Military history

Chapter 18

Secrets and Lies

Once Mihailovich spoke his last words and took his last breath, the press and concerned citizens of the Western world forgot him as quickly as they had learned of his plight. His show trial and ignoble death faded from the headlines within days. The world moved on to other troubles, other international threats and controversies, and Draza Mihailovich became just another casualty of World War II. Only in the years to come would he be seen as one of the first casualties of the Cold War.

The only Americans who continued to think of Draza Mihailovich were those of Serbian descent and the more than five hundred airmen and OSS agents who felt they had lost a dear friend. The rescued airmen never forgot Mihailovich, and they never gave up on the effort to clear his name. Their effort was even more difficult than before. Felman wrote more articles and letters to the editor, as did scores of other airmen, but they quickly found out that the press was no longer interested in their stories. As headlines go, LOCAL MAN STILL UPSET ABOUT DEATH OF MIHAILOVICH SIX MONTHS AGO just wasn’t the same as the ones that ran on so many stories in papers across the country while Mihailovich was on trial and there still seemed to be some chance that the airmen could influence world events. They gave it a good try, the country seemed to think, but there wasn’t any more for them to do and the world moved on.

Within two years of Mihailovich’s death, he and the rescued airmen were all but forgotten. Felman, Musgrove, Orsini, Wilson, Musulin, and Jibilian all immersed themselves in their civilian lives, followed eventually by Lalich and Vujnovich. Though they had little or no audience anymore, they continued to tell their stories whenever they could, to family and friends, to church groups, to school classes who asked what they had done in the war. They always emphasized that a great man had been the victim of a great injustice. They held out hope that one day the name of Mihailovich would be cleared and he would get the proper recognition for aiding the airmen in their time of need, but in moments of honesty, they were not optimistic.

What the airmen did not know was that the Mihailovich name was still spoken in the halls of the Pentagon. There were still active-duty military personnel, as well as OSS agents and directors, who felt as strongly as the airmen that Mihailovich had been treated unfairly not just by Tito and Stalin, but by the U.S. government. They pushed, discreetly but persistently, for the American government to somehow right this wrong. One of these advocates for Mihailovich was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, with responsibility for planning and supervising the successful invasion of France and Germany in 1944 and 1945. He would become president of the United States in 1953.

Eisenhower strongly urged President Harry Truman to correct the historical record and formally acknowledge that, despite being abandoned by the Allies in the midst of the war, Mihailovich was a true friend of the United States. In 1948, Eisenhower and the army convinced Truman that Mihailovich had done the country a great service and deserved recognition. Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovich the highest award possible for such service to the country by a foreign national—the Legion of Merit. This was no small decision, and it could not be construed in any way as throwing a bone to Mihailovich supporters. The Legion of Merit is a significant military decoration, awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. It is one of the few medals that can be issued both to U.S. military personnel and to military and political figures of foreign governments. Seventh in the order of precedence of military decorations, the Legion of Merit also is one of only two U.S. decorations to be issued as a “neck order,” meaning it is worn on a ribbon around the neck. The other is the esteemed Medal of Honor.

Created on August 5, 1942, the Legion of Merit required that the president personally approve its award to any foreign national, and non-citizens can receive the Legion of Merit in one of five degrees, the top award being “chief commander” when awarded to the head of a foreign government. Several of the OSS agents involved in Operation Halyard had received the Legion of Merit, including Musulin, whose award was presented personally by OSS director Wild Bill Donovan.

So by the time Truman was convinced that Mihailovich should be recognized for his service to the United States, the choice was obvious. At the urging of the army, Truman decided that the country would posthumously award the Legion of Merit to Draza Mihailovich as official recognition for his aid to American airmen and as an apology of sorts. In a subtle rebuke to Tito and Stalin, the Legion of Merit would be awarded at the highest level, recognizing Mihailovich as the chief commander of Yugoslavia.

On April 9, 1948, almost two years after his death, the United States of America posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit to Mihailovich. The accompanying citation stated that Mihailovich

... distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia, from December 1941 to December 1944.

Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the Allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory.

Interestingly, Truman gave Mihailovich the Legion of Merit not just for rescuing the airmen but for his overall effort in the war. Essentially the citation said that Mihailovich did everything the British and Americans accused him of not doing—fighting valiantly against the enemy. The award was signed personally by President Truman.

Years after accusing Mihailovich of failing to fight the enemy and possibly even collaborating with the Nazis, the United States acknowledged that Mihailovich was, in fact, loyal to the end and had acted heroically in helping rescue the forgotten 500.

