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 6 of 7)
The last flights out of Pranjani were in late August. “I have no knowledge that [the airfield] was used after the war except to