Once they were on the ground, the airmen’s only goal was to survive. Survive right now, survive for another hour, for today, then for another day. They had no way to communicate with their home bases, and there was next to nothing in the countryside that would help them, other than the generous local people who took them in. The rough terrain made any travel difficult, and besides, the airmen didn’t have any idea which way to go. Moving down the mountains into more populated areas might offer more opportunity for escape or signaling for help, but that would mean walking right into areas that were heavily patrolled by Germans. Better to stay hidden in the mountainside even if they didn’t know what they would do next.
Escaping from this Nazi-held territory seemed like an impossibility to most of them. They were airmen used to flying over dangerous country, not special agents trained to infiltrate and make their way through enemy territory on the ground.
After meeting up with his fellow crew members at the military outpost of Mihailovich’s guerillas, Wilson realized that his best bet for survival was to stick with these armed men for as long as they would have him. For the next two months, the Serbian fighters harbored Wilson and his crewmates, feeding them as well as they could manage and taking them along when the group moved from one village to the next by narrow, sometimes overgrown trails—another group of ragtag Americans moving through Yugoslavia, like the groups that included Musgrove and Orsini. Each group had their own adventures and difficulties along the way, and one of the worst parts was not knowing what other Americans were out there and whether they would ever join up.
Occasionally the Chetnik soldiers would hide Wilson and the other Americans in the bushes until a German patrol passed or until they could be certain that a village was safe. Wilson got used to trudging through the mountainous countryside and looked forward to each new village, where the fliers would be greeted as heroes and offered whatever rations could be found. Though the villagers always welcomed them, the soldiers escorting them would allow the group to stay only a day or so before moving on. They knew that the generous villagers would give every scrap of food to the Americans if they stayed too long.
The mood of the Americans changed when they met a man named Bogdan, who greeted them in English as they entered another village. He embraced the fliers and welcomed them, causing the Americans to break into broad grins as they realized that finally they were meeting a Chetnik who spoke English. Maybe they’d find out where they were going and what would happen to them.
They quickly found out that Bogdan had learned English while working in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. He had returned to Yugoslavia to retire and found himself directly in the path of Hitler’s army. They spoke eagerly with Bogdan, pumping him for any information, but he had little to pass on. All he could tell them was that the soldiers were protecting them until they could figure out somewhere to take them.
“Right now, they will take you from one place to next,” he said. “They will protect you. But I don’t know where you are going.”
Bogdan joined them on their journey, serving as their interpreter, helping the Americans understand what little there was to discuss along the way. If nothing else, he could help the Americans understand how far the next village was, how long it might be before they found some food. As they moved on, the Americans would watch for anything edible along the way, stopping to gather berries or any fruit that looked remotely like something they recognized. Whenever they came across a stream with small minnowlike fish, the airmen used their shirts to weave a seine that would catch the little fish by the dozens. They didn’t seem like much of a meal, but the Americans would take the fish to the next village and ask a local woman to fry them, offering some of the fish in appreciation for the cooking and any butter, goat cheese, or bread she might spare.
When they came to a bigger river, the men sometimes took advantage of the chance to get out of the July heat and cool off. One day the men were drawn to the sound of rushing water, which promised relief from the incessant heat of the day and they couldn’t wait to jump in when they saw the river up ahead. With the blessing of their Chetnik escorts the Americans stripped down and jumped in the cool water, forgetting for a moment that they were in enemy territory and in constant danger. One of the guerillas indicated that he was going off in the direction of the local village to see if they should stop there or keep moving on, disappearing back through the woods and leaving the Americans with a few other Chetniks who sat down in the shade and indicated that it was okay if Wilson and his friends wanted to swim. The young men jumped in immediately, and it didn’t take them long to let their guard down. They were just young men taking a swim, shoving one another underwater and splashing with abandon. Wilson was enjoying himself, immersing himself over and over again to cool down, while trying to scrub off some of the grime that was ground into every inch of his skin. He was scrubbing when he looked downstream and noticed someone else in the water, maybe half a mile away.
