The long ride back to Bari was joyous but tense for Tony Orsini and Clare Musgrove, cold and loud as they sat on hard metal seats built around the rim of the plane’s interior. The higher the plane climbed, the colder the air became and many of the men shivered in nothing but the thin shirts they were left with after leaving their overcoats behind for the Serb villagers. The crews of the C-47s handed out a few blankets and offered a spare jacket when they could, but the cold bit into the men’s skin as the roar of the propellers stymied any attempts at conversation. The rescued airmen did their best to just settle in and ignore the cold, some closing their eyes and dozing off, others distracted by their fantasies of a hot shower and a hot meal.
Orsini, like others on his plane, had his fingers crossed that the plane could make it back to the base in Italy without being intercepted by the German fighters. He knew the C-47 was no match for the Luftwaffe, and even with the American fighter planes as escorts, it would take only one lucky hit to send the rescued airmen right back down again.
When they landed in Bari, the airmen onboard let out a loud cheer as the wheels touched down. Finally they were back. Their weeks and months behind enemy lines were over. When the first plane landed, George Vujnovich was standing with a broad grin on his face, clapping his hands, overjoyed at the success of such an audacious mission. Standing next to him was General Nathan Twining, commanding general of the Fifteenth Air Force, who was equally overjoyed and eager to personally greet his returning airmen. Vujnovich and Twining, along with many of the other OSS leaders who had made the mission possible, stayed at the airfield for hours to welcome the men back, congratulating them on a job well done, but there was no fanfare or publicity about Operation Halyard. The press wasn’t told, and there was no newsreel cameraman waiting at the airport.
Twining lauded the returning airmen for their service and perseverance while in enemy territory, and then he issued a stern order.
“Do not talk to anyone about this. Do not reveal even the most insignificant information about your experience and adventures to anyone except the officers of the intelligence service,” Twining told the men. “The war is still going on and we don’t want to jeopardize any future evacuations.”
Felman understood the reason for the order. Operation Halyard was not finished, and any security leaks could jeopardize the efforts to bring more men out. Plus, word of the mission’s success might prompt the Germans to retaliate against the Serb villagers. Felman reiterated the orders to his men, but he also suspected there was a secondary reason for keeping quiet about the rescue.
Orsini had a shock when he first returned to the base in Italy. Amid all the jubilation of returning from Yugoslavia, a friend at the base took him to see the posted list of KIA—airmen killed in action. Orsini’s name was on the list. He and his friend laughed, the other man telling Orsini that they had never given up hope for his return.
“We knew you’d come back. We knew you must still be out there,” the man said, slapping Orsini on the back.
“Then why’d you put my name on the list?” Orsini asked, his smile starting to slip away.
“Well . . . we were hoping, you know,” the man muttered. “But you were gone a while, so . . .” The two looked at each other for an uncomfortable moment and then laughed again at the irony of Orsini standing there looking at his name on the KIA list. Orsini shrugged it off for a while, but then he worried that his mother had been told he was dead. She hadn’t, but it would be some time before he could get a message home to her assuring her that he was alive and relatively well.
Orsini and some of the other injured men were taken immediately to the sick bay, where X-rays revealed that his collarbone was very badly broken. He wasn’t surprised, having lived for more than a month with the dull pain, which became truly bad only when he had to jump over a fence while fleeing the Germans or do something similarly physical. But still the X-ray of misaligned bones startled him. The doctor explained, however, that despite the severity of the break, there was little that could be done. Even with a fresh break, doctors could do little to help a collarbone heal except provide a brace that would keep it from moving around too much, and after five weeks without any care at all, the broken bone had already begun mending. The injury would heal, the doctor told him, but there may always be some pain and difficulty moving.
For the men without serious injuries, the first stop in Bari was for delousing. The airmen were taken to a specially equipped room, told to strip, and handed spray guns with delousing powder. The men in charge left and closed the door behind them, and then the airmen took turns spraying every nook and cranny on each other to kill the lice, fleas, and whatever other vermin they might have brought with them from Yugoslavia. While the chemical deluge was unpleasant, the men welcomed the opportunity to finally clean themselves of the grime and fleas that had plagued them the whole time they were in Yugoslavia. The delousing was followed by long hot showers and lengthy time in front of a mirror as they shed their scraggly beards.
Vujnovich, meanwhile, was doing his best to support Lalich, Jibilian, and Rajacich as they continued their evacuation of the airmen who made their way into Pranjane. As the winter of 1944 progressed and the snow grew deeper in the mountains of Yugoslavia, Lalich sent a message to Vujnovich pleading for more supplies. Medicine was especially needed, he said. The poor villagers had absolutely none, and no way to travel to a doctor in the heavy snows.
Even in the security of his office in Bari, Vujnovich had no trouble imagining the scene described by Lalich, and he wanted to write the requisition orders immediately. But he was stopped by the standing order that the Allies were not to provide any material support to Mihailovich or his supporters. The Operation Halyard mission was strictly for the purpose of bringing out the downed airmen, not to aid Mihailovich in any way. Vujnovich thought about the request for a day, seeing no way he could refuse but no way he could say yes without explicitly violating orders. It wasn’t long before he came down solidly on the side of doing the right thing, orders be damned. Vujnovich instructed the supply depot to put together two large containers of medicine and lied on the paperwork ordering an airdrop over Pranjane, saying it was food for the OSS team.