The award would go a long way toward assuaging the anger and frustration felt by the airmen and OSS agents—if only they could know that it was given to Mihailovich. But they did not.

No one outside of the Pentagon and a few government offices would hear about Mihailovich receiving the Legion of Merit. When State Department officials got wind of the effort to award the medal, they immediately expressed concern that the award could be detrimental to current relations with Yugoslavia. Showing the same attitude toward Mihailovich that it had shown four years earlier, the State Department strongly suggested to Truman that if the Legion of Merit was awarded, it should be kept quiet. One cable from the State Department post in Rome, dated April 1, 1948, urged Truman to consider how any positive recognition of Mihailovich could antagonize not only Tito but the Italian government as well. The cable stated that, “We do not believe it would be a positive factor in Italian preelection period and might in fact be harmful to U.S. prestige in Italy. Non-Communist Italians have no great sympathy for any Yugoslav and any pro-Mihailovich elements here would be inclined to view cynically posthumous recognition of a patriot whom they might feel the Allies had abandoned in life.” State Department officials in Belgrade sent similar discouragement, and Truman agreed not to rock the boat.

A telegram from the State Department to the American embassy in Belgrade on April 21, 1948, assured the ambassador that, “No steps will be taken at this time to give publicity to this award.”

Instead of being publicized and Mihailovich’s family or other representative invited to the White House for a formal presentation, the State Department insisted that the whole matter be stamped SECRET. It was officially awarded to Mihailovich, but for the first time in history the Legion of Merit was kept secret from its recipient and nearly everyone else, including the forgotten 500. The army forwarded the violet, blue, green, and gold medal, with its violet neck ribbon and citation signed by the president, to the State Department, which put it in a drawer for safekeeping “until such time as arrangements for presentation may be made.”

No one without official clearance from the army or the State Department even knew that the Legion of Merit had been awarded to Mihailovich. Meanwhile, Tito’s Communist government continued to tell the world that Mihailovich was a traitor for collaborating with the Nazis.

The Legion of Merit awarded to Mihailovich sat in the drawer at the State Department, officially secret, for almost twenty years. It might have remained a secret if not for the work of Congressman Edward J. Derwinski of Illinois, who intervened in 1967 at the urging of airmen who had heard rumors. Derwinski insisted that the State Department make the text of President Truman’s citation public and for the first time the airmen and the rest of the world learned that the country had thanked Mihailovich for saving more than five hundred American servicemen with a grand gesture made halfhearted by the State Department’s timidity.

The revelation helped rehabilitate Mihailovich’s name, albeit in a small way and without the impact that the award would have had if made public in 1948, or even better, in 1946, before Mihailovich was executed. As the years passed, the world continued to forget who Mihailovich was, and whether he was friend or foe was relegated to arguments between historians and Americans of Serbian descent.

Avowed anti-Communist Ronald Reagan, then governor of California and about to become president in the next year, paid respect to Mihailovich on September 8, 1979. He wrote to the California Citizen’s Committee to Commemorate General Draza Mihailovich:

I wish that it could be said that this great hero was the last victim of confused and senseless policies of Western governments in dealing with Communism. The fact is that others have suffered a fate similar to his by being embraced and then abandoned by Western governments in the hope that such abandonment will purchase peace or security. Thus, the fate of General Mihailovich is not simply of historic significanceit teaches us something today as well. No Western nation, including the United States, can hope to win its own battle for freedom and survival by sacrificing brave comrades to the politics of international expediency.

Reagan went on to say that the betrayal of Mihailovich showed “beyond doubt that both freedom and honor suffer when firm commitments become sacrificed to false hopes of appeasing aggressors by abandoning friends.”

Another step toward clearing Mihailovich’s name, this one far more significant than the secret medal, came in 1997 when the British declassified wartime reports on one of the most controversial British undercover operations of World War II. With those documents, it was revealed that the suspicions of many were true: The Soviet mole James Klugmann was largely responsible for the British switching their support from Mihailovich to Tito. Not only did Klugmann’s lies ensure Mihailovich’s defeat and execution, they helped sway the Allies’ support to Tito and cemented Communist control over Yugoslavia.

Many Americans were appalled to learn that not only was an ally betrayed, but that the American and British governments had helped Communism gain a foothold in Europe after the war that would take decades to dislodge. The world was learning the treacherous, deceitful ways of the Communists, something that Vujnovich, Musulin, and the forgotten 500 already knew from firsthand experience.

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