Wilson couldn’t see him clearly, but he pointed the man out to the other Americans and wondered aloud who it might be. Everyone calmed down for a moment to take a look, but then the group decided the man must just be a local villager. The man appeared to be naked, like them, and he was standing there staring back at them. Several of the men waved at the other fellow, but he just stood there. One of the Americans got the attention of a Chetnik soldier on the shore and pointed down-river to the other man. The soldier took a look and, seeing nothing to suggest the man was anything other than a local villager, shook his head as if to say there was no problem, then went back to resting under a tree. Wilson and his crewmates shrugged their shoulders and returned to enjoying the cool water.
Suddenly they could hear the Chetnik guerrilla who had gone to the village crashing through the woods, hurriedly returning to the river-bank. He started shouting to the other Chetniks excitedly, yelling something that caused the men with rifles to spring to their feet. They started waving furiously at the Americans in the water. Wilson and his crewmates stopped their horsing around and looked up at the anxious men on the bank, not knowing what was wrong but getting the message that something was. They were starting to slowly make their way out of the water when Bogdan ran over and shouted to them.
“Germans! There are Germans here! You must go! Go now!”
The Americans churned the water as they ran to shore quickly, as fast as they could, grabbing their clothes on the way out and sprinting into the woods on the heels of the Chetniks. They ran for a long time, naked and half naked, struggling to put on some clothes along the way, until finally the guerillas decided they had run far enough. They all sat down in the woods, panting from the exertion, the Americans still soaking wet.
“Where are the Germans?” one of the Americans asked Bogdan.
Their interpreter could hardly speak as he tried to catch his breath. “The village . . . Germans are in the village. Taking pigs, other food,” he said.
Several of the Americans looked puzzled. The village wasn’t all that close to where they were swimming, so why were they running for their lives like that?
Bogdan was breathing better now and could explain more. “That man you saw in the river, he was the commandant of that unit, the Germans,” he said. “He went to the river to bathe while his men went to the village.”
Suddenly the picture became clear to the Americans. They were whooping and hollering like schoolboys just upstream from a German officer who could have had them all arrested or killed on the spot. They had even waved at him. The only reason they were still alive and free, they figured, was that the German officer was by himself and didn’t know how well armed the American group might be.
But surely he had reported the Americans, and he might even be mobilizing his own unit to chase them down. They had to keep moving.
As they marched on and on, nearly every day, the Americans wondered where they were going. Before long, the wondering became just an idle thought in the back of their minds, not the all-consuming question it had been at first. It was only days before Wilson stopped obsessing about how he was going to get out of Yugoslavia and back to his base in Italy. With each passing day, the question seemed more futile and soon he put it out of his mind. He just kept walking through Yugoslavia. Wilson and his crewmates talked among themselves about everything under the sun because they had plenty of time to pass. Baseball gave way to cars, and then to favorite foods, which led to starlets and pinup girls, which segued into girlfriends, wives, and mothers. No matter how jocular the conversation started, it seemed to always lead to morose longing for those back home. And that led to silence as the men marched on.
All over northern Yugoslavia, American airmen were trudging along, hoping the next turn of the trail would offer more hope. Mike McKool had spent several days at a military camp with Chetnik escorts, waiting while the other members of his crew were brought in from the surrounding countryside. Fortunately for McKool and his fellow crew members, the commander of the Mihailovich army post, known as Captain Milankovic, spoke English. Though he could reassure the Americans that they would be protected, he also explained how serious their situation was.
A couple of days after they landed in Yugoslavia, Captain Milankovic explained to McKool that the Germans were looking for them. And worse, they had taken twenty villagers prisoner, threatening to kill them if they did not reveal the whereabouts of the Americans. McKool and his crewmates were horrified at the idea and wondered aloud if they should give themselves up.
“It will not help,” the Chetnik officer explained. “The Germans will kill who they wish. You cannot stop them.”
Nevertheless, the villagers weighed heavily on the minds of the Americans as they rested in the secret military camp, eating and drinking plum brandy. After several days, they left the camp and started walking toward General Mihailovich’s headquarters, eighty miles away. They moved mainly at night and stayed away from roads, until they met up with a brigade of Mihailovich’s fighters numbering eight hundred. When the commander of the brigade was introduced to the Americans and found out that McKool was from Texas, he nicknamed him “Tom Mix,” after the movie cowboy popular at the time, and gave him a horse to ride.