In December, as the end date for the mission approached, Lalich contacted Vujnovich again and pleaded for shoes. He and his team could get by, Lalich told Vujnovich, but it was unbearable to watch the Serbian villagers walking about in rags, sometimes with their bare feet turning black against the white snow. The OSS agents had been tempted to give away their own boots and jackets when they saw the local people suffering, and Lalich begged Vujnovich for help. Again, it didn’t take Vujnovich long to decide that he would do as Lalich asked. He drove the short distance from the OSS post in Bari to the air force base, where he walked into the supply officer’s office and asked for six hundred pairs of shoes.
“Six hundred pairs of shoes?” the man replied, looking up from his desk.
“Yes, six hundred. I’ll take less if that’s all you have,” Vujnovich said. He knew that the air force was under standing orders to comply with any request from the OSS, so the supply officer wasn’t going to resist no matter how odd the request sounded.
“Well, we don’t have anything close to that. If you want that many, you’ll probably have to try the British. They should have it,” the man said. “I can write the order for you, and if you take it to them they’ll give you the shoes.”
So Vujnovich took the requisition for six hundred pairs of shoes from the air force to the British base, where an officer filled the order with only a quick raise of the eyebrows and a “hmmmph, six hundred . . .” The shoes were trucked back to the air force base and on December 27, 1944, Vujnovich had them loaded onto a B-25 that was to be the last flight of Operation Halyard, the plane that would pick up Lalich, Rajacich, and Jibilian and bring them home.
The plane was to be flown by George Kraigher, the Serb who had flown for the Yugoslavian army in World War I, before heading Pan Am in Africa and helping Vujnovich as he fled the Germans. Kraigher, by this time, was flying for the air force and making special runs into the Balkans for the OSS. Vujnovich knew Kraigher would be the one going in to pick up the OSS team and the last few airmen, so he thought he would be able to convince him to take the shoes. Kraigher, however, was shocked when he went to the plane and found the entire floor covered with boxes of shoes, to a height of about three feet.
“George, what the hell is this?” he asked. Vujnovich knew he should be at the plane, ready with an explanation.
“Shoes. Let’s just call it a belated Christmas present,” Vujnovich said. He gave Kraigher a friendly grin and hoped he would just go along. Kraigher paused and looked at the fully loaded plane, then back at Vujnovich.
“You know I can’t do this. I’m not allowed to carry that kind of cargo into that area.” Kraigher was right; it was completely against the rules. But Vujnovich could tell his friend felt the same way he did, and he urged him to just take the shoes. “No one will know,” Vujnovich said. “And when you get there and see those poor people with no shoes, you’ll be glad you did this.”
Kraigher finally relented and climbed over the boxes to get into the cockpit. Vujnovich watched the plane depart, comfortable that they were doing the right thing. When Kraigher reached Pranjane and the villagers lined up to receive a pair of shoes, he felt like Santa Claus and had no regrets. Lalich supervised the shoe giveaway and at first worried that the effort might be for naught because most of the shoes were a size 8, when the big Serbs, especially the men, needed something more like a size 12. It was pitiful to see the desperate men trying to shove their cold feet into the too-small shoes, but many made do by splitting the heel in back and forcing the shoe on like a very snug slipper.
Vujnovich was waiting at the airport when Kraigher brought Lalich, Rajacich, and Jibilian back from Pranjane. He couldn’t have been more pleased with the success of Operation Halyard.
When Jibilian finally returned from Yugoslavia after helping rescue hundreds of airmen, he didn’t ever want to see another bit of goat cheese. His first morning back, he wolfed down eight eggs, close to a pound of bacon, six slices of toast with butter and jam, and he drank more cups of coffee than he could count. He couldn’t help indulging after months of barely surviving in the hills of Yugoslavia, though he felt bad when he thought of the villagers he had left behind, struggling to feed themselves.
As Felman had suspected, the cover-up was well underway by the time the airmen returned to free territory. A conspiracy was already in place to keep the world from knowing that the Allies had just pulled off the biggest rescue ever of airmen in enemy territory, a complete success made all the more amazing by the audaciousness of the mission. While the initial gag order had made sense while the rescue missions were still underway, after its completion the airmen began to wonder why the military still refused to acknowledge their incredible story. The reason, the airmen soon learned, was that the rescue could not be publicized without giving credit to the Serb guerilla leader who had harbored the men and made the whole operation possible. Mihailovich was officially ostracized for his supposed weakness and collaboration with the Germans, and even faint praise for his assistance with the downed airmen would have ruffled feathers in the State Department and the British government. While Operation Halyard was still going on and men’s lives were at risk, no one wanted to jeopardize the rescues by trying to give Mihailovich credit. And after the rescues were completed, it just didn’t seem worth the risk to career and interoffice harmony to challenge the State Department and the Brits in order to let the world know what had happened. Vujnovich, Musulin, and others were willing, even eager, to put their careers on the line to ensure those men were rescued, but afterward there was little motivation to tell the story if it meant bucking the whole military and diplomatic hierarchy.
So the fantastic story wasn’t told. There was no report back home in the newspapers of a huge operation that had saved so many lives, only the occasional item in a hometown paper noting that a local boy had been found and was no longer missing in action. With the initial orders to keep quiet forgotten once the rescues were complete, the men involved in Operation Halyard talked about it in the chow line, in the barracks, on the bus, in the cafés—anywhere they met up with other servicemen—because they were so thrilled to be back in Italy and so thankful to the Serbs who had harbored them. They wanted the other airmen to know what had happened to them, that the Serb people were astonishingly kind and helpful to American airmen, even though the briefings for bomber crews still included warnings that the Serbs would cut off their ears and turn them over to the Germans. Orsini, after returning from several weeks convalescence for his injury, returned to duty and had to sit through briefings in which an officer told him and his fellow crewmates that if they bailed out over northern Yugoslavia they should seek out Tito’s forces and run from Mihailovich’s fighters and the local villagers. It took all of Orsini’s self-control to sit there and listen without earning himself a court-martial by telling the senior officer how wrong he was, and his voice was shaking when the briefing ended and he gathered the rest of the crew around. He would make sure the senior officer was out of earshot and then set the record straight.
