The airmen spent days, weeks, months waiting for help, hoping they wouldn’t be found by the Germans and trying to figure out a way to escape from enemy territory. They concluded that there just weren’t many options, and so they became steadily more depressed about their situation.
General Mihailovich, who came to Pranjane to meet with the American airmen more than once, was well aware of the men’s festering depression and the reality that there appeared to be no effort by the Allies to rescue them. In addition to protecting them during their stay in Yugoslavia, Mihailovich was doing all he could to get the men home. He was sending information to the United States through indirect channels, making sure the U.S. government knew these men were here, that he was helping them, and that he would assist with any proposed rescue attempt. While Mihailovich truly cared about the airmen and their welfare, he also saw the potential for more aid from the Allies in his effort to fight the Nazis and Communist Josip Broz Tito, his opponent in the simultaneous civil war that threatened to tear the country apart. Mihailovich knew that helping the Allied airmen get home could lead to more support for his men, who were barely surviving on minimal food rations, old and insufficient arms, and ragged clothes. Many of his men, fierce fighters, had to make do in the cold mountainside with only felt slippers or boots so worn that their bare feet touched the ground more than what was left of the soles of the boots.
In the months that he had been harboring the downed airmen, Mihailovich had been diligently sending information about each one by shortwave radio so that the Allies would know they were in safe hands. He even got messages to some of the airmen’s families, assuring them that their loved ones were safe for the moment. Part of Mihailovich’s concern was that the families of the airmen not be informed that they were simply “missing in action,” because he knew that would only inspire worry. It was reasonable to assume that a loved one reported as missing in action was dead, or at least captured, so Mihailovich thought he was doing a favor by letting the Allies know that these men were relatively safe in the hills of Yugoslavia. Mihailovich had his men send shortwave radio messages on a regular basis, reporting the name, rank, and military identification number of each airman his men had collected. The messages went first to the Yugoslav government, which was operating in exile in Cairo, Egypt, and from there they were sent to Konstantin Fotić the ambassador of Yugoslavia stationed in Washington, DC. In one message, Mihailovich said:
Please advise the American Air Ministry that there are more than one hundred American aviators in our midst. We notified the English Supreme Command for the Mediterranean a long time ago. The English replied that they would send an officer to take care of the evacuation. Meanwhile, to date this has not been done. It would be better still if the Americans, and not the British, take part in the evacuation.
Fotić delivered the information to the War Department, with assurances that Mihailovich was protecting the men for the moment, but also requesting that something be done to rescue them; the situation was grave, and there was no telling how long the airmen could last before the Germans found out where they were gathered. The information was dutifully received and recorded, but little else was done. No rescue was planned. Most of the airmen’s relatives were not notified that the airmen were alive and in good hands. They received the standard “missing in action” telegram like everyone else whose husband or son went down over enemy territory, the same one that Orsini’s mother received.
With the War Department sitting on the information and making no effort to organize a rescue, the lives of the airmen fell into the hands of a sophisticated, learned, beautiful blond woman in Washington, DC. If only the airmen had known that such a brainy beauty back home knew of their plight and was worried for them. That simple knowledge would have made another day pass more easily.
The woman was Mirjana Vujnovich, a lady in the Eastern European tradition—gracious, proper, and conservative, but at the same time warm, generous, and funny. While she was outspoken with family and close friends, she was reserved in public. Slender, with fine features and lively deep blue eyes, her blond hair worn in a modest shoulder-length style, Mirjana always caught the attention of young men who soon found there was much more to this gentle woman than her good looks. Mirjana was a great listener, skilled at drawing people out by listening intently, asking the right questions, and offering support. Her great passions, after her family, were literature and the arts.
Mirjana was married to George Vujnovich, the control agent with the OSS in Bari, Italy. George was a tall, ruggedly handsome man, an all-American son of immigrants who seemed custom-built to look good in a uniform. The OSS was, in essence, home of the spies and secret operatives that got things done behind enemy lines. They did whatever was necessary, using trickery, subterfuge, exotic weapons, and nerves of steel to slip in among the enemy and accomplish things that might be impossible for an entire battalion of soldiers to do. From the post in Bari, in the recently liberated Italy, Vujnovich was responsible for operations in several nearby countries, including Yugoslavia. Mirjana knew what her husband did for the military, even though most OSS officers kept their job description close to the vest. Mirjana was more than just an adoring wife waiting back home for her husband serving overseas, though she was that too. A native of Yugoslavia herself, she had been through plenty with George and knew some of what he and the men serving under him were going through in Europe.