With the protection of the brigade, the group’s travel was safer but no faster. It took three weeks to reach their destination, during which there were several skirmishes with German patrols. But even more than the moments of danger, the Americans were impressed by the way the Serbian people greeted them along the way. They were offered the best food in the village and learned not to eat all they were offered, lest the family be left with nothing. Villagers offered their homes and beds for rest, and when the brigade moved out again, the Americans were singled out for special good-byes and bits of bread and goat cheese wrapped in a small cloth. As the group marched on, the column more than half a mile long, local Serbs would line the path or road to see the soldiers and especially the Americans they had only heard about, never seen. More often than not, they would step forward as the Americans passed by, offering a kiss on the cheek or a cup of goats’ milk.
Sometimes the American airmen didn’t even realize immediately how generous the local people were, not until it was too late to be gracious. Some of the airmen, when first on the ground with the local villagers, eagerly scarfed down all the food put in front of them because the amount was small, they were hungry, and they thought it was all intended for them. Their bellies were full by the time they realized the peasant couple and their child had intended to share the food and were only waiting for them to eat first. One airman was sheltered in a villager’s home on his first night in Yugoslavia and made a snide comment the next morning about the uncomfortable wooden bed. Another airman, who had been there longer and knew how far the villagers’ hospitality extended, took the first airman around to the small stone barn behind the house and showed him that the mother and her two children had slept with the animals so the American could have their bed.
One day McKool was overcome by the outpouring of emotion from an elderly woman in a long dress and the traditional head covering who rushed forward and grabbed his hand as he passed by on horseback, kissing it fervently and speaking words he could not understand. He could tell, however, that there was great emotion behind the words. She sobbed and held on to his hand as long as she could. As they passed and the woman fell back, McKool asked the Serbian officer he was riding alongside why the woman responded that way to him.
“Many of these people have lost sons to this war. Some of them have sons in German prisoner camps,” he explained, looking ahead as his horse walked on. “They see you as their own children, Americans especially, because you come here to help us fight. That woman was kissing her son when she kissed you.”
Thomas Oliver’s brief stay with the family who found him was followed by an afternoon on horseback, accompanied by three soldiers. He understood almost nothing they said to him along the way, other than their mention of the name Draza Mihailovich. Oliver didn’t know a lot about Mihailovich but figured that the men were taking him to the general.
The group moved at a steady pace through the hills, stopping late in the afternoon to talk with a Yugoslavian doctor who had been educated in France. He didn’t speak any English, but Oliver was able to use his rudimentary French to communicate, noting that talking with a Yugoslavian who spoke French was much easier than any of his previous attempts to speak French with a Frenchman. The doctor understood that Oliver could not speak French well but understood the language when he heard it. So the doctor translated in French what the soldiers told him, and Oliver had only to answer, “Oui,” or ask, “Ou?” The doctor conveyed that the rest of Oliver’s crewmates had been found, and one was slightly wounded.
With an “Au revoir!” to the doctor, Oliver got back on his horse and kept moving through the countryside, stopping in the evening at a farmhouse where the woman offered him a cup of hot goats’ milk. Oliver was ravenously hungry by then and took the cup eagerly, but he hesitated when he looked at the cup. The milk had some kind of scum all over the top, and whatever it was, it didn’t look appetizing. But Oliver thought to himself that he had to eat something, and whatever this was, apparently the locals did fine with it. So he brought the cup to his lips and tossed the scummy milk back in one big gulp, hoping not to taste it on the way down. It turned out not to be as bad as he’d expected.
After that meager supper, Oliver was put to bed on a pile of straw, where he slept soundly for a few hours until the soldiers woke him up. He saw that three other soldiers had arrived in the night, and the group of seven all rode off into the night, Oliver in his flight suit and the Chetniks in their tight-fitting jackets and Cossack-style fur hats. As they moved along quietly, the only sound the jangling of the horse bridles and the scuffing of hooves on the trail, Oliver felt like he was in a Grade B cowboy movie.