“Don’t believe a word of that crap about Mihailovich and Tito,” he told the other men, including some young replacements who didn’t know any better. “I’ve been there. I’ve been on the ground with these people, and the fact is that the Serbs will give you the shirt off their backs and every bit of food they have. If we bail out, just come with me and I’ll walk right up and introduce myself again.”
The continued warnings about Mihailovich, and offhand comments by other airmen who had heard only the official story, incensed Orsini and Musgrove and every other man who had experienced the truth firsthand. A few drinks were thrown and tables overturned in Bari as the returning airmen set the record straight on what happened in Pranjane.
After the initial warning, the army did not make much effort to keep the hundreds of returning airmen from talking, but the OSS agents who conducted Operation Halyard were on a shorter leash. Jibilian, like the airmen, wasn’t looking for attention for his participation, but he also wasn’t shy about telling people that Mihailovich and the Serbs deserved thanks. That stopped one day when an OSS officer pulled him aside and said, “Don’t tell anyone. This will just create a big fuss with Tito and Mihailovich, so keep this under wraps.” And after that he did, following his orders and telling almost no one about the rescue mission.
Many of the rescued airmen returned to the United States sooner than they would have if they had not spent so long in enemy territory. Richard Felman and his crew returned to the United States soon after being rescued, and they were told that the early return was partly due to fears that they would be executed as spies if they were caught behind enemy lines again. Two sojourns on the ground could make you a spy in the enemy’s eyes, not just an unlucky flier, the theory went.
When Felman returned to New York, the Red Cross came aboard his ship and handed out coffee and doughnuts to the returning servicemen before they disembarked. They also distributed local New York newspapers, and Felman was pleased to find an article about the destruction of a major ammunitions warehouse and railway station in Gornji Milanovac by guerilla forces resisting the German occupation in Yugoslavia. The only problem was that the paper attributed the guerrilla action to Tito’s Partisans. Felman knew better because he had actually participated in that raid with Mihailovich’s men, with not a single red star of the Partisans around for miles. Felman was livid to see Tito get credit for the work of Mihailovich’s men, but it fit the pattern he had already started piecing together.
Orsini flew another thirty-three missions after recuperating from his shoulder injury, and then he was wounded again. While lying in the hospital, a doctor stopped by and asked him how many missions he had flown. Orsini replied that he had flown thirty-four, meaning he still had another sixteen to go before hitting the magic number of fifty, which usually was the point where the military said you’d done your duty and could go home. The doctor thought Orsini had made enough missions through hell for one man, so he authorized his return to the States. He was scheduled to return home on a hospital ship in April 1945, but one evening he found a note on his bunk that said, You are returning to the States by plane in the morning. With no time to notify his family that he would be home within days instead of months, Orsini flew back to the United States and made his way to the family’s three-story apartment building on Beacon Street in Jersey City, New Jersey. Once he had reached the States, he decided not to call home first so he could surprise his mother.
When he reached home, he rang the bell for his mother’s apartment, but there was no answer. He rang the bell for his aunt, who lived on the second floor and enjoyed a jubilant reunion with her for a moment before being able to get the excited woman to hear his question. “Where is my mother?” he asked. Orsini’s aunt explained that his mother was at church, which didn’t surprise Orsini much because he knew she went almost every morning. With another kiss for his aunt, Orsini dashed out of the building and onto the street, first walking quickly and then barely able to stop himself from breaking into a run as he headed toward the church. He hadn’t gone far when he spotted his mother far down the street, about four blocks away, walking toward him with another woman. The two were returning from church and they didn’t see Orsini yet. He kept walking toward them, his eyes fixed on the mother he had thought he would never see again, waiting for the moment when she recognized her son.
They kept walking toward each other, Orsini’s heart beating faster and faster as they closed the distance, but his mother saw only another young serviceman walking toward her. He kept his eyes on her, wanting so much to scream out to her, but he waited, wanting to see the look on her face when she realized it was him. When they came to within a block of each other, Orsini saw his mother pause briefly, stopping on the sidewalk as she looked more closely at the man in uniform coming toward her. Then she put her hands to her face and cried out as her companion looked at her quizzically.
“Anthony? È quello voi?” his mother cried, at first questioning, and then as Orsini started running toward her, she knew. “Il mio Anthony! Il mio Anthony! È il mio Anthony!”
His mother ran toward him, her arms reaching, trying to get her son back in her arms faster than her feet could carry her. Orsini could run faster and came to her quickly, scooping his mother up in his arms and hugging her tightly as she sobbed, saying his name over and over and kissing him on the cheek.
“Sono indietro, Mama,” he told her. “È giusto, io sono indietro.” I’m back, Mama. It’s okay, I’m back.
The first hint in the press of the remarkable success of the rescue mission came on February 20, 1945, more than six months after the first C-47s landed in Pranjane. A five-paragraph story on page 2 of the Washington Post carried the headline RADIO SIGNAL AIDS RESCUE OF 250 FLIERS. The story reported that, “A mystery radio message, picked up and recorded by RAF radio operators in Italy, led to the rescue recently of two hundred fifty Allied airmen, mostly American, who had bailed out over the Balkans.” The article went on to explain that the airmen sent a specially coded message that eventually led to the rescue operation. “Translation of the messages indicated that a large number of Americans, some of whom were sick, were stranded in Yugoslavia. They were awaiting rescue anxiously, for enemy troops were not far distant.” There was no mention of Mihailovich.
