Military history

Chapter 14

Sure to Be a Rough Landing

July 31 came and the airmen in Pranjane eagerly scanned the skies for any sign of a plane coming to rescue them. As night fell they gathered in a field near the village, the presumed drop zone for anyone parachuting in to help them. Dozens of eyes looked to the horizon, through the tree-covered hills, for any hint of Americans coming to take them home. They always had a red-lens flashlight ready to signal the plane with the predetermined code. They waited all night and into the morning. The weather was clear and they saw no reason the rescue had not been carried out as promised. Their hopes were dashed as the sun rose on another day in Pranjane, another day in which the Allies would not come and help them. They were crushed with disappointment, and more than a few vowed they would not get their hopes up again.

But what the airmen did not know was that Operation Halyard was still a go. They had no way of knowing that Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian had already made repeated attempts to reach them in Pranjane but were stymied by everything from bad weather to bad Brits. The mission would have arrived on July 31 if only the weather had been clear between Bari and Pranjane. Unfortunately, the airmen could see only the starry night above them and had to assume the mission was not really coming. Their despair knew no bounds, made all the worse by the fact that it was unnecessary. Not only was help on the way, but the radio messages the airmen sent so bravely, risking hundreds of lives in the process, would be the real catalyst for getting the Americans on their way to Pranjane. The rescue plan was well underway, spurred by Mirjana’s letter to Vujnovich and Musulin’s report from the field, but the coded messages from the men in Pranjane threw some momentum behind the effort. An actual request from these men, their plea for help spelled out in a way that made their desperate situation crystal clear, seemed to light a fire under anyone who held that message in their hands.

Once the message was decoded by the Fifteenth Air Force, excited intelligence officers there forwarded it to the ACRU team in Bari. Vujnovich, Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian all gathered around to read the message together. The words made their mission seem more real, more personal.

There are many sick and wounded. . . . Call back. . . . SOS . . .

They felt it in their gut, the dire straits these men were in, and they knew they were the only ones who could help them.

Now they had some solid information. They had confirmation about where the men were, that they were all gathered in one place, and that they were eagerly awaiting rescue. And the message provided Vujnovich and the rescue team with one more vital piece of information: The number of airmen was up to one hundred fifty.

Vujnovich didn’t like hearing that. Every extra man meant the mission was more difficult. He had thought one hundred airmen were a lot to bring out, and now they were dealing with one hundred fifty. But still, the message from the airmen pumped a new vigor into their efforts, overcoming the frustration and dejection they felt from their experience with the British. Seeing the desperation in the message convinced them anew that they had to get in there soon, and they had to make this mission work.

* * *

On August 2, 1944, the weather was good over Brindisi, the base from which the missions would launch, and also in Pranjane. Musulin had his all-American crew ready to take the ACRU team in and rescue those men once and for all. By now everyone was antsy from having been on standby for so long, eager to go and do this risky job. The words of the downed airmen’s plea for help kept running through their minds. SOS . . . Waiting for rescue . . . Jibilian couldn’t get that message out of his mind since he had first heard of the coded distress call, understanding that the men must have been in a desperate situation if they were willing to send such a long message and risk having German planes home in on their signal. He knew all too well how effective the DF could be.

Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian were focused and ready when the word finally came that today would be the day. They had tried so many times before, but they all felt that this time would be different. None of those crazy Brits to get in the way. An American crew to get them in there quickly and safely. Vujnovich personally drove the team down to Brindisi for the mission launch, and he could tell the men were focused.

In Brindisi, Vujnovich shook each man’s hand and wished them good luck, looking them in the eyes and wondering if this would be the last time he saw them. He admired their willingness to go into such a dangerous situation, and at the same time, he wished he was going along with them.

The flight out was just like every other attempt, except that this time Musulin had checked the coordinates with the pilot and found them correct, and there was no Partisan sitting in the plane with them. They felt good about this one. They were really going in this time. When the plane reached the jump site, Musulin was on high alert, looking for any sign of trouble that might spoil this attempt as well, but none materialized. The pilot signaled that the jump site was approaching and the three agents stood up, double-checked their gear, and lined up at the door. This time when he looked down, Musulin saw no battle below, no cloud cover. Nothing that would stop their mission. But then he did see something. Are those flare pots?