In May 1944, however, Mirjana was safely ensconced in Washington, DC. Eight and a half months pregnant with their first child, Mirjana had little contact with her husband other than the occasional letter and spent her days with friends, including the other Yugoslav nationals who had immigrated to the United States. With a job at the Yugoslavian embassy, Mirjana was able to adjust well to a more comfortable, safe life in the United States, while still maintaining contact with the people and the culture of her homeland. It was through those contacts that she heard about the plight of the downed airmen halfway around the world. The community of Yugoslav expatriates was a tight one, and news from back home spread through the group quickly. When the embassy received reports from General Mihailovich about the hundreds of downed airmen hidden in the countryside, the news raced through the hallways. As it became clear that the War Department was not responding quickly to the notice, the plight of the American airmen became fodder for gossip every time a few Yugoslav immigrants got together for coffee in the morning or a drink in the evening. I hear Mihailovich is helping some airmen in the hills, a lot of them. Word of the airmen’s situation, sketchy as the information was by the time it was filtered down from officials in the embassy, spread quickly among anyone with a connection to Yugoslavia. All those boys are waiting for help. Mihailovich is protecting them. But the War Department isn’t doing anything.
Mirjana’s friends knew that her husband was serving with a military group in Italy that was more than just a typical unit, so they wasted no time in getting the news to her. She was intrigued, just like everyone else who heard the story, and wondered why no one was doing anything to help the downed airmen. The next time she wrote George in Bari, she asked about the rumor she had heard, more as idle chitchat from back home than any sort of urgent request.
There is plenty of talk here about the men whose planes were shot down in Yugoslavia, and how Draza Mihailovich is helping them until they can be rescued. I hear that there are perhaps a hundred gathered in one place. Are you involved in trying to get them out?
Mirjana didn’t really expect an answer from George. She knew that he couldn’t and wouldn’t write back with any information about OSS operations, but she was making conversation with her husband as best she could. And she was genuinely curious nonetheless, so she asked just to get it off her mind.
When George Vujnovich received the letter from Mirjana, his first concern was her pregnancy and whether there was anything new to report in that regard. He was pleased to hear that all was fine with his first child and he would soon be a father, though it pained him that he would not be there for the birth of his daughter, to be named Xenia. Among all the other news from home in Mirjana’s letter, her offhand comment about the men in Yugoslavia was the one that stayed with him as he put the letter away and went about the rest of his day. He kept thinking about that question. He hadn’t even heard about this particular group of downed airmen awaiting rescue, and he was in a position to know more about such matters than most people in the military. It was no surprise to him that there were downed airmen in Yugoslavia, of course; it was common knowledge that plenty of fliers had gone down in that region while on Ploesti bomb runs, and the OSS knew that some had survived and were evading capture.
But a hundred airmen all in one place, waiting for rescue? Could Mirjana’s information be right?
Reports from OSS agents in the field had made it clear that any airman stranded in Yugoslavia was in dire straits. One agent reported finding a half-starved B-24 tail gunner who had been shot down in the first raid on Ploesti. He was discovered rooting around in a farmer’s pigsty, fighting the animals for bits of rancid food. Another agent reported that two fighter pilots had been hidden in a convent, only to be discovered by Germans when their army-issued boots protruded from underneath the long black habits supplied by the nuns. Other agents reported finding injured American airmen hidden and tended by peasants in the hillside.
A year earlier, General Nathan Twining, commander of the Fifteenth Air Force, organized a joint rescue effort for the airmen known to be in Yugoslavia, using the resources of the air force and the OSS agents already at work behind enemy lines in the occupied country. The OSS agents delivered escape maps to the downed airmen that would point them toward friendly areas where they could be picked up and with safe houses marked along the route. Agents also provided the Yugoslav villagers, almost all of them illiterate, with posters showing how to recognize Allied planes and the insignia of the friendly forces. With OSS agents providing covert organization on the ground and air force planes making taxi runs, about a hundred fliers had been rescued in 1943. The effort was aided by both Mihailovich’s Chetnik forces and Tito’s Partisans, in the last year before those two sides erupted into an all-out civil war. Vujnovich knew any such rescue would be even more difficult now, with those two sides fighting each other as bitterly as either fought the Germans.
