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 4 of 7)
“Basically it needed to be plowed flat and strengthened,” says Dik Daso, curator of modern military aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum. At night, with no machines, Allied airmen and Serbian peasants cleared boulders and filled in potholes. “Using ox wagons, the peasants would go to the nearby stream bed, get rock and sand, and bring the stuff up the hill to the runway site, in this never-ending daisy chain,” says Daso.
The airmen and Serbs completed the airstrip in nine days. On one end stood a forest, a sheer dropoff marked the other, and mountain peaks poked up a mere two miles ahead. The strip measured 150 feet wide and 2,100 feet long. Using that takeoff distance and loaded with enough fuel to return to Italy, a C-47 could haul out up to 25 airmen at a time.
The first evacuation was scheduled for the night of August 9.
As the sun set, everyone—the OSS team, the airmen, the Serbs who had taken them in, and the Serbs who had helped build the runway—gathered at the meadow. They lit flares and bonfires to outline the strip. At precisely 10 p.m., the first transport approached, a black C-47 with a white star on its tail. Its landing gear made contact too far down the runway, so the pilot applied power and pulled up. “We thought that was the end of the mission that night,” says Musgrove.
But the second pilot slammed down the gear of his C-47 and held the transport on the ground. The strip’s end approached. “He spun around on a wing, but didn’t damage the wing,” says Musgrove. “He bent it a little bit.” Fortunately, the transport was still airworthy. Three more C-47s landed without incident, including the one that had failed to stop on its first attempt.
The sickest dozen airmen were loaded first onto one of the aircraft. The pilot taxied into position on one engine, fired up the second, and, pressing the brakes, shoved the throttles forward. He released the brakes. Its engines screaming, the C-47 picked up speed. When it reached the end of the strip, it dropped below the hill and disappeared. But then, just like in the movies, it roared upward. Transports two, three, and four departed the same way.
Forty-eight men out, more than 200 to go.
Despite the success of the first airlift, Musulin and the other OSS leaders determined that trying to land in mountainous terrain at night was too dangerous. But conducting flight operations during the day had its own risks. Only 20 miles southeast of the Galovica meadow airfield was Cacak, a German garrison. “The Germans there were reduced in number, but they had an airfield and a few fighter planes,” said Jibby. In the end, the Halyard team decided that attacking Germans were the lesser of two evils.