On the ground, Felman and the other airmen had been waiting in the bushes on the edge of that large clearing in Pranjane, the spot they assumed the Americans would use for a landing zone if they were to be rescued. Just as they had been every night since July 31, as the message from Bari had instructed, they were waiting for the arrival of the rescue team. With each passing night, they had become less and less certain that the promise would be fulfilled. But still they waited, every sense on alert for a sign that something was finally about to happen. When they heard a plane in the distance, everyone thought the same thing: Is this it? Could it be? This wasn’t a normal time for flights to Ploesti to pass overhead, so they feared that a German plane might be scouting for their location. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the Americans looking for them. Felman and a few other men stepped outside and looked up in the dark sky but they couldn’t see the plane yet. But damn if that didn’t sound like a C-47, Felman thought. He couldn’t be sure, but the more he listened, the more that sounded like an American plane! He asked a few men around him what they thought, and no one was willing to commit, but Felman could tell from the look in their eyes that they also thought this could be the Americans coming to rescue them. Was the plane looking for them? What if they couldn’t find the right drop zone? Felman thought quickly and he decided they couldn’t just stand there and risk having their rescuers pass right over without finding them. He made a decision that, like the radio call, could bring Nazis instead of Americans if he was wrong.

“Light the flares!” Felman shouted. “Go! Now! Get the flare pots going!”

The men went running for the flare pots they had placed around the field for exactly this moment, pots of rags and wood that would burn brightly as a signal to the plane overhead. Felman was nervous as he watched the men light signals that would give away their position, but he was ready to signal this plane, whoever it was. These airmen couldn’t wait any longer.

The flare pots roared to life and lit up the perimeter of the field, a clear signal for a drop zone. Felman and the other airmen crouched in the bushes around the field and watched the sky eagerly, listening as the plane drew closer.

Musulin saw the flares, as did the jump master, who was already sure they were in the right location. Then the pilot saw the three red flashes from the ground, the correct signal that these were friendlies waiting for the OSS agents. The jump master checked that Musulin’s line was secured and then yelled, “Go!” with a strong push on the big man’s back. The static line ripped Musulin’s oversized thirty-two-foot parachute out of his pack and then Rajacich and Jibilian followed him quickly, the three men trying to stay as close as possible so they would land near one another. As soon as the men were in the air, the jump master pushed out several crates of medical supplies and clothing, which Musulin had insisted on taking back to these people he had lived with before.

The team had jumped from only eight hundred feet, which is very low, but makes it more difficult for the enemy to spot you and kill you on the way down or to meet you at your landing place. From that altitude the agents came down fast and hard, with only about thirty seconds from leaving the plane to hitting the ground. Musulin was the first to land, not only because he was the first out of the plane and starting from a low altitude but also because when this former football lineman parachuted, he tended to fall out of the sky like an angry rock, his parachute merely providing some drag to slow him down. Musulin landed on a chicken coop, smashing it to pieces and sending startled chickens flying in every direction. Rajacich followed soon after, landing in a tree near Musulin and the chickens. He was uninjured but had to call for Musulin to help cut him down from the tangled chute lines in the tree.

Jibilian was the last on the ground, realizing on the way down that he also was headed toward trees. The usual procedure in that circumstance is to cross your arms and legs tightly, with your elbows across your face to protect it from the tree limbs, but he barely had time to react when he saw the trees. That turned out to be good because he landed in a cornfield instead of the trees, and he probably would have broken both legs if he had crossed them as he intended. The cornstalks helped cushion his fall and Jibilian ended up with one of the best landings of his career.

As soon as the three men collected themselves and their gear, they saw a peasant woman in a long dress come rushing up to them. They instinctively tensed and readied their weapons, but it quickly became clear that this was another enthusiastic greeting by a grateful Chetnik woman. She charged right past her demolished chicken coop without seeming to notice and proceeded to kiss the three men on the cheek repeatedly, calling them “liberators” and saying over and over that she was so glad the invasion had begun. Apparently she was under the impression that the trio were the beginning of a full-scale parachute invasion as had just happened in Normandy, so Musulin had to break it to her that there would not be anyone else coming that night. She was grateful to see them nonetheless and insisted that they come to her house for something to eat. Musulin politely declined on behalf of the team and gave the woman fifteen thousand dinars, about ten dollars, to cover the cost of the chicken coop he had so thoroughly smashed. The woman accepted the money and pointed the men in the direction of the Mihailovich camp, with more thanks and more kisses.

The trio walked down a road in the dark, wary of being found by a German patrol but also confident that they were firmly in Chetnik territory. It was not long before they ran into a group of bearded men wearing the royal insignia of Mihailovich’s army on their caps, and some of them recognized Musulin right away. The leader of the group yelled, “George the American!” and ran toward him. Some of the Chetnik men wept with joy at the sight, running to give their favorite American a big bear hug. Jibilian and Rajacich were amused by Musulin’s celebrity, but soon they, too, were experiencing the bearded kisses and hugs of these fierce-looking guerilla fighters.