When the sun rose, the group traveled through a series of larger villages and continued their journey at a more leisurely pace. As the day wore on, Oliver started to think that the goal was to stop at every café in every village, or at least any establishment that could sell them a round of drinks. The Chetniks were generous in buying brandy and whatever other libations might be available for Oliver, which helped take his mind off not knowing where he was going. With the brandy flowing, the Chetniks escorting Oliver loosened up and started laughing, telling jokes he couldn’t understand but nevertheless including him in the revelry. At one point, one of the soldiers noticed that Oliver carried two knives, one on his belt and one strapped to his leg.
The Chetnik motioned to Oliver as if to ask why he had two knives instead of just one. Oliver was trying to figure out how to explain that he liked having a backup when another of the soldiers interjected. He pointed to the knife on Oliver’s belt and said, “Ahhh . . . Hitler!” and made a gesture as if cutting his throat, followed by a dramatic death. Then he pointed to the knife on Oliver’s leg and said, “Mussolini!” followed by the same gesture and overacting. Oliver joined the other Chetniks in hysterical laughter.
After a night of revelry with his escorts, Oliver experienced a more somber morning. The soldiers and the local Serbs took Oliver to a religious ceremony at the graves of two American airmen who had been shot down earlier but hadn’t made it safely into the arms of the local people. Oliver watched silently as a Serbian Orthodox priest conducted a service for the dead, passing a cup of wine around for all to sip. Then he poured a small amount from the cup onto each grave. Oliver was moved by the solemnity of the moment, the way these local people conducted the service as if the Americans were their own brothers.
He thought about it for the rest of the day as he waited in the small village, not knowing how long they were staying before moving on again. As night fell and he was given a bed to sleep in, Oliver figured the group would head out after daybreak the next morning. But in the darkest early hours, Oliver awoke to screams of “Heidi! Heidi!” or at least that was what it sounded like to him. The Serbs were yelling “Hurry!” in their language, the terror in their voices conveying quickly to Oliver that Germans were coming. Several men rushed into the cottage and grabbed Oliver, practically dragging him outside and deep into the woods, where he hid for hours until the danger had passed.
Later that day, as he lounged around the village waiting for any signal that he was moving on, the rest of his bomber crew straggled in, led by a few more Chetnik soldiers. They were accompanied by an old man who was acting as their interpreter, having spent several years living in Wisconsin and working in the logging business. Because he had worked mostly with Swedish immigrants, the Serb spoke English with a Swedish accent that always made Oliver chuckle. With the help of the old man’s English, Oliver was introduced to the local Chetnik commander, known as Kent. He was young and handsome, charismatic and a natural leader, Oliver thought. It was no wonder that he was leading all these soldiers. Kent explained to Oliver that he and the other Americans in the village, totaling twenty-four now that several groups had been brought to the same place, were not going anywhere anytime soon. They would stay in this small village close to the Danube River on the eastern border of Yugoslavia while Kent tried to arrange an evacuation with the Allies. Kent hoped to get supplies or other aid from the Allies in return for his help.
So Oliver and the other Americans waited and waited. A month passed with almost nothing happening. Kent kept saying he was waiting on the Allies to agree to an evacuation plan, but the men saw no evidence of any forward progress. They had little to do but lie around the village, helping the locals with their chores and scrounging for food as they grew thinner and thinner. Oliver and the other Americans started pressuring Kent to do something with them, anything. They couldn’t stand the thought of staying in this little village for much longer, with the food shortage getting more desperate every day. Finally they convinced him to send them west to an area closer to General Mihailovich’s headquarters. Maybe something more could be done for them there, they thought.
Kent arranged to have the Americans taken west, appointing Captain Ivan Milac as the leader of their escorts. The Americans were pleased, as Milac was one of their favorites in the village, a former officer in the Yugoslav Regular Army who had learned English mostly from listening to radio broadcasts. Milac issued rifles to the Americans and warned them that their journey would be dangerous. The village they were in was relatively safe because it was remote and offered nothing that would attract the Germans. But traveling to the west would mean heading into more heavily occupied territory. The Americans had to be ready to defend themselves.