The rescue itself was described succinctly: “Full arrangements were soon completed and the airmen congregated at a secret airfield. There they were all picked up and brought back to their bases.”
Two days later the newspaper ran a lengthy letter to the editor from Konstantin Fotić, former Yugoslavian ambassador to the United States, in which he said that, because of the report of February 20, apparently there was no more need to keep the rescue secret. Fotic provided a more complete account of the operation, the scope of the rescue, and the key role played by Mihailovich. He closed by noting that:
Even this action did not prevent a continuation of slanderous accusations against General Mihailovich and I am not aware what recognition was given him for this contribution to the Allied cause. Probably the general did not expect any recognition, because he felt that he was merely carrying out his duties as an ally. Nevertheless, today, when the story of this rescue is disclosed, credit should be given to those who deserve it, and should not be presented as an anonymous action which occurred somewhere in the Balkans.
Tito, meanwhile, was completing his takeover of Yugoslavia and doing exactly what many feared he would do: He all but gift wrapped Yugoslavia for Stalin and ensured that Communism would threaten Eastern Europe for decades. Churchill and Roosevelt already were acknowledging, mostly privately, that they had made a grave error in siding with Tito over Mihailovich, but the full truth about how Communist moles and spies had misled them would not come out until long after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945.
By then, Churchill knew that Tito could not be trusted and that Stalin controlled Yugoslavia from Moscow. On February 9, 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt met with Stalin in an effort to encourage at least limited democracy in the portions of postwar Europe controlled by Russia, and though he did not promise much, Stalin did assure the world leaders that he would persuade Tito to recognize all prewar political parties—including Mihailovich’s and his followers—and to have a freely elected Constituent Assembly. Churchill did not trust Stalin, and on February 21, 1945, it was clear to his closest staff that he was “rather depressed, thinking of the possibilities of Russia one day turning against us, saying that [former British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain had trusted Hitler as he was now trusting Stalin.” Churchill was disillusioned with the Russian leader and regretting his decision to abandon Mihailovich.
Churchill’s fears were well grounded. On April 5, 1945, scarcely a month after Stalin’s assurances and a week before Roosevelt’s death, Tito signed an agreement with Russia to allow “temporary entry of Soviet troops into Yugoslav territory.” Though Tito would come to have serious disagreements with Stalin, Yugoslavia was for all intents and purposes an arm of Communist Russia.
Once Tito won the leadership of Yugoslavia, backed by the force of the Red Army, he committed all of the Partisan military to capturing Mihailovich, his hated enemy. Mihailovich committed himself to a path of voluntary martyrdom. He could have saved himself by accepting offers to leave Yugoslavia and exile himself in another country, his absence probably satisfying Tito and ending the manhunt. By the time the last American officers left Yugoslavia in December 1944, they were reporting that Mihailovich had an aura of saintliness about him, which seemed to grow stronger as the Partisan manhunt closed in on him. Indeed, his people already treated him nearly as a saint. Wherever Mihailovich went, the peasants came from miles around to see him. Old women knelt and kissed his hands, while children brought him eggs and apples.
Mihailovich was able to evade capture for seventeen months. When Mihailovich contracted typhus and was near death, Chetnik soldiers carried him on a stretcher from village to village and through the mountains, always running from the Partisans. Friends in Switzerland contacted him in 1946, urging that he leave the country at least long enough to recover, but Mihailovich refused.
Jibilian was discharged from the military in 1945 and found a job as a purchase-order writer at the Veterans Administration headquarters in Washington, DC. A year had passed since Tito had established Communism in Yugoslavia, and like the rest of America, Jibilian was busy getting on with his postwar life. Reading the Washington Post on the morning of March 25, 1946, he found a small article with the headline MIHAILOVICH UNDER ARREST, BELGRADE SAYS. He was stunned, especially since the article only described Mihailovich as “accused by the regime of Marshal Tito of traitorous collaboration with the Germans during the war, is listed by Yugoslavia as a war criminal.” There was no mention that Mihailovich had been a staunch ally of the United States, much less his role in saving downed fliers. The article predicted a swift trial for Mihailovich, followed by an immediate execution by firing squad.
Jibilian soon decided he had to do something to let the world know what Mihailovich had done for American airmen. He marched down to the newspaper to tell his story, sitting down with a reporter to explain his involvement in Operation Halyard and what he personally knew of Mihailovich.
“If he’s a collaborator, I am too,” Jibilian told the reporter. “Draza Mihailovich is a friend of this country and Tito is about to execute him before anyone hears the truth.”
Jibilian left the newspaper office feeling better, satisfied that he had at least told the story. But the newspaper article that ran the next day was brief and gained little attention. Washington is a tough town, Jibilian thought at the time. It takes a lot to get anyone’s attention.
Felman saw the same news report in a New York newspaper and, like Jibilian, was stirred to action in defense of Mihailovich. Furious that the airmen’s savior had been captured like a common criminal and that the Western press was reporting Tito’s lies about Mihailovich being a war criminal, Felman wrote letters to all the New York newspapers in an effort to correct the record. Nearly all of them ignored his pleas, but then he went to the New York Journal American, a staunchly anti-Communist newspaper, and found an interested editor. An article written by Felman appeared in the Journal American and other Hearst newspapers on March 31, 1946. That article drew the attention of others involved in Operation Halyard, and within a few weeks Felman had letters from more than three hundred airmen who had been rescued and wanted to help Mihailovich. Jibilian received a similar response to the article in Washington, and soon the airmen from Pranjane were all back in touch with one another.