As soon as he could get a word in amid the celebration, Musulin tried to tell his Chetnik friends that his return did not signal any change in diplomacy by the Allies. Trying to adhere to his orders, Musulin explained that they were here to help the downed airmen and that their presence should not be construed as any signal that the Allies were more favorable to Mihailovich now. The Chetniks said they understood, but Musulin could tell they didn’t really believe him. The way they saw it, the Americans had returned.

Soon after lighting the flares in a risky move to make sure the rescuers could find them, Felman and the other airmen in Pranjane saw parachutes popping out from behind the plane. They counted three good chutes, followed by a few more that looked like supply drops. And then just at that moment the plane flew directly over their position, low enough that the men could see the white star of the United States Army painted on the tail. The mountains of Yugoslavia were filled with a hearty cheer as the airmen felt for the first time that they might really, really be going home.

There was only a short while before Chetnik men started coming out of the surrounding woods with crates full of desperately needed supplies, a welcome sight to the airmen and villagers alike. But then the village erupted in celebration when they saw a very large man in an American uniform emerge from the tree line. Felman was watching, but he had no idea who this fellow was. The Serb villagers certainly knew him, and apparently they loved him.

“Captain George! Captain George!” they shouted, welcoming back the big American who had left them months earlier after spending so much time in the village and with Mihailovich. Men and women alike ran to embrace the returning American, grabbing his round face with both hands to kiss him hard. Tears streamed down the faces of men, women, and children as they saw Musulin emerge from the forest like a savior, followed closely by Rajacich and Jibilian, who received the same exuberant greeting as soon as the villagers spotted them, carried heroically on the shoulders of Chetnik soldiers. Felman and dozens of the airmen were standing nearby, eager to greet their rescuers but feeling like they should let the villagers have this special moment with a man they knew and loved. It took a short while for Musulin to peel himself away from the adoring crowd and walk over to Felman.

Musulin walked right up and somehow sensed that Felman was the leader of the group. He put out his hand and said, “I’m George Musulin.”

The airmen welcomed the trio as angels dropping out of the sky, and one of the first things the rescue team noticed was the huge number of airmen greeting them. They had been told to expect one hundred fifty airmen, and Vujnovich was hoping that number had been exaggerated. The rescue team, however, found themselves surrounded by no fewer than two hundred fifty American airmen, and they were told that more were streaming into Pranjane every day.

The daunting numbers could be put aside for a short while, though, while all of Pranjane celebrated the arrival of the rescue team. In the Serb fashion that the airmen were getting used to, the village erupted into jubilant celebration with plum brandy and music, capped by a visit from Mihailovich himself. Jibilian was in awe of the already legendary general, feeling awkward in front of the charismatic leader, especially because the OSS was so informal, with little attention paid to military protocol. He almost never saluted his OSS officers, but Jibilian felt that he was an enlisted man in the presence of a famous Yugoslav general, so he snapped off a sharp salute when introduced to Mihailovich. The young American was pleased to find out that despite his reputation as a fierce guerilla leader, Mihailovich was as down to earth as anyone he had ever met.

Like every other American who met Mihailovich personally, however, Jibilian was taken by the way a man of such simplicity could at the same time give such an impression of grandeur. Jibilian and the other Allied soldiers were most impressed by Mihailovich’s sense of dignity in the face of extreme hardship and insurmountable odds, and the humble way he received accolades from his followers, consistently coming away with the same unshakable impression that they were standing in the presence of greatness. More than one airman reported that meeting with Mihailovich actually made them feel physically small, though Mihailovich was merely of average height and build. Mihailovich was known to be even-tempered for the most part, despite his recent outburst about the British, and though he was not necessarily considered a great intellect by most of his peers, his sense of duty to his country and his people was unquestioned.

He was a man of great warmth and personality, kindly and paternal to everyone around him, though he was also a strict disciplinarian with his troops. Mihailovich was renowned for his simplicity, his insistence that he be one of the common people, never above them or his soldiers. He always preferred eating a meal on the ground with his troops to sitting inside a dining room with other officers, and everyone around him knew that his greatest joy was to live among the common people in their own communities—eating with them, dancing, joining in their festivals, singing folk songs, and playing a guitar. He dressed as his soldiers dressed, ate what they ate, and refused anything that even implied a privileged status. His followers loved him for it and commonly called him Chicha, the Serbian word for uncle.