The OSS and the air force had both performed admirably in the 1943 rescues, but if there were a hundred fliers waiting for rescue this year, why hadn’t he heard about it? If they were being protected by Mihailovich, could they be organized enough to effect a real rescue? Vujnovich was intrigued by this curious question from home, and he had to find out if there was a job here for his OSS team.
If there are a hundred men in Yugoslavia waiting for us to do something, we’ve got to get going. I’ve got to see if Mirjana is right.
Vujnovich was driven by more than just professionalism or a dedication to duty. Vujnovich instantly felt a bond with the Americans stuck behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia because he had been there himself only a few years earlier. Vujnovich had never flown a plane or served behind enemy lines, but he had spent plenty of time in Nazi territory, and he sympathized with the airmen in a way that no one else in the OSS could.
A Pittsburgh native of Yugoslav descent, Vujnovich had been visiting Yugoslavia as a student when the war broke out, leaving him trapped behind German lines. He spent the next two years trying to get out of occupied territory and to safety, and if Mirjana’s rumor was true, he knew the danger these Americans were in. He also was proud to know that the local villagers, the people of his family’s homeland, were safeguarding these men until he could get them out.
Vujnovich had grown up as an all-American boy in Pittsburgh, but in the same Serbian-American community that now embraced his wife, Mirjana. Vujnovich’s parents had emigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia years earlier, and like many others from there who spoke no English, they settled in a labor-intensive part of the country—in their case Pittsburgh, with its steel mills. His father had arrived in 1912, immigrating to the United States from his village near Ogalen, close to Za- greb. Used to a hardscrabble life in the countryside, he was being pressured by authorities to join the Austrian army, and chose a new life in America instead. Two years later Vujnovich’s mother joined him. Vujnovich estimated that about half of the south side of Pittsburgh—where they lived—was of Serbian descent, and his father worked in the steel mill with men who had grown up in the same village in Yugoslavia. The neighborhood stores had signs in Cyrillic Serbian and it was as common to hear the Serbian language in the streets as it was to hear English. Vujnovich grew up speaking both languages with his parents and his brother, Peter, and sister, Mary.
When Vujnovich graduated from high school in 1934, he had no notion of even joining the military, much less becoming a top officer in the country’s premier spy agency. His parents wanted him to become a doctor, and though Vujnovich originally wanted to become an engineer, he had to admit that his math skills were not up to par. The binomial theorem was too much for him. So the thought of becoming a doctor started to sound more appealing. There was still a big problem, though. The son of a steel mill worker in Pittsburgh would find it difficult to pay for medical school in the United States, so Vujnovich considered another opportunity that his parents suggested: Go to study in Yugoslavia. Go back to our homeland. See the country where your family comes from. Get to know the country that we left so we could give you a better life in the United States.
The more Vujnovich looked into the idea, the more he liked it. In the Yugoslav system, he would start studying medicine right away instead of first getting an undergraduate degree. And as he talked about the idea with his friends, he learned that there was a scholarship that could make it all possible. The Serbian National Federation, a group organized by immigrants like his own parents, offered scholarships for young Serbian Americans to go back to Yugoslavia to study. The Federation wanted to keep these young American-born Serbs connected to the homeland of their parents, fearing that without a special effort to show them the culture of Yugoslavia the connection would be lost in two generations. In the same year that Vujnovich decided this was a great opportunity, so did eight others from around the country. The Serbian National Federation provided full scholarships for study in Belgrade, transportation across the Atlantic, and a stipend of twenty-five dollars per month. Vujnovich’s parents explained to him that this was an extreme blessing for him, one that he could not possibly appreciate as an American-born young man who had never known hunger.
“Twenty-five dollars a month, George,” his father said to him in Serbian, shaking his head as if he just could not believe his son was so fortunate. “That is so much. That is enough to keep a family of five in Yugoslavia. You can get a dinner, a very good dinner, for five dinars. The exchange rate is fifty dinars to the dollar, George. Fifty.”