Orsini also found himself in the odd position of trying to defend a world leader halfway around the globe. One evening at a small party thrown by some friends, a man started talking about the current events involving Mihailovich, not realizing Orsini’s personal connection. The man expounded at some length on how Mihailovich had once been an ally but then collaborated with the Germans, adding that his soldiers and the villagers supporting him were known to be particularly brutal with captured Americans. Orsini felt like he was back in Italy, sitting through a mission briefing. He clenched his drink tighter and tried to ignore the windbag, but finally he couldn’t stand it any longer.
“That’s not true,” Orsini said, a tinge of anger drawing attention from the clutch of people who had been listening to the diatribe against Mihailovich. “I was there and what you’re saying is just not true. I’m visible evidence that they were helping rescue airmen. I bailed out and they helped me.”
The other man refused to believe Orsini, insisting that if his story were true, he was the exception. The propaganda demonizing Mihailovich had reached all the way to Jersey City.
Orsini’s experience was repeated across the country as airmen who had returned to their civilian lives found themselves trying to explain to friends and neighbors how the claims they heard against Mihailovich just weren’t true. When Mihailovich was captured, the media coverage mostly portrayed him as a traitor to the Allied cause, with few reports acknowledging the complex history and competing motivations of those involved.
News reports describing Tito’s triumph, and the arrest of Mihailovich, helped reunite the rescued airmen who had scattered to their respective communities after the war. Jibilian, Felman, Orsini, and many others involved in Operation Halyard started communicating, commiserating in their outrage at the treatment of Mihailovich and wondering what they could do. The airmen knew they had to do something to help Mihailovich, but what? How could they affect events in Yugoslavia?
The veterans all knew what was at stake. In the struggle for control of postwar Yugoslavia, Tito had won out over Mihailovich, with considerable help from the United States and Britain. Tito would put Mihailovich on trial, but it would all be a Communist dog and pony show. There was no hope that Mihailovich could actually defend himself in Tito’s courtroom, and after being convicted of collaborating with the enemy, Mihailovich would be executed. The very thought of it caused such anguish in the hearts of these men who knew they would not be back home now with their wives and children if not for the benevolence of Mihailovich. They determined that they could not stand by and watch Mihailovich be executed by a Communist government without even trying to help him.
Most of the airmen, like Robert Wilson, knew they were attempting the impossible, but still they had to make the effort. “Even if we can’t save him, we just want him to know that we remember what he did for us, that somebody appreciates how much he risked,” Wilson said. “Maybe that will bring him a little comfort.”
The Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in New York, a close friend of Mihailovich, thanked Felman for writing the article that brought the men together and for the willingness of the airmen to stand up for an accused war criminal.
“It does not matter that Draza Mihailovich will live or die. Some other Draza will be born in the mountains to lead the nation,” he told Felman. “What does matter is the effort to clear his name.”
Repeating his role in Pranjane, Felman became the de facto leader of the downed airmen again and led their attempt to save Mihailovich from a Communist execution, or at least to let the world know what he did for Americans before he died. The group formed the National Committee for Defense of Draza Mihailovich and the Serbian People, setting about an organized effort to spread the word of their own experience with the supposed war criminal. The group rallied around the slogan “He saved our lives. Now we’ll save his.” They distributed pamphlets, wrote letters to the State Department and their congressmen, and told their stories to anyone who would listen. Building on each newspaper article and radio interview, the men worked hard to change public opinion and influence world events. Felman and the other organizers created a stunningly successful public relations machine, writing press releases to news outlets and taking advantage of the fact that there were more than five hundred men scattered across the country who could give dramatic, sometimes heart-wrenching firsthand accounts of their experience with the Serbs led by Mihailovich. Most of the men had not met Mihailovich personally, but they knew his people and they knew what the general had done for the lost Americans. They consistently vouched for his dedication to American servicemen, based on their own experience and the fact that they came home. Soon they found that all over the country, hometown newspapers were eager to run stories detailing a local boy’s connection to a sensational postwar trial in Europe.
The headline in the Press in Cleveland, Ohio, was CLEVELANDER AIDS GEN. MIHAILOVICH. The story quoted local Western Reserve University student George Salapa, one of the rescued airmen, saying, “I think he is getting a boot in the pants.” In the Telegraph of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the headline read STATE TROOPERS HAIL MIHAILOVICH AS “FRIEND.” The story quoted Paul F. Mato of South Connellsville and Carl J. Walpusk of Jenners, both state troopers and former airmen, as saying that the Chetnik leader “is getting a raw deal from the Allied nations.” The upcoming trial would be a “treason of justice,” they said. The New York Journal American quoted former OSS agent Eli Popovich as saying, “We have sold Mihailovich down the river to Tito. Now Tito is selling us and sitting in Trieste waiting to fire on American soldiers at the drop of a hat with American guns and American ammunition.” The headline in the Times in Detroit, Michigan, read DRAZA BETRAYED, CLAIMS DETROITER.
Felman proved to be a persuasive, articulate, and most of all, passionate representative of the rescued airmen. In an article he wrote for the New York Journal American, headlined YANK VETS AID MIHAILOVICH, Felman described why he and the other airmen were so intent on helping a Yugoslav accused of aiding the Nazis:
I am traveling to Washington today, well fed, well clothed, comfortable in body but not very comfortable in mind.
