landed, and then they watched the red light and waited for the jump master to tell them to go.

Finally it happened. On the fifth attempt to get into Pranjane, the light turned green and the British jump master gave them the signal and the trio walked over to the open door of the plane. Musulin took the lead as the mission commander and was bracing himself in the doorway, pausing for the Brit to check that his rip cord was securely fastened to the cable over their heads that would pull his chute out. Rajacich and Jibilian were in line behind him, ready to leap out immediately afterward. The jump master had his hand on Musulin’s back, ready to give him a hard shove that would help him clear the plane. All Musulin had to do was to let go of the doorframe and Operation Halyard would be underway.

But then he saw something. What the hell is that? He couldn’t tell for sure what he was seeing on the ground, but it didn’t look right. He held on to the plane’s doorframe while he looked and then, suddenly, he realized what he was looking at in the darkness below. Son of a bitch! You goddamn Brits are trying to kill us!

Musulin pushed back hard from the doorway, knocking Rajacich and Jibilian off balance. The jump master looked at him quizzically and yelled to ask what was wrong.

“We’re right over a damn battle! Look at that! Look!” Musulin screamed. He wanted to dangle the jump master out by his feet so he could get a good view, but he resisted the urge. Rajacich and Jibilian went to the door and peered out too, and they were shocked at what they saw: the flashes of light from heavy weaponry, vehicles, and soldiers in an active gun battle below them. The British were trying to drop them into the middle of a full-fledged battle. They would never have made it to the ground alive.

Musulin couldn’t be sure whether the British were actively trying to kill them and stop the Halyard mission or whether they were just completely incompetent. But he was leaning toward sabotage as the explanation. He knew about James Klugmann in the British SOE post at Bari, knew him as a Communist with way too much influence over British operations, and he suspected Klugmann and the other Tito supporters were manipulating the Halyard mission. Jibilian didn’t even doubt it. He was sure the Brits were trying to kill them. They were hoping we would just drop into the battle and disappear.

No matter what the explanation was for the Brits’ actions, the OSS agents had had enough of this. Musulin marched into Vujnovich’s office and demanded an American plane, an American crew, and an American jump master. They weren’t going back into Yugoslavia without an all-American team.

Vujnovich was happy to comply.

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