The son of a Pittsburgh steel-mill worker was going back to his parents’ home country to study and live a life they could have only dreamed of when they set sail for America. The Vujnovich family saw George’s departure as fulfillment of the American dream, the proof that if a poor Yugoslav couple came to this country and worked hard, their children could reap unimaginable benefits. His parents were thrilled to think of him boarding the Majestic, at the time the largest ship in the world, part of the White Star line that had sailed the Titanic only a few years earlier. Like its ill-fated predecessor, the fifty-six-thousand-ton Majestic was a magnificent sight with her three tall funnels and long black hull, the interior filled with stately dining rooms, lounges, and libraries milled of expensive wood and fine fabrics.
His parents relished the thought that Vujnovich was traveling in comfort, going to a promising future, not as one of hundreds of immigrants packed in steerage, fleeing poverty, war, and hunger.
The Majestic docked in Cherbourg, France, where the American boys boarded a train to Paris and then on to Belgrade, arriving in mid-September 1934. They found a city that, much like any other European capital, was steeped in a rich and colorful history that included war, occupation by other countries, and myriad hardships. But by the time the Americans arrived, Belgrade was on the upswing, gaining recognition as a cultural cornucopia and a center of higher education. After the occupation by Austro-Hungarian and German troops from 1915 to 1918 during World War I, Belgrade experienced faster growth and significant modernization as the capital of the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia during the 1920s and 1930s, growing in population to 239,000 by 1931. Located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade is one of the oldest cities in Europe and since ancient times it has been an important traffic focal point, an intersection of the roads of Eastern and Western Europe.
Vujnovich and his companions were amazed by what they found in Belgrade. Their parents had talked a lot about the old country, but most of them knew the tiny villages of Yugoslavia more than they knew the metropolitan centers like Belgrade. The Americans found themselves in an exotic big city and they couldn’t wait to explore. They enrolled in the University of Belgrade as planned and then they immediately set out to confirm every image that Europeans had of wild, ill-mannered Americans. Flush with cash and with very few worries, they ran wild in Belgrade, a cosmopolitan European city that offered plenty in the way of bars, restaurants, and cafés where the young men could spend their money and wile away the evening. A typical night found them drinking wine and singing at a kafana, an establishment common in the Balkans that served primarily alcohol and coffee, often with a live band. Not quite a restaurant but not exactly a bar, the kafana was a perfect place for the boys to drink and flirt with the singers in the band. The Americans would invite a few Serbian friends to join them, and the dozen or so would inevitably create a scene when they went out, even appearing in the newspaper occasionally, such as the time when one of the group stole a hansom cab pulled by two horses. The chase went on until the horses were too tired to keep running from the furious cab driver. Vujnovich enjoyed the good times as much as anyone else, but he was the self-described teetotaler in the bunch, preferring to watch his friends get drunk and foolish while he counted up how many bottles of wine the group had gone through that night.
The rowdy group of Americans was hard to miss in Belgrade, especially for the other students at the university. They were well liked, though also seen as the bad boys on campus sometimes. The fact that they were from America, not to mention that they had plenty of money to throw around, made them interesting to the other students, and so they had no problem socializing as much as they wanted. Much of their time was spent at the Anglo-American Club on campus, a hangout for American and British students and the locals who found them appealing. The club was located across the street from the old Yugoslav palace, and its comfortable lounges, full of rich wood and luxurious furniture, made a fine place for the Americans to make the acquaintance of any Yugoslavs who might find them interesting. It was there on a November night in 1935, not too long after he arrived in Yugoslavia, that George Vujnovich met Mirjana Lazic for the first time. It was a Thanksgiving celebration and the room was crowded.
The Americans had invited Mirjana and several of her friends to their club that evening, ostensibly so the two groups could improve their language skills. Mirjana wanted to improve her English and the Americans wanted to improve their Serbian. They had realized that the Serbian they learned around the dinner table back home was a little rough when used daily in Yugoslavia. But both groups knew that there was more at issue than language skills.
When he first saw Mirjana across the room, Vujnovich had the same reaction as every other young man who met her. She was beautiful.
