Military history


With every passing year, the airmen rescued in Operation Halyard and the OSS agents who saved them were forgotten, just as the world forgot Mihailovich. The airmen and their rescuers could never forget the experience, thinking about it every day of their lives, and many continued to campaign for clearing the name of the Serbian fighter who had saved them. Their pleas were largely ignored by a world that was moving on, uninterested in a controversy that seemed to die with a supposed Nazi collaborator executed in 1946.

As they got on with their lives, many of those involved in Operation Halyard grew disillusioned with international relations, convinced from their own experience that nations exhibited a disturbing willingness to trust those who shouldn’t be trusted and to sacrifice those who had demonstrated great loyalty. They struggled to reconcile that conclusion with their own patriotism and love of country, and their frustration grew more pronounced as Communism’s grip on the Balkans and Eastern Europe grew tighter in the 1950s, 1960s, and on.

George Vujnovich left the OSS in 1946 and wanted to go back to medical school, but he found that with so many servicemen returning to school, the one school that accepted him, Boston University, wanted to place him in the second year of studies even though he had completed four years of school in Yugoslavia. He would have to live on one hundred twenty dollars a month provided by the GI Bill meant to support returning servicemen, and he decided he couldn’t support Mirjana and his daughter, Xenia, on such a pittance. He reluctantly gave up on becoming a doctor and he and Mirjana moved to New York, where he went back to work for Pan American as a purchasing agent. Within a few years Vujnovich opened his own business selling aircraft parts. Mirjana studied art history and for three years worked as a librarian at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She also worked for Voice of America radio and Grolier Publishing, retiring in 1972. Ahead of her times with her view that women should not content themselves with housework, Mirjana encouraged her daughter, Xenia, to go to college and develop a profession. (Xenia excelled academically and enjoyed a successful career in, of all places, the State Department.) At home, Mirjana was an accomplished classical pianist and weaver, loved by her friends and family for being loyal and a good listener who knew how to draw people out with a carefully considered question. She never got over her disappointment at how the Allied victory led to Communism instead of a representative democracy in her native country.

Mirjana died on April 19, 2003, at the age of ninety. She and George had been married for sixty-two years, and he still misses his dear Mirjana terribly. Now ninety-two years old, Vujnovich lives on his own in New York, only semiretired from the aircrafts parts business and still easily riled when the subject turns to Communism and the mistreatment of Mihailovich.

George Musulin passed away in McLean, Virginia, in February of 1987 at the age of seventy-two, having lost touch over the years with the rest of the men involved in Operation Halyard. Those who had any contact with him after the failed effort to save Mihailovich remember him as being disillusioned and bitter about the war experience. Nick Lalich worked for the CIA in Greece for five years, and then he became an account executive with an advertising agency in New York. In the 1960s he joined the U.S. Department of Commerce and retired in 1984. Lalich died in May of 2001 at the age of eighty-five.

Frustrated with his inability to more effectively influence the events leading to the death of Mihailovich, and more than a little bitter, Arthur Jibilian decided he needed more of an education so that he might be better prepared for any future challenges. He returned to the University of Toledo, where he had studied for a year before the war. In the next three years he met his wife and obtained a degree in business administration. After college, he worked with Wonder Bread and then as safety director for an industrial manufacturing company while raising three children. He and his wife still live in Toledo.

Richard Felman never gave up his effort to honor Mihailovich and all those involved in Operation Halyard. Felman retired from the United States Air Force in 1968 and spent his time speaking fervently about the debt owed to Mihailovich. In 1970, he sought federal approval for a statue on Capitol grounds honoring Mihailovich. After being rebuffed, he tried again in 1976 and again in 1977, when finally the bill was introduced into the Senate by Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater. The legislation died because of the State Department’s continued reluctance to do anything that might jeopardize current relations with Yugoslavia. The bill was reintroduced several times more in the coming years but without success.

In 1995, Felman and Lalich, along with a number of other Operation Halyard vets returned to Serbia for the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day. They were met on a mountain in Ravna Gora, near Pranjane, by fifty thousand Serbian people who cheered them as returning heroes. Felman died in November 1999, at the age of seventy-eight.

Clare Musgrove studied agriculture and forestry at Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science after the war, going on to a long career in the Michigan state cooperative extension service. He retired in 1980 and currently lives in Berrien County, Michigan, with his wife. Musgrove has never forgotten the people of Serbia and often thinks of the family that sheltered him that first night on the ground in Yugoslavia, hiding him under a bed while a Nazi officer stalked through the house looking for him.

Tony Orsini returned to working at a local bank after the war and then went to college, earning a degree with honors and enjoying a long career in finance. Having lost his beloved wife to Alzheimer’s disease recently, he still lives in New Jersey and has seven grandchildren.