I am going to meet some of my buddies, well fed, well clothed. When I last saw them we were dirty, bearded, ragged, and death was always behind the next boulder or tree. It should be a pleasant journey today, you think? Well yes, except . . .
We shall be thinking, the other guys and me, of the soft-spoken, scholarly man who saved us from the shadow behind the boulder or tree.
The same shadow now hovers over him, and we shall be thinking of that, too.
Felman went on to describe how the airmen hoped to influence the U.S. government to “assure a fair trial for the man who is still a hero to us, although a traitor to Tito and the man in the Kremlin who yanks the strings.” Of Mihailovich, Felman said, “He was about as much of a Nazi collaborationist as I am. His great, unforgivable crime was that he didn’t like Communists either.”
Buoyed by growing public sympathy, Felman and nineteen other rescued airmen, along with two Canadians, chartered a DC-3, the civilian version of the same C-47 that had rescued the men in Pranjane. On April 28, 1946, they flew to Washington, DC. They dubbed their trip the “Mission to Save Mihailovich,” which was stenciled on the side of the plane. They made stops in Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh to pick up more airmen from their communities, posing at each airport for the local press. The papers ran pictures of sharply dressed young men in suits and fedoras, waving to the camera from the steps leading into the airplane, with captions such as TEN FLIERS RESCUED BY CHETNIK LEADER STOP IN DETROIT.
Having skillfully publicized their journey to Washington ahead of time, the delegation’s plane was met at the Washington airport by more than two thousand supporters who cheered and waved signs supporting Mihailovich. Police motorcycles escorted the group to their hotel in Washington, and there the men immediately set off on their rounds. Splitting up and visiting as many politicians and bureaucrats as they could, the airmen tried to convince Washington leaders that Mihailovich should be acknowledged for his efforts in saving the forgotten 500. Felman and other members sought a meeting with acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson but were refused. They visited with other State Department officials and asked for help in going to Yugoslavia to testify on behalf of Mihailovich, insisting that the story of Operation Halyard must be heard if Mihailovich had any chance at all of getting a fair trial. Dozens of airmen were willing to get on a plane at any moment and fly back to Yugoslavia to testify, but they could not go without an invitation from Tito, and the only way to get that was through the State Department.
Not surprisingly, considering its past involvement with Tito and Mihailovich, the State Department said no. Even sending information about Operation Halyard to Tito, or publicizing it for the whole world to see, was out of the question, the airmen were told. The State Department refused to forward the documentation offered by the committee, consisting mostly of the airmen’s own personal accounts in Yugoslavia, to Tito. All government records documenting Operation Halyard were classified, so the only credit for Mihailovich’s actions would come from the airmen themselves, and the State Department would do nothing to help them get to Yugoslavia.
The airmen did receive considerable press coverage of their trip to Washington, which helped raise public awareness that the case against Mihailovich was, at a minimum, not as certain as Tito claimed. In one article Nick Lalich delivered a copy of his own Legion of Merit citation to the Washington Post to prove that he had performed heroically in Yugoslavia during Operation Halyard and arguing that in his five months with Mihailovich he had never seen any evidence of betrayal. Lalich described the Yugoslav general as a “good-humored, regular guy and accomplished scholar.” The reporter, however, noted that the citation said Lalich was with Tito’s Partisans during this time, not Mihailovich. Lalich explained he had vigorously protested that inaccuracy when presented with the citation, but senior officers told him to “forget it or he’d get into trouble.”
“I’m not going to forget it,” Lalich told the reporter. “And I’ll do all I can to get Mihailovich a decent break. He’s getting a raw deal. He is not and never was a Nazi collaborator. The proof is in the frontline intelligence reports, if the army will make them public.”
The army wouldn’t.
Before the visit to Washington ended, acting Secretary of State Acheson changed his mind and agreed to meet with a representative of the airmen’s group. Mike McKool, the Dallas, Texas, airman nicknamed Tom Mix by the Serbs, and by this time a law student at Southern Methodist University, was chosen to meet with Acheson. After talking for thirty-seven minutes, Acheson assured McKool that the United States would make a strong appeal to Yugoslavia to give Mihailovich a fair trial.
While in Washington, the committee members also sought a meeting with President Truman. The president declined. Working through their senators and congressmen, they had to be satisfied with having a resolution entered into the congressional report of May 1, 1946:
As we, the official delegates of the National Committee for Defense of Draza Mihailovich and the Serbian People, representing at the same time some six hundred Allied airmen whose lives as ours were rescued by Mihailovich and his people, came to the capital of our country from all regions of the United States, at our personal expense in order to submit full evident proofs in favor of Draza Mihailovich from Yugoslavia to the President of the United States of America and to the acting secretary of state;
As we tried in vain to submit to the authorities at the highest level [meaning the president and the acting secretary of state] the reliable documentary negation evidence of charges that Draza Mihailovich has been a traitor and enemy collaborator as announced by Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia;
As we, being formally denied the right to ask directly our supreme commander to intervene personally with Yugoslav authorities and arrange for us and for other Allied personnel to be summoned as defense witnesses of material facts to appear in the court;
As we, being denied the right to ask personally our president and the acting secretary of state to have all the documents of the State Archives and of the Ministry of War submitted for the presentation at the trial to General Mihailovich, we therefore have decided that:
We, the representatives of the National Committee of American Airmen to Aid General Mihailovich and the Serbian People, in spite of the failure of our president to meet us and personally listen to us, in spite of the direct refusal of Mr. Acheson to personally see us, accept and further forward the documentation, in spite of the hesitant and evidently insincere approach of the USA government towards Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia, shall prove unyielding on the fight for the fair trial and absolute justice for General Mihailovich.