He had another reaction, too. He knew from that first moment that she was the woman he wanted to marry. Vujnovich couldn’t settle on exactly what drew him in so quickly. It might have been her blue eyes, her lovely voice, or her quiet, dignified demeanor. He even liked the way she stood. And her dress. And the way she wore her hair.
That’s the girl for me. I have to get to know this girl.
Vujnovich fell for Mirjana hard, like nothing he had ever experienced before. He had no idea that, like many of the people in Yugoslavia, Mirjana had already been through a lot in her young life. Her father had been interned by the Austrians in connection with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, which had set the wheels in motion for World War I. Though he was not actively involved in the assassination, he was in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, at the time of the assassination and was an unabashed supporter of Young Bosnia, the political group responsible for the killing. Her father returned to their home in Novi Sad, a Serbian village on the Danube River, after the war ended and then moved his family to Belgrade for a better job. The family did well in Belgrade and Mirjana entered the university at the same time as Vujnovich. A learned woman already, Mirjana spoke Serbian, English, German, and French, and she taught languages in addition to her own studies.
Vujnovich immediately struck up a conversation with Mirjana. She found him handsome and interesting, but she thought he had some wild friends. She gave the Pittsburgh boy a chance, drawn by his playful, engaging demeanor. But then he went too far with his American-style familiarity. He offered to take her home that evening and she told him, in English that was crystal clear in both pronunciation and meaning, that such a suggestion was out of line, an insult to a young woman he had only just met.
“I’m a professor at a high school for girls, and if anyone saw me walking in the evening with a strange man, there would be talk,” she explained. “I don’t want people to talk about me.”
Vujnovich understood that he had been too eager, falling back on his American sensibilities and forgetting where he was. He was disappointed that he had blown his chance with this beautiful woman and could only watch her march off.
He would not see Mirjana again for four years. In the intervening years, Mirjana’s mother died and she received a scholarship to study in Cambridge, England, for six months. After returning to Yugoslavia, she settled again in Belgrade.
By 1939 Vujnovich and his friends had settled down somewhat, becoming more serious students and less the rowdy Americans. So when he saw Mirjana again one night at the Anglo-American Club, he thought he might have a chance to make things right. This time he would proceed very slowly. He spoke to her gently, politely, and briefly, making no effort to monopolize her time at the club. But he watched carefully and, when she showed an interest in ping-pong, so did Vujnovich. When she wanted to play bridge, so did he. They slowly became well acquainted and after two months Vujnovich very carefully suggested one evening that he might walk her home. He braced for the same retort as before, but this time Mirjana said yes.
As they walked slowly for three miles along the Milosavelikog, a large boulevard leading to her home, Vujnovich made small talk until he thought the moment was right to say what he’d been thinking for a while.
“I remember when I saw you the first time, years ago. It was 1935,” he said.
She looked at him as if he were crazy. Just as he had suspected for the past two months, she had no memory of their first meeting. “What? I never saw you before in my life, not before a couple months ago.”
“I saw you in 1935,” he said. “At the club.” He then proceeded to describe exactly what Mirjana looked like that first night—the color of her dress, her brown shoes, how she wore her hair, the way she stood. He said it as if it had been running through his mind for four years, and it had. Mirjana was touched that he remembered. She was moved by how he described this vision, standing there on the boulevard with her. Vujnovich had already fallen in love with this beautiful local girl, and now she was falling in love with the tall, handsome American. They dated through 1939 and 1940, a happy time when there was little to concern them except their studies and each other. Then everything changed in 1941.
Prior to 1941 it was easy for George Vujnovich and Mirjana Lazic to ignore the gathering cloud of Nazism even though it was just over the horizon from Belgrade. They were young university students and they were in love. For Vujnovich especially, it was hard to imagine that war could intrude on this wonderful time in his life because he came from the American mind-set in which tanks rolling through the streets and armies invading your home were something that happened “over there.” The problem was that Vujnovich was over there. He was in Belgrade, in the path of the advancing German armies, and all signs pointed to trouble ahead for Yugoslavia. Vujnovich was aware of what was happening in the rest of Europe, but he was not involved in politics and found it hard to believe this beautiful city could be overrun. Others around him were more worried. Some of his American and British friends were making plans to leave before things got worse. The assistant professor of anatomy at the university, however, was German and tried to convince Vujnovich that if Germany invaded Yugoslavia, the Serb people should not resist. His name was Mueller. “Go among your friends and tell them,” he urged Vujnovich. “Tell them that the Germans will not be oppressive if they do not resist.”