The Americans saw Mihailovich at his best whenever the local villagers came to see him, always bringing gifts of wine or flowers, the women eager to kiss him on the cheek and pose for a picture with the general. Mihailovich was extremely fond of children, and whenever he passed through a village the local schoolmaster would declare a holiday so the children could swarm Mihailovich, eager to touch the hero. Mihailovich often would tease the boys in the group by saying he had heard that one of them was a Partisan and then ask which one was loyal to Tito.

“Ne ja, Chicha!” Not I, Uncle! each boy would yell in return. Mihailovich continued teasing them, eyeing them suspiciously, pointing to first one and then another, saying, “I have definite information. Is it you?” The boys would continue laughing and yelling, “Ne ja, Chicha!” until finally Mihailovich relented and patted the boys on the back, saying, “I see that you’re all good Serbs. I shall have to tell my intelligence that they were wrong!”

The stories Jibilian had heard of Mihailovich were confirmed when he saluted the general and received a salute in return, then hung around for a while to exchange a few pleasantries and listen in as Mihailovich talked with Musulin and the other Americans about the upcoming rescue. Followers were always crowded around, seeking close proximity to this local celebrity, a celebrity without pretense who didn’t mind a farmer suddenly giving him a bear hug and insisting on sharing a cup of plum brandy.

When the celebration died down, Felman and Musulin conferred at length about the plans for getting all these men out. Musulin was reluctant to admit that the OSS had not anticipated so many men, but he did tell Felman that the rescue plan was audacious, bigger and riskier than anything that had been attempted before, and he gave him a basic rundown of how it would work. C-47s would come in and pick up a dozen men at a time and fly them back to Italy, he told Felman. Exactly how that would happen was still a little uncertain, and that was one reason Musulin and his team were there in advance: They had to figure out how to accomplish the airlift of so many people, using whatever resources they found here. The first order of business: Build an airstrip. On this rugged hillside. With virtually no tools. Without the Germans finding out.

Musulin soon checked with an old friend in Mihailovich’s army for an update on the Germans in the area. What he heard was not encouraging. Only twelve miles away in the village of Chachak was a garrison of forty-five hundred German troops. Only five miles away on the other side of the mountain was another garrison of two hundred fifty Nazis. Within thirty miles in all directions there were a half-dozen cities and other centers important to the Germans, each with a number of troops stationed there. In Kraljevo, only thirty miles away, a Luftwaffe unit was stationed at an airfield just a very short flight from Pranjane. The meaning was clear for Musulin: This had to happen quickly.

“If the Germans find out about this and attack, they’re going to bring superior firepower and overwhelm the Chetniks,” he told Felman. “Our friends will hold them off as long as possible, but eventually they will be forced to retreat through the mountains. All these airmen, especially the sick and injured, will never make it. We’ve got to do this evacuation before the Germans find out that my team is here.”

Felman assured him that the airmen were ready to do whatever they were asked to make this rescue happen. Musulin knew he could count on the same from the villagers as well.

Meanwhile, Jibilian set up his radio and made contact with Bari, letting them know the ACRU team had arrived safely and were proceeding as planned. The airmen set up a field hospital with the medical supplies that were dropped, calling on the services of an Italian doctor who had escaped from a prison camp in Belgrade.

Jibilian was amazed by the number of airmen in Pranjane and by the generosity of the villagers risking their lives to help Americans. He was more determined than ever to get these men out safely, but actually seeing two hundred fifty men in one place was challenging his confidence. When Jibilian was asked by desperate airmen if the plan could really work, he always said yes. But deep down he was thinking, Only God knows. It was the same response he had when the airmen and villagers asked why the Allies had abandoned Mihailovich.

The next morning, Musulin and his team wasted no time in setting about their tasks. Job one was clear: Get to work on the landing strip. They knew this would be tough work for the airmen and the local villagers to build an airstrip big enough to land C-47 cargo planes using nothing more than their bare hands and the occasional hoe or pitchfork, but there was no other way. The airmen had already begun clearing the field near Pranjane, the one where they had waited for the rescue team to arrive, but there was still a great deal more work to be done. And as Musulin kept reminding everyone, it had to be done quickly and without the Germans catching on. He confirmed that the site chosen by the airmen was the best option because it was relatively flat and clear, at least for the mountains of Yugoslavia, but it wasn’t much of a landing strip. It was just a small, narrow plateau halfway up the mountainside, about fifty yards wide and nearly seven hundred yards long. The field was surrounded by dense woods on one side and a sheer dropoff on the other. Farther out, the plateau was surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges that were less than two miles away. It looked like a pilot’s worst nightmare.