Robert Wilson also returned to school after the war, going back to the University of Illinois, and obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked as an engine designer and analyst with Caterpillar for eighteen years and then left to work in the stock market full-time. He married during that time and lives in Peoria, Illinois, with his wife, still working full-time. In 1966, Wilson returned on his own to Communist Yugoslavia, still under Tito’s control, to visit Bunar, one of the small villages that harbored him before his rescue in Pranjane. The people of the village recalled the American airmen with great warmth, which only underscored the fact that Americans barely remembered them at all. Though proud to have contributed to the defeat of the Nazis and unwavering in his loyalty to his country, he recalls the betrayal and execution of Mihailovich as one of the great disappointments of his life.

Nick Petrovich, the young Serbian fighter who helped protect the airmen in Pranjane and watched from his guard post as the American planes swooped in for the rescue, is now a successful businessman in Mexico City, Mexico. He still considers himself a great friend of the American people.

On September 24, 1945, Major General William J. Donovan made a final address to a gathering of OSS employees at the headquarters in Washington, DC. Donovan told the men and women of the OSS that they were coming to the end of “an unusual experiment. This experiment was to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross section of racial origins, of abilities, temperaments, and talents could meet and risk an encounter with the long-established and well-trained enemy organizations.” As the OSS agents and staff went on to other chapters in their lives, Donovan told them, “You can go with the assurance that you have made a beginning in showing the people of America that only by decisions of national policy based upon accurate information can we have the chance of a peace that will endure.”

Having served its purpose in helping win World War II, the OSS was disbanded along with many other war operations. Key government leaders, however, had learned the value of clandestine work. Before President Roosevelt’s death, Donovan proposed to him the idea of creating a new espionage organization that would be similar to the OSS Donovan had created years earlier, but with one major difference: This spy group would be directly supervised by the president. Sensing a threat to their own power and influence, the military establishment, the State Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation opposed the idea without success.

President Truman created the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 by signing the National Security Act of 1947. The work of the OSS would continue.

Tito ruled Yugoslavia as dictator until his death on May 4, 1980. Representatives of 122 states attended his funeral and most eulogized him as the last great World War II leader, praising him for successfully challenging Stalin’s efforts to control his country after the war. He was considered the creator of modern Yugoslavia and credited with uniting the country’s diverse ethnic and religious factions. He did so by using the iron fist of a Communist police state, of course, and his long rule over Yugoslavia was instrumental in ensuring that Communists maintained control over Eastern Europe through the end of the Cold War.

The forgotten 500 never forgot who helped them survive the war. They were eternally grateful to the OSS agents who came to their aid, and they held a special place in their hearts for the Yugoslav people who harbored them at great risk to themselves. Sixty years after their rescue, on May 9, 2005, the downed airmen presented the Legion of Merit— kept secret for so many years—to Mihailovich’s daughter Gordana. Though they struggled with the limitations of age, George Vujnovich, Arthur Jibilian, Clare Musgrove, and a number of other veterans involved in Operation Halyard were proud to return and do what should have been done decades earlier.

The surviving airmen and OSS agents, much older and even more aware of how much Mihailovich had done for them, gathered around Gordana Mihailovich and expressed their gratitude. Some of the old men cried openly as they told her how much their father had done for them, and how much they regretted the way he had been treated. A retired medical doctor, Mihailovich’s daughter was seventy-eight and a bit of an enigma. Over the years, little was known about her except that she had joined Tito’s Partisans after her father’s death, probably against her will, and had almost never appeared in public since.

Nervous and excited, her hands trembling, Gordana broke into tears when the Americans handed her the Legion of Merit medal. She kissed her father’s photograph, whispering to her long-gone father.

The tears from the Americans flowed partly in gratitude, but also because Gordana Mihailovich reminded them of all the women who ran to greet them as they parachuted down and all the villagers who helped them along the way.

Jibilian, still spry and quick-witted as ever, was happy to see the Legion of Merit in the hands of the Mihailovich family, where it belonged, but he still thought it was only a step toward justice for the man who had saved so many Americans. As pleased as he was to be in Yugoslavia honoring the memory of Mihailovich, he could not help feeling frustrated that his country still was not willing to come clean with the story of Mihailovich and Operation Halyard. He was quick to anger when informed that the medal presentation ceremony, originally scheduled as a public event with media coverage, was changed to a small affair in a private home. Jibilian was sure the State Department had stepped in yet again, reluctant to allow publicity favorable to Mihailovich even after sixty years. There’s still a conspiracy to keep this story from being told.

His anger was tempered upon meeting another American attending the small ceremony. The young man introduced himself as Clare Musgrove’s grandson and remarked that, if not for Mihailovich and Operation Halyard, he never would have been born. The sight of the young man who had traveled all the way to Serbia to honor a man from his grandfather’s past helped restore Jibilian’s faith.

Jibilian choked up and tears came to his eyes as he realized that, though good men may pass without the world’s recognition, they can live on in the hearts of young people who know the truth.

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