Vujnovich did not believe the instructor, and his entreaties made him only more concerned, not less. In the early months of 1941 the dominoes fell quickly, and suddenly German troops were in Bulgaria, Romania, and Austria. Yugoslavia was next in line. As many knew would be inevitable, Yugoslavia went from peace to horror in just a few quick steps. Politicians in the country tried to keep Yugoslavia neutral as they saw Hitler advancing across Europe, but the task became more challenging with each of Hitler’s victories. Unable to compete militarily with Hitler’s forces, Yugoslavia faced two possibilities: Either bow before Hitler, or resist him, relying upon support from Western powers. The decision rested with Yugoslavia’s Prince Paul, who had taken leadership of the country in 1934, after King Alexander’s assassination in Marseille. Prince Paul was a forty-one-year-old cousin of the king and called on to rule the country because King Alexander’s son, Peter II, was only eleven years old. Prince Paul was pressured by his advisers to make a deal with Hitler in hopes of favorable treatment, and he eventually acquiesced, signing the Tripartite Pact with the World War II Axis Powers in Vienna on March 25, 1941. By signing the pact, Yugoslavia officially became part of the Axis along with Germany, Japan, and Italy. But the prince never intended to join the Axis aggression in Europe. Rather he was only trying to spare his country the barbarism he knew the Nazis would bring if the Yugoslavian people resisted.
The people of his country did not agree with the prince’s effort, preferring to face down the German invaders than join them, even in name only. Prince Paul’s decision prompted massive demonstrations in Belgrade and other cities. When the Axis Pact was revealed to the people, they protested in the streets, chanting, “Belje rat; nego pakt!” which meant “War instead of a pact; death instead of slavery.” Vujnovich and Lazic could see people marching in the streets around the university, shouting condemnations of the prince and showering flowers on the Serbian troops who had been sent to maintain order. The protesters made their intentions clear, that they supported the country’s army but not its appeasing prince.
Vujnovich watched as his bucolic student life was turned upside down. German-owned shops were destroyed, windows broken in the homes of German residents. Anyone with a German name was afraid to go out on the street. Vujnovich couldn’t believe what he was witnessing. He considered just leaving, heading home to Pittsburgh. He and his American friends thought it was fascinating to see these events unfolding in front of their eyes, but they didn’t feel it concerned them. They were Americans; this wasn’t their war. They just happened to be there witnessing the world change, and they could leave when they wanted.
But what about Mirjana? He had fallen madly in love with this local girl, and she would not be able to leave the country with her Yugoslav passport. Vujnovich’s American passport was a free ticket home, but he couldn’t bear to leave behind the blond beauty who had captured his heart from across the room at a party and occupied his thoughts for almost four years until he saw her again. So he stayed longer than he should have. Vujnovich was thinking about this at the club that evening when he again ran into Mueller, the assistant anatomy professor who had assured him the German invaders would be benevolent. The warning was more stern this time: “You can’t do that,” the man said, looking out on the broken shop fronts. “You people are going to suffer.”
Things kept moving so quickly that it was hard for Vujnovich to keep up with each day’s progress. Only two days after the pact was signed, on March 27, 1941, Peter II, now seventeen years old, was proclaimed of age and took the throne as King of Yugoslavia. He immediately supported a group of pro-English officers and middle-class politicians in executing a coup d’état on the same day, and Air Force General Dušan Simović became prime minister. Yugoslavia backed out of the Axis in all but name.
The new rulers opposed Germany, but like Prince Paul, they acknowledged the overwhelming power of the enemy. They feared that if Hitler attacked Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom, their strongest ally, was not in any real position to help. For the safety of the country, they declared that Yugoslavia would adhere to the Tripartite Pact.