Having said this, we make known that, no matter where we are, in our homes in the States where we live, or through our senators and congressmen of the USA, we shall persistently continue to insist on the fair international trial to Mihailovich. We, the American veterans, will consider that international justice and morality do not exist anymore if the fair trial is not provided.
Though the delegation returned to New York disappointed, the airmen continued their campaign, asking for three things: Let the airmen speak at the trial, allow OSS personnel to testify about Mihailovich, and move the trial to another country where he could get a fair hearing. Felman, Jibilian, Wilson, Orsini, and all the other men were just simple citizens or military personnel at this point, with no power but what they might muster under a democratic society. They persevered because they had faith that citizens of a free nation could stop an injustice being perpetrated halfway around the world. Their experience in the war had taught them exactly that.
The effort did yield results. Shortly after the trip to Washington, the State Department followed through on Acheson’s promise and sent a letter to Tito stating:
A certain number of those individuals [American airmen] who were in close contact with General Mihailovich have firsthand proofs that may deny allegations for collaboration with the enemy, of which Draza Mihailovich is indicted, as it was announced by Yugoslav authorities. The government of the United States believes in such circumstances that the Yugoslav government will in the interest of justice behave in an adequate way, accepting proof of each individual who wishes to submit it, and taking it into consideration at the trial of General Mihailovich.
Tito’s reply was swift and clear. He had no interest in hearing from the American airmen. The Christian Science Monitor on April 13, 1946, reported that, “Belgrade has curtly turned down Washington’s request that these men in the interest of justice be allowed to present their evidence. Its reason: It does not want to influence the court.” The reason was laughable to anyone who knew how much the court was already influenced in the extreme by Tito and Stalin. The report went on to explain that, “The Tito government caps its rejection of Washington’s request with the amazing statement that General Mihailovich’s crimes are too terrible to permit the question of his innocence to be raised.” The message from Tito stated that, “The crimes committed by Mihailovich are too great and terrible for any discussions to take place on whether or not he is guilty.”
Aided by such blatant confirmation that the trial was merely a formality before execution, public sentiment was building in favor of the airmen and Mihailovich. Americans were already leery of the growing Communist presence in Europe, and no one in the United States seemed to have a good feeling about Tito, not even the State Department, which failed to embrace him even as it officially shunned Mihailovich. Anti-Communist feelings, coupled with respect for the returning war veterans who were sometimes moved to tears in their defense of this foreign leader, created a growing concern that Yugoslavia was being allowed to railroad an innocent man. A long list of prominent citizens, including numerous state governors, senators, congressmen, and judges formed the Committee for the Fair Trial to General Mihailovich, building on the airmen’s own efforts to push for U.S. intervention before Mihailovich was executed by his sworn enemy. The executive vice president of the committee was Ray Brock, previously a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and one of those who, years earlier, defended Vujnovich from the Ustashe guard who wanted to execute him if he didn’t produce his passport. Soon after its formation, the committee announced that prominent attorney Morris L. Ernst had volunteered to defend Mihailovich, intending to fly to Europe immediately in an effort to contact Tito.
By this time, the British role in the betrayal of Mihailovich also was emerging. In the New York World-Telegram on April 19, 1946, a headline read CHURCHILL WAS TAKEN IN BY TITO, WRITER CLAIMS. The writer was David Martin, already known as the foremost scholar on Yugoslav history and active in the movement to save Mihailovich. He told the newspaper that although Churchill did not conspire to hand Yugoslavia over to Communism and acted in good faith, “His mistake was in treating Tito as an English gentleman.” Martin also quoted Churchill as telling a Brussels, Belgium, newspaper that his handling of Yugoslavia was his biggest mistake of the war. In 1946, the influence of Communist spies and moles like James Klugmann was yet to be discovered or fully appreciated.
As public outrage grew at the prospect of a show trial in Belgrade, the State Department sent another letter to Tito, requesting that the airmen’s story be allowed into evidence. Stanoje Simic, the Yugoslav minister of foreign affairs, responded by informing the State Department that the airmen would not be heard. Any further communication on the matter would be ignored, Simic reported.
Realizing that Tito would not allow the Americans to participate in Mihailovich’s trial, the Committee for the Fair Trial organized the next-best thing—an investigation commission that would hear all the evidence in the United States and then forward it on to Tito whether he wanted it or not. The airmen eagerly lined up to testify before the commission, knowing that it might be the only way they could ever get their story on the record. In the interest of time, however, the commission heard from twenty airmen and OSS officers who had direct contact with Mihailovich and his guerillas. The airmen included Felman and McKool, and the written testimonies of three hundred more airmen also were accepted. Then the commission heard from six OSS officers who personally had worked with Mihailovich, including Musulin, Lalich, Rajacich, and Jibilian. To a man, every single person testified that they had never seen any indication that Mihailovich collaborated with the Germans.
After a week of testimony, the commission forwarded a six-hundred-page report to Tito. As expected, Tito’s government completely ignored it.