Their journey started on a mountain railroad, where they followed the tracks until they approached a large town that was sure to have German units patrolling. From there the group hiked through the woods, through fields, in the sun and the rain, just constantly marching westward and trying to avoid Germans. They traveled in the brush and sometimes at night to avoid the German patrols that they knew would either take them prisoner or just kill them. They knew that the short-handed German occupiers had little time to corral and care for dozens of downed airmen, so the more expedient solution would be to open fire with a machine gun.
They would sleep in haystacks, on the wooden floors of whatever buildings they came across, anywhere they happened to be when night fell. Days blended into weeks, and Oliver could scarcely tell when one day ended and the next began. They were all filled with the same hunger, the longing for home, and fears about what might be around the next bend.
Only once on the journey did Oliver forget his aching feet and his desire to be anywhere but Yugoslavia. It was the middle of the day when the group of Americans and their Chetnik escorts came to a village where the locals greeted them warmly, as always, and offered them bits of food and drink. But Oliver and a couple of his crewmates were singled out by three girls who stood out from the rest. They were young, probably in their late teens, and the Americans immediately locked onto them as the most beautiful girls they had seen since landing in this country. While all the villagers were as hospitable as anyone could desire, the Americans had noticed that the girls in the mountains tended to the robust and hardy, with babushka-type kerchiefs on their heads that reminded them more of grandmothers than pinups. These girls, however, were different. They were more slender, they wore nicer dresses, though still simple, and their hair was uncovered. Oliver and his crewmates surmised that they must be city girls who somehow landed in this country village, possibly fleeing the Germans in town.
The American boys were smiling from to ear to ear and doing their best to charm the girls, who seemed equally interested in the Yanks. The girls gestured for the three Americans to come into their cottage and have lunch, and they didn’t have to ask twice. Oliver and his friends eagerly took seats at the rough-hewn wooden table and smiled at the girls, who shot flirtatious looks every time they brought a plate with bread and cheese to the table. The six of them sat there smiling at one another, the men eating and commenting among themselves about how nice it was to see a pretty girl again. The girls were chatting among themselves too, quietly, and giggling every so often as they looked at the three men.
Then one of the girls started talking to the men and gesturing toward the back room, which had two simple beds. At first the men didn’t know what they meant, but with more gestures and simple words, they got the idea. The girls were telling them that they could stay with them for the night. When it dawned on them, the Americans could hardly contain their excitement. They looked at one another and grinned; then they turned back to the girls and all three men said yes at once. They nodded in the affirmative, said yes several more times, and nodded some more to make sure the girls understood.
And just at that point, they heard the Chetnik soldiers come running by outside. “Heidi! Heidi!” they yelled. The Germans were coming. The Americans had to run. They truly hated to leave these beautiful girls, stuffing down more bread and cheese before taking a moment for just the briefest of kisses on the girls’ cheeks as they raced out the door and into the woods.
Richard Felman, accompanied by his doggedly loyal bodyguard, was growing more and more fond of the Serbian people as he continued his own march through the Yugoslavian countryside. Though he and his crewmates were in constant danger, he came to appreciate the interaction with local people and wanted to learn more about this country. His bodyguard Stefanovic managed to find an old Serbian-English dictionary somewhere along the way, and Felman eagerly took to learning the local language. At each village where they stopped to rest and eat, Felman tried to speak a few words of Serbian, which invariably thrilled the locals. Stefanovic beamed with pride, as if showing off his pupil. Once they became comfortable communicating with short phrases and pantomime, the villagers usually got around to asking Felman about his home, this wondrous place they had only heard of. “How much does a worker earn?” was a common question. Knowing that dollars would have little meaning to these people who were always hungry, Felman instead told them of how much bread or how many dozens of eggs could be earned in one day by a typical worker in America. The answer always astounded them, and many said they wanted to go to America after the war.
Only once did Felman encounter a Serbian villager who was not happy to see the American. As was their custom when entering a village to stay for the night, the soldiers divided the Americans up among the various homes and expected the local people to play host. Stefanovic had taken Felman to a house where the married couple welcomed him as usual, but it didn’t take long for the mother-in-law to make it clear that she didn’t appreciate some strange American barging in and eating their scarce food. The old lady was railing about Felman’s presence, while the married couple tried to calm her down, when Felman tried to smooth things over. He picked up a cup of plum brandy and raised it high.