Musulin knew from what the air force had told him in preparation for the mission, and plenty of the airmen on the ground confirmed it also, that the minimum distance required for landing a C-47 is seven hundred yards.

“And that’s just the minimum,” he emphasized to the airmen. “God help us if there’s wind during the rescue attempt, or if the pilot comes in too fast. We could have a real mess out here if one of those planes runs off the end and bursts into flames. We’re going to lose American men, and the crash might bring Germans to investigate too. It could get real bad, real quick.” He repeated the same thing to the villagers gathered around, this time in Serbian. They all nodded in understanding, aware that the consequences of failing in this task were severe.

He turned his attention back to the airmen and made sure they understood that their lives depended, in a very direct way, on whether they could build this airstrip.

“And don’t forget you’re going to be on that plane when it tries to take off on this short little runway,” he said. “If I were you, I’d make that airstrip as long as we can possibly make it before those planes come.”

He didn’t really have to pound home the point. These were airmen and they were very skeptical that they could make this plateau into a landing strip and not just a death trap. But they had no other choice, so they got to work right away, glad to have work with a purpose. They looked at the airstrip construction as another mission assigned to them, just like getting orders for another bomb run to Ploesti. The able-bodied carried the worst of it, while the sick and injured contributed in whatever small ways they could, by hauling off the smallest rocks or bringing water to the others. The airmen worked practically nonstop, breaking from their labor only when they heard a German plane overhead, which sent the men sprinting into the woods to hide. They hoped that, without a few hundred people visible working on it, the landing strip would look like a farm field. If a German pilot saw that many people out there toiling at once, it wouldn’t take long to figure out who they were and what they were doing. At the call of “German plane!” even the most exhausted men would sprint for the tree line. The work continued well into the evenings because of the need to finish quickly and also because it was harder for planes to see the work in the dark.

The two hundred fifty airmen were joined in their work by three hundred villagers and Chetnik soldiers, using sixty oxcarts provided by the peasants for hauling rocks out of the field and moving dirt around to make the airstrip more level. Stones and soil were harvested from nearby streams to level the field. With very few tools to use, the airmen worked with bare, bloodied hands, digging up rocks and tamping down the earth with their feet to make the field solid enough for a plane to land. Every one of them was a flier, so they knew how important it was to do the job right. One soft hole or rock left in the field could mean a plane full of dozens of airmen cartwheeling across the airstrip and bursting into flames. Some airmen concentrated on cutting down trees at the end of the field and ripping up the stumps so the landing strip could be extended, while others hauled gravel and stones from a nearby streambed to use as makeshift paving. Their goal was to extend the length of the field by seventy-five yards. Every extra foot was another little bit of hope, another margin of safety for pilots who would be pushing their skills to the limit with this crazy mission.

Meanwhile, Musulin was more skeptical about the airfield than he let on to the airmen. He knew it was up to him to approve this site and not just bring those C-47 crews in if they were certain to die in a pointless crash. He wanted to see if there was anywhere else to carry out this operation, so he dispatched two teams of airmen to go look for other, more suitable landing sites. Several days later, both parties returned with reports of better landing areas, but the closest was fourteen hours walking distance from Pranjane. Moving everyone to that site would mean shifting away from the relatively well-guarded, secure area of Pranjane and being more vulnerable if the Germans attacked. And asking all the sick and injured to travel fourteen hours was not a good option.

So Musulin reluctantly accepted Pranjane as the rescue site. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t really have a choice.

Each day, more airmen arrived and the newbies heard what was going on in Pranjane, why they had journeyed so long to get to this little village that looked like every other village they had passed through. And each new arrival greeted the news with the same reaction—a wide grin that quickly faded into a look of skepticism. C-47s here? On this mountainside? Won’t the Germans come and kill us all after the first plane crashes?

Jibilian knew the men had good reason to be skeptical. Their lives depended on this plan working and no one could be sure it would. But Jibilian had no intention of leaving Yugoslavia again without taking as many of these airmen with him as possible.

They had to make it work. Six days after arriving in Pranjane, Jibilian and his teammates thought it could. The airstrip was coming along well, looking smoother and longer every day as the trees came down on the far end of the field. After surveying the work on the landing strip one last time on August 8, Musulin told Jibilian to send a message to Bari.

“Jibby, tell Bari we’re ready. We’ll start evacuation tomorrow night.”

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