The trial of General Draza Mihailovich began on June 10, 1946, in a makeshift courtroom, the auditorium of an infantry school in the Belgrade suburbs that had been rigged with floodlights. The outsized venue was necessary to hold the more than one thousand spectators and one hundred foreign and Yugoslav journalists. Tito returned from a trip to Moscow in time to be present for the trial of his rival. Mihailovich entered the courtroom unaided but looking weary and weak, stepping carefully to the defendant’s dock because his nearsightedness had recently grown much more severe, nearly to the point of blindness. Thirteen other defendants stood in the dock with him, also on trial for collaborating with the enemy during the war. Ten more were tried in ab sentia, including Fotić, the former Yugoslav ambassador to the United States who had recently detailed Operation Halyard in the Washington Post. The indictment accused Fotić of organizing “large-scale propaganda, fully aware that Mihailovich and his Chetniks, with their organization, were collaborating with the occupiers.”
Collaborating with the enemy was the main charge against Mihailovich. The indictment claimed that in August 1944, the same month that the Operation Halyard rescues began, Mihailovich met with an American officer and the chief of the administrative staff of the Nazi military command in Serbia. That meeting was but one example of ongoing collaboration with the Germans and Italians in an effort to defeat the Partisans led by Tito, the indictment claimed. And in a clear example of how the victors write history, the indictment went on to condemn Mihailovich for the very act of fighting the Partisans, describing the Chetnik resistance to the Communists as if it were treason per se. The Americans and the British were not spared criticism in the indictment even though Tito probably would not have been in a position to try Mihailovich without the support of the Allies during the war. The American and British governments, Tito claimed in the indictment, conspired with Mihailovich and King Peter’s exiled government to defeat the Partisans, again describing resistance to the Communist movement as inherently criminal.
Mihailovich maintained a quiet dignity as the indictment was read and responded to preliminary questions with a firm voice. When the prosecutor asked his occupation, Mihailovich replied, “General of the army.”
As the trial began, the prosecutor did not mention the possibility that Mihailovich could receive the death penalty, but he said he would “expect the court to pass severe and just sentence over these traitors and criminals.” No one doubted that Mihailovich would be executed if found guilty, and hardly anyone doubted that either. That Stalin was directing the trial through Tito was obvious to most people in the West, and besides, it was clear that Tito harbored more than enough hate for Mihailovich to guarantee a guilty verdict even without Stalin’s urging. Western observers already were forming a clear picture of Stalin and Communist Russia, including the campaigns of political repression and persecution orchestrated by Stalin in his own country beginning in the late 1930s. Stalin purged the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of anyone suspected of disloyalty and persecuted unaffiliated persons, while cowing the populace with omnipresent police surveillance, widespread suspicion of saboteurs, show trials, imprisonment, and nearly random killings.
In an editorial on June 17, 1946, the Washington Post acknowledged that Tito was railroading Mihailovich to extract a personal vengeance on his former competitor for postwar Yugoslavia and also to denigrate the West. “Now it becomes apparent that the propaganda is being directed not so much against Mihailovich and the Chetniks as against Great Britain and the United States. For this we have our own statesmen to blame.” The editorial went on to address the most concrete of the charges brought out in the trial, that Mihailovich had secretly met with German commanders, noting that an American officer had already declared publicly that he organized the meetings on the orders of the American high command for the purpose of discussing the terms of a German surrender. The newspaper denounced the Partisans for having been more interested in taking over Yugoslavia after the war than defeating the Germans during it, and it said the country’s experience did not bode well for a future in which Communists were growing more powerful every day. The Post concluded by noting that neither the British nor the American governments had explained the “sudden shift of policy whereby Mihailovich was abandoned to the vengeance of his enemies. Consequently there is no American who can read with any easy conscience about how this ‘first organizer of the resistance,’ as he proudly and rightly calls himself, now stands deserted and friendless, weakened by confinement and perhaps by torture, to face his vindictive and remorseful judge.”
In a surprise to no one, including Mihailovich, the leader of the Serbian resistance was found guilty of all charges on July 15, 1946. The official transcript of the show trial includes the closing comments of the President of the Court: “By pronouncing this verdict the Court considers itself to be a faithful interpreter of the national feeling for justice and equity, and that by the stigmatization of treason against the fatherland it has remained consistent to the agelong freedom-loving traditions of our peoples, who from time immemorial esteemed liberty above everything, and treason against the fatherland as the gravest crime. Death to Fascism. Liberty to the people.”
The transcript ends with a notation typical of the way Communist governments claimed to always have the complete support of the people: “At the conclusion of the speech of the President of the Court, there was enthusiastic applause, and shouts of ‘Long live the People’s Courts.’ ”
Mihailovich was executed on July 17, 1946, and buried in an unmarked grave. The next day, a four-paragraph story on page 6 of the Washington Post reported what everyone who had followed the trial knew would happen immediately after. MIHAILOVICH EXECUTED BY FIRING SQUAD, the headline read.
Gen. Draza Mihailovich died at dawn today before a firing squad.
The bearded 50-year-old Chetnik leader, who electrified the Allied World in 1941 by organizing the first Yugoslav resistance to the Nazi invaders, was executed less than 48 hours after a Yugoslav military court found him guilty of treason and collaboration with the Germans.
Mihailovich’s last words to the world were, “I strove for much, l undertook much, but the gales of the world have carried away both me and my work.”
Tony Orsini wept when he heard the news, and he was not alone. All over the country, men who owed their lives to Mihailovich broke down in tears of sorrow and anger, some pounding the table in frustration, others trying to comfort children frightened by their fathers’ show of emotion. The execution of Mihailovich was so unfair, Orsini thought, a stain on the honor of all freedom-loving countries.
The gales of the world left young American men stranded behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia, and now the gales of the world left them wondering how the man who had watched over them could be executed in a Communist country while the free world did nothing.