“Long live King Peter!” he shouted, looking expectantly at the old woman. He motioned to her with the cup, and she could not refuse the toast. She begrudgingly took a sip, followed by Felman.
“Long live Draza Mihailovich!” Felman shouted. The woman muttered something and took another sip of brandy. Felman followed with enthusiastic toasts to President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The woman stopped complaining about Felman and soon became warmer, eventually laughing with him and offering him more food. When Felman left with the soldiers the next morning, the old woman clutched him tightly and sobbed, kissing his hands and waving her kerchief as he pulled away.
After weeks more of marching and scrounging for food, but no more pretty girls, Oliver and his cohorts finally arrived near General Mihailovich’s headquarters. Milac explained that they were going to stay there, the men dispersed throughout the peasant farmhouses in the area, until Mihailovich could determine how to get them home. Oliver looked around and didn’t see anything that would explain why they had walked for weeks to get here.
“Why here?” Oliver asked Milac. “Where are we?”
“Pranjane,” he replied. “This is where you will wait. There will be more.”
And soon there were. Mike McKool, Richard Felman, Tony Orsini, Clare Musgrove, and Robert Wilson also converged on Pranjane over the course of several months, along with hundreds of other airmen. They all had been shot down over Yugoslavia, bailing out of their bombers and landing in the arms of the local Chetniks. Each was greeted like a long-lost brother and then assigned to a group, the hundreds of airmen divided informally to facilitate housing assignments in the local village and the assignment of some small tasks. They all had similar stories to tell when they straggled into the remote mountain village and were assigned to stay with different farm families. Tony Orsini regaled the Americans with the story of how he received three marriage proposals along the way, including one from the daughter of a local brewery owner who was very insistent that the young Italian-American take his daughter back to the United States with him. Noting that the girl would have made a better linebacker than a wife, Orsini politely declined.
Once they arrived in Pranjane, the Americans had plenty of time on their hands. There was little to do except stay out of sight of any Germans that might pass by, but thanks to the remote mountainous location and the nearly ten thousand Mihailovich soldiers surrounding Pranjane, German units rarely ventured into this territory. Still, the Americans were always ready to sprint into the woods or bury themselves in a haystack if someone shouted that Germans were coming, or if a German plane flew overhead. The Americans were keenly aware that their presence put all the local villagers in danger, so they didn’t want to be spotted and invite a brutal German retaliation on these locals who were being so generous. Most of the Americans spent their days idly in the villages, whittling corncob pipes and smoking whatever locally grown tobacco they could find. They all rued the fact that the normal source of tobacco in Yugoslavia, a city to the south called Nis, had been bombed. The airmen watched the locals go about their humble daily routines, learning how to bake bread by putting the dough on a plate in the fireplace, covering it with an overturned bowl and then heaping hot ashes on top. They also pitched in with the local villagers as they worked the fields, sometimes joining in what the locals called “mass work,” in which many residents would work on one farmer’s fields at the same time to get the season’s work done. Then they would move on to the next farmer’s fields, each grateful landowner thanking them with a celebratory meal—or the closest that could be provided under the circumstances—when the work was complete. Even on the best days, the food was always simple: whole-grain bread, cheese, milk, maybe some butter, and mixed root vegetables. Any sort of meat was a rarity, but it would always be offered first to the Americans. The one thing that could always be counted on was plum brandy. Plum trees covered this part of the country, growing wild and heavy with fruit, so even the poorest household had its own still for making plum brandy and plenty of casks to get them through to the next spring when the trees would be full again. The villagers and the airmen might have been hungry most of the time, but their cups were always full.
Occasionally as they worked in the fields or lay around waiting for something to happen, the airmen would see squadrons of bombers flying overhead, more planes from the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, their own home bases. First they would hear the rumble in the distance and then the sound would get louder and louder as the big planes flew over, prompting the airmen and the villagers to whoop and holler, cheering the Allied planes on. But each flight of bombers made the airmen grow wistful as well, the planes so close but so out of reach and then disappearing into the distance without them. They also knew that every time they saw another dozen planes on their way to Ploesti, a few of those crews would soon be joining them in Pranjane.
