The Great Escape
For U.S. airmen trapped in Yugoslavia during World War II, building a secret airstrip was their only way out.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, January 2011
Courtesy Debi Jibilian
(Page 2 of 7)
The Nazis had bombed and invaded the country on April 6, 1941, and the royalist government surrendered 11 days later. In the chaos that followed, two factions emerged: Marshal Josip Tito’s communist Partisans and General Draza Mihailovich’s royalist Chetniks. Numbering around 10,000, the Chetniks lived in mountainous western Serbia and followed the charismatic Mihailovich. He appeared on the May 25, 1942 cover of Time, which considered him one of Europe’s greatest guerrilla fighters. The magazine’s readers voted Mihailovich Man of the Year, though the editors picked Joseph Stalin. The Allies also went with Stalin instead of Mihailovich: A communist double agent convinced the British to align themselves with Stalin’s man, Tito, and the British convinced the Americans to do the same.
By 1944, when flak from Ploesti’s anti-aircraft artillery brought down Musgrove’s B-24, Tito and Mihailovich were fighting not only the Germans, but each other. The U.S. forces dropped supplies and weapons for Tito’s Partisans, while the Chetniks salvaged machine guns and ammunition from crashed B-24s and whatever food they could scrounge from the countryside and from the peasants who backed Mihailovich.
The U.S. Army Air Forces had instructed its airmen that if they had to bail out, they should do it over land controlled by Tito. But air crews in damaged aircraft rarely have a choice about where to jump. When airmen hit the silk over Serbia, “the Germans would jump in their trucks and tanks and chase their parachutes to the mountainside,” says Nick Petrovich, who grew up in Serbia and joined the Chetniks when he was 16. “We organized the peasants to pick up the guys, bury the parachute into the ground or into the hay so the Germans would not see it. Then we guerrillas would be taken by the peasants to where they hid those guys.”
WHILE HE FELL from the sky in 20 to 30 seconds, Musgrove spotted a flock of sheep to his left. “I said, ‘If I ever get on the ground, that’s where I’m going to head out, because sheep and humans go together,’ ” he recalls. When he landed, he tucked and rolled as he had learned during jump training. Then he found the two women and two boys herding the sheep. He cautiously revealed himself. Since he didn’t understand Serbian and they didn’t know English, everyone sat and stared at one another for a long time. Then the women and boys gathered the flock and started toward their village.
“I stood pat and didn’t know whether to follow them or not,” says Musgrove. “They turned around and motioned for me to follow them, and I did.” The peasant women led him to a house, and motioned for him to sit on the porch while villagers gathered around and talked. Then they brought him inside and motioned for him to sit at a table. “They were very generous,” he says. “They didn’t have much food for themselves, but they were willing to share it.”
While they ate, a quick rap came on the door. The man of the house answered and engaged in a deep conversation with the visitor. “He came back to the table, grabbed me by the shoulder, and took me into a bedroom and motioned for me to get under the bed,” says Musgrove. “Later that night another person came into the house, and they had another hefty conversation. He walked around the house. I could only see his boots—they looked like German boots to me—and the man of the house convinced him no one was in the house. He finally left, and I began to breathe somewhat easier.”
The next morning two Chetnik soldiers—neither of whom spoke English—arrived at the house, and they took Musgrove on a walk that lasted days. “I didn’t know anything about where we were going,” he says. “I didn’t know if I had been captured. I was scared to death. I didn’t speak the language. I was at the mercy of whatever person was helping me. Later in the week, we came upon a local man who was a schoolteacher who could speak some English, enough to tell me there was an assembly area where downed airmen were accumulating.”
They walked farther. “The next day I met a man on horseback, and he could speak very good English,” says Musgrove. “He told me he was Captain George Musulin, who was in charge of the [U.S. Office of Strategic Services] group helping the Chetniks gather us to a central base, and they were going to build an airstrip and come in and fly us out.”