Westerners praised Yugoslavia as an exception among the neighboring nations who had capitulated and accepted Hitler’s terms, congratulating the country’s people on standing up to resist the German hordes. But the West could offer little other than words of encouragement. The people of Yugoslavia were buoyed by the success of their uprising, but the joy would not last long. On the evening of April 5 Vujnovich was at the Anglo-American Club and ran into Mueller again. The German instructor’s mood was grim, as were the moods of most in the room despite the copious flow of alcohol.
“Something’s going to happen,” Mueller told Vujnovich. “Something bad. Please tell people not to do these things. Don’t provoke Germany.”
Vujnovich didn’t pay any attention to Mueller, chalking up the comments to the wine and a dour personality. He went home and went to bed, expecting to go to class the next day. Instead he woke up at six a.m. to his apartment building shaking and the sound of bombs falling. He raced to the window and threw back the curtains, squinting in the morning sun. He was stunned to see planes directly over the city, dropping bombs by the hundreds.
This American from the south side of Pittsburgh was watching Hitler’s response to the previous weeks’ events. When Hitler first heard of the coup d’état and the country’s attempt to withdraw from the Axis, he thought it was a joke. When he realized the people of Yugoslavia had defied his will, Hitler became infuriated at the country’s resistance and decided to destroy Yugoslavia, ordering his staff to carry out his orders “with unmerciful harshness.” The German Luftwaffe started by raining hell down on an unarmed, defenseless city. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described what happened next:
On the morning of April 6 German bombers appeared over Belgrade. Flying in relays from occupied airfields in Romania, they delivered a methodical attack lasting three days upon the Yugoslav capital. From rooftop height, without fear of resistance, they blasted the city without mercy. This was called “Operation Punishment.” When silence came at last on April 8, over seventeen thousand citizens of Belgrade lay dead in the streets or under debris. Out of the nightmare of smoke and fire came the maddened animals released from their shattered cages in zoological gardens. A stricken stork hobbled past the main hotel, which was a mass of flames. A bear, dazed and uncomprehending, shuffled through the inferno with slow and awkward gait down towards the Danube. He was not the only bear who did not understand.
The royal family escaped abroad. King Peter II went with his government to Greece, then to Jerusalem, the British Mandate of Palestine, and Cairo, Egypt, eventually landing in England in June 1941. There he joined numerous other governments in exile from Nazi-occupied Europe. The king completed his education at Cambridge University and joined the Royal Air Force. For the remainder of the war, Prince Paul and his family remained under house arrest by the British in South Africa.
When he could pull himself away from the incredible sight at the window, Vujnovich raced down to the basement of the building in his pajamas, joining dozens of men, women, and children there. Everyone screamed and cried, the wails increasing with each bomb blast that shook the building. But in the chaos, there were elderly Serbian men who were calmly smoking their pipes and comforting the others, reassuring them, saying over and over, “Your time has not come. This will be over in a few minutes.” Their soothing manner calmed the crowd and Vujnovich realized these men probably had lived through several wars in their lifetimes. He was impressed by their demeanor, and used it to overcome his own terror. Once he was calmer, he decided he had to find his beloved Mirjana.
Vujnovich raced back up to his apartment, glad to see that the building had not yet taken a direct hit. Bombs continued falling all around the city, terrible explosions thundering and debris flying like rain in a summer storm. He put on some clothes and grabbed a few essentials; then he ran to Mirjana’s house about three miles away, praying the whole way that he would not find it a pile of rubble. Vujnovich ran as fast as he could, through crowds of panic-stricken people, no one seeming to know where to go or what to do. His heart was pumping wildly, his senses nearly overwhelmed by the sounds of bombs and people screaming, the smell of burning buildings and the sight of those who had been caught in the explosions. As he ran down a street and tried to stay close to the buildings for cover, Vujnovich witnessed a scene that would be burned into his memory for the rest of his life. As he ran, his eyes fell on a streetcar packed full of people, its driver moving as fast as he could and not stopping, presumably trying to get his passengers out of the city and to a safer place. Vujnovich’s eyes were on the streetcar when it took a direct hit from a falling bomb. The streetcar and the dozens of people inside exploded in a bloody mess of body parts and metal, limbs flying through the air and landing all around Vujnovich. He was momentarily stunned, not just by the explosion but by the terrible sight before him. As he regained himself, there was nothing he could do but to keep running.