While most of the airmen stayed in Pranjane and grew more and more bored, others, like Felman, wanted to get back in the fight. Felman, who quickly emerged as a de facto leader of the downed airmen gathering in Pranjane, made more contacts with the Chetnik fighters in the area and convinced them that he could be an asset to their work against the Nazis. Relying on his growing familiarity with the local language, Felman joined Mihailovich’s forces in conducting sabotage against the Germans. Felman had been moved by Colonel Vasić’c description of the Chetniks’ determination to fight against overwhelming odds, and his encounters with the local people motivated him to help in any way. He could not sit idly by while these people risked their lives for him and his fellow airmen.
Sabotage, especially the very careful use of certain types that were hard to trace, was a key element in the Chetniks’ fight against the Germans occupying their homeland. Though they were not overly sentimental about losing their lives in defense of their country, the Serbs had learned early on in the Nazi occupation that skirmishes with German patrols and open defiance resulted only in a disproportionate response from their enemy. Shooting a few German soldiers who wandered into Mihailovich’s territory might prompt a bloody raid on an entire village, and sneaking into a rail yard to blow up a Nazi supply train might lead to dozens of innocent Serbs being hung from the light poles as a warning against further uprising. The Chetniks were not discouraged from fighting, however. They just had to fight smarter, and they taught Felman what they had learned.
Felman and Stefanovic joined six other guerillas on a dark night, working their way quietly through the woods to a railway station farther down the mountainside. A railway worker had risked his life by informing Mihailovich’s forces that a train loaded with food was leaving the next morning for German units stationed in Romania. The eight men carefully made their way to the station, stopping at the edge of the woods and scanning the area for German guards. Few were out at that hour, but all of the men were armed and ready to fight if necessary. They lay low and watched for a while, making sure the train yard was quiet before carrying out their objective. Once the Chetnik soldiers were confident that a German guard would not surprise them, the youngest of them—a fifteen-year-old boy with more experience in sabotage than Felman would ever know—scurried out of the wood line and to the train parked on a siding. As Felman and the others watched from the distance, the boy hid among the big engine’s wheels for a moment, making sure he had not been seen, and then he clambered up onto the coal tender directly behind the engine. He quickly pushed aside the top layer of coal, digging down as far as his arms could reach, and then he pulled a small black package out of his coat. He shoved this parcel down into the hole and raked the coal back over it, covering it completely. Taking a quick look around before jumping off the tender, the young man raced back to the wood line, where the men greeted him with whispered congratulations for a job well done. The saboteur was covered in coal dust, his smile showing clearly against his black skin.
The group turned to leave, and Felman at first thought they were only going back into the woods a short distance for more safety, since the Germans would be on high alert after the train blew up. But as they kept moving, Felman asked his friend Stefanovic why they were not waiting to make sure the train blew up.
“No, not now,” Stefanovic whispered, using a few words of English that Felman had taught him. Then he said something in Serbian that Felman couldn’t understand and motioned with his hands to show the train leaving and then—boom!—blowing up. It was then that Felman understood. This was delayed sabotage. The bomb the boy hid in the coal tender wasn’t intended to blow up now, while the train was still in the station, because then the Germans would know it was the local Serbs who did it and they would exact revenge. The explosive was hidden deep in the coal tender so that later, long after the train had left Pranjane, the train’s fireman would unknowingly shovel it directly into the boiler of the engine. The fire would set off the explosive, the train would be destroyed, and it would not be obvious to the Germans how it happened or who did it.
Ingenious, Felman thought. As he went out on more sabotage runs with the Chetniks, he learned other ways to sabotage the Germans without inviting a bloodbath. One favorite method was to discreetly pour sand into the engines of German vehicles. The damage would be delayed but crippling to the machinery.
