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 3 of 7)
THE CHETNIKS HAD BEGUN their collection of U.S. airmen when the first one floated out of the sky following a disastrous low-level raid on Ploesti in 1943. A year later, the number of Americans under Chetnik care topped 100, but Army Air Forces officers did not realize there were so many and that they were clustered in Pranjani, a remote village in western Serbia. Air Force leaders figured that men not turned over by Tito’s Partisans had probably been rounded up by the Germans. That all changed after Musulin returned to the OSS station in Bari at the end of May 1944 after spending six months in Serbia gathering intelligence and organizing the Chetniks into resistance groups who could sabotage German targets, including bridges, ammunition depots, and airfields.
Musulin’s boss in Bari, George Vujnovich, had heard unconfirmed reports that the number of Allied airmen who had escaped capture by the Germans in Yugoslavia was substantial. When Musulin confirmed that there were at least 100 men in Chetnik territory, Vujnovich devised a rescue operation code-named Halyard. Vujnovich wanted to send in a three-man team headed by Musulin to supervise the building of an airfield from which U.S. airplanes could evacuate the airmen.
Arthur Jibilian, who had been a U.S. Navy radioman before joining the OSS, would be the team’s radio operator. Jibilian, better known as “Jibby,” was tasked with hauling around the heavy equipment needed to receive, transmit, and encode radio signals. According to Gregory A. Freeman, who wrote about Operation Halyard in his 2007 book, The Forgotten 500, Vujnovich felt even more urgency about launching the rescue after finding out that a few of the airmen in Pranjani had recently been sending encoded radio messages to the 15th Air Force headquarters in Bari asking for help.
In late July, the OSS sent the downed airmen a message to expect Musulin, Mike Rajacich, a Serbian-fluent OSS agent, and Jibby to jump on July 31 or the first clear night after.
Under a prior agreement between British and U.S. intelligence services, a British pilot and jumpmaster would fly the OSS team to the jump site in a U.S. aircraft. That night, after taking off from Fugia, Italy, in a C-47 painted black, they ran into anti-aircraft fire and turned back. The next night, the jumpmaster told them to leap into an area where the Halyard team could clearly see a battle raging. “It’s funny, yet it’s so serious it’s not funny,” said Jibby (interviewed for this story a few months before he died last March). Then the jumpmaster told the OSS team to parachute above a lake. According to Jibby, Musulin exploded and demanded—and got—a U.S. pilot and jumpmaster. “That night, we were in Yugoslavia,” said Jibby.
Jibby said he had been afraid during the two-hour flight to the drop zone, but the delays made him eager to jump. They used a static line and jumped at 800 feet with no emergency chute. Jibby hit the ground in 30 seconds. “It looked like I was going to come down into some trees, so I went into ‘tree position,’ ” he remembered. “I crossed my legs and put my elbows to my face.” Fortunately, he landed in a cornfield. “My best landing of all my parachuting,” he said. “Musulin landed on a chicken coop and crushed it all to hell. Mike, our third member, he landed in a tree with feet just barely off the ground and had to be helped out a bit.”
When the Halyard team finally met up with the downed fliers, they learned that the group had ballooned to 250. And they weren’t just showing up randomly. By then the Chetniks had developed precision tactics to rescue them: Once a parachute bloomed, one small guerrilla detachment rushed toward it, while a second larger group set up a perimeter, blocking roads with boulders or trees and placing .50-caliber machine guns at strategic points. “Most of the time the Germans would turn around and retreat,” Petrovich wrote in his 2003 autobiography, Freedom or Death, “but sometimes the expedition would include tanks and armored vehicles, and the only thing that we could do was to keep them under fire until the signal was received that the American crew had been evacuated.”
Right after one such mission on Zlatibor Mountain, Petrovich’s group received orders to move to Mihailovich’s headquarters at Ravna Gora. Once there, they were ordered 50 miles north to Pranjani, where the growing collection of U.S. airmen had discovered Galovica meadow. It was situated atop a hill and filled with boulders, but it was relatively flat, and the Halyard team thought it could accommodate C-47s.