About two hours after the bombing started, the planes disappeared and the explosions ceased. Vujnovich hoped the bombing was over, but this actually was just the lull between German bombing runs. Just as he got to Mirjanas’s house and was elated to see that her home was still standing, the bombs began to fall again. Vujnovich ran through the front door, shouting Mirjana’s name and looking quickly through the home. Then he went to the basement, where he hoped she would be hiding. He found Mirjana and her brother, Mirko, there, embraced them both and then huddled in a corner with them, all three terrified that a German bomb might end their lives at any moment. The home’s location on the outskirts of Belgrade, near the German embassy, kept the bombs from falling too closely, but they were still close enough.
When the bombing stopped again, the trio ran out of Mirjana’s house carrying several suitcases and headed down to the railroad station, hoping to get a train out of the city. Obviously Belgrade was paying for its resistance to Hitler, and they hoped they might be safer in the country. The group walked for a while and then caught a ride on an army truck, which Vujnovich instantly regretted as soon as he saw a German fighter plane come over the horizon. The planes were attacking anything on the road, particularly anything that looked military in nature, so it quickly swooped down on the truck and opened fire. Vujnovich, Mirjana, and Mirko were perched on the top of the truck, with nowhere to hide, so Vujnovich did his best to cover Mirjana with his own body as the plane strafed them. Through nothing but sheer luck, the large-caliber bullets passed them by, popping all around them and hitting the car behind the truck. Then the plane pulled away and went off in search of bigger targets.
After a few more miles, they were able to get on a train that had stopped in a small town. They rode that train for two days until they reached Herzeg Novi, a small village on the Adriatic Sea coast, located at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor and at the foot of Mount Orjen. They stayed there for fourteen days as the Germans continued their invasion.
As Belgrade was being bombed, German troops invaded Yugoslavia in the early morning of April 6, 1941, from several directions. The Yugoslav army tried to resist but was no match for the Nazi steamroller. On April 13, German troops entered Belgrade.
The little village of Herzeg Novi was filling up fast with refugees from Belgrade, all of them fleeing the bombing like George and Mirjana, and few of them with any plans for where to go. Mirjana ran into some of her friends from the university, and George met up with several other Americans. There was also a big contingent of British citizens, nearly seventy, many of them arriving in Rolls-Royces as they joined the evacuees fleeing as far west as they could get. The Rolls-Royces parked alongside all the beautiful Packards and other big sedans driven by the Americans, giving the village the look of a luxury resort for the wealthy. In reality, the town was overwhelmed, with refugees sleeping ten to a room and very little food to share. Everyone talked of their next move, how they would get out, how long they had before the Germans made their way into the countryside. For a few days there was talk of a British Navy cruiser that would come to the coastal village and take anyone who wanted to evacuate to Greece. There was still the question of how to get to the cruiser, however. It would be unable to dock in the coastal town, so boats would have to ferry the refugees out to it. Already people were fighting for the few fishing boats in the village, squabbling and arguing over who could pay the most. Vujnovich knew that if that cruiser appeared on the horizon, there would be a mad dash for those boats and people would die. He didn’t want to put Mirjana in that chaos.
Instead, he heard about a large sailboat in the town of Risan, which was about twelve miles farther inland. The boat could carry about thirty people out to the cruiser, so Vujnovich and a few of his friends quietly made their way to Risan when they heard the cruiser was coming. He paid for Mirjana and her brother to sail on the boat, knowing that his American passport would bring him opportunities later. They rode to Risan with nearly all of the British refugees, who were eager to be rescued by Her Majesty’s navy. As they boarded the sailboat for the first of several trips to the cruiser, the British citizens gave their car keys to Vujnovich, the only refugee in Risan who wasn’t planning to leave on the sailboat. He ended up holding keys for about thirty cars, including several Rolls-Royces and a number of Packards, and he could have done anything he wanted with them. No one was coming back for their cars. But ironically, Vujnovich didn’t know how to drive. He couldn’t get even one of the cars back to Herzeg Novi, and even if he did, there was nothing to do with it. So he turned to one of local villagers in Risan and gave him all the car keys before walking back to the coastal town.