Felman’s work helped him blend in seamlessly with the local people, and after months on the ground, he started to look like one too. His clothes were in tatters and constantly filthy, and he wore pieces of gear that his Chetnik friends had offered him along the way. He fit in so well that the Chetniks were comfortable taking him along when they went into nearby towns without weapons or anything else that would identify them as Mihailovich’s soldiers. They weren’t looking to engage any Germans they might encounter, so they assumed the role of local villagers instead of soldiers. Felman was with a group of Chetnik fighters one day when they decided to go into a nearby town for a drink, taking off their rifles and knives before marching down to the tavern for some rest and recreation. (Felman always carried his military insignia patch inside his shirt, however. If he were caught by the Germans, that patch might count as him being “in uniform” and deserving of protection under the Geneva convention as a prisoner of war. Otherwise, he could be considered an enemy combatant in civilian clothes, classified as a spy and shot dead on the spot. It was all theoretical, of course, because the Nazis weren’t sticklers for following the rules.) They’d had a few drinks already when they heard a car pull up outside. The sound of a vehicle was alarming in itself, because few locals had a car. That sound usually meant Germans were coming. As the group peered outside, they could see a German staff car stopped and a young officer about to come inside. The driver stayed with the car.
Felman and his friends were worried, the American most of all. The other Chetniks could pass easily if they didn’t want to cause a ruckus with this Nazi officer, but Felman suddenly doubted his camouflage. Do I look like a Serb? Or do I look like a Jew from New York?
He found out soon enough when the young officer, who appeared to want nothing more than a brandy, said hello to the men sitting at the tables. They all nodded in reply, wary but not wanting to provoke the German’s suspicions. Realizing that the officer suspected nothing, and feeling a bit cheeky about his deception, Felman gestured for the lieutenant to join them and pushed a chair out for him. He glanced over at his friends, whose eyes showed that they thought he was mad. Stefanovic, in particular, looked like he was about to leap out of his chair, and Felman wasn’t sure who would be throttled first—Felman or the Nazi. The German accepted the offer and sat down for a drink, not saying a lot because of the language barrier, but enjoying his brandy. He insisted on buying another round for the table, even though the Chetniks tried to decline because they wanted him to leave as soon as possible. Felman, however, was enjoying the moment, relishing this face-to-face deception. He smiled congenially at the Nazi, who seemed at the moment like a pleasant drinking companion. But Felman was seething inside.
Here you have a Jew you can’t throw into the gas chamber, he thought. After a long, uncomfortable interlude, the lieutenant finished his drink and left, saying something that sounded friendly to Felman and the others. When he had left, the men all let out heavy sighs and rolled their eyes at one another, amazed that they had just shared brandy with a German officer.
Felman had not been fooled by the German lieutenant’s apparent good nature. Despite the Chetniks’ efforts to avoid needless acts of retribution from the Germans, Nazi brutality invaded their lives regularly. One incident in particular reinforced for Felman how much the local villagers were risking by harboring so many American airmen—now more than a hundred—around Pranjane.
Colonel Vasić, the debonair officer that Felman had met soon after landing in Yugoslavia, came to him one day and explained a difficult situation to him. As the leader of the downed airmen in Pranjane, he said, Felman should know that the Germans had delivered an ultimatum to Mihailovich. Hand over the American airmen you are hiding, they said, or we will raid a Serb village and kill all two hundred men, women, and children.
Felman was appalled. How could they even consider letting those people die? He started telling Vasić that he and the other men would surrender and take their chances in a German prison camp—even though it was entirely possible that the Germans would simply kill them on the spot—but Vasić quickly cut him off. Speaking through an interpreter, he explained that he was not asking Felman to decide but merely informing him about the situation. Mihailovich would not give up the Americans; it was not their choice to make.
“But we can’t let those people die in our place,” Felman protested.
“Understand that the Germans will not stop killing because they capture you,” Vasić explained. “In our history, the Serb people have fought for our freedom and dignity against many enemies. We have learned that it is better to live with one leg than to spend your life on your knees. It is more important that we protect you, the people who have helped us fight our common enemy.”
Felman protested further, but Vasić would not be swayed. The next day, Felman insisted that Stefanovic take him to the village that had been threatened. As they approached, he could smell the burning wood before he saw the remains of the village. The Nazis had burned it to the ground and killed everyone. Felman could only stand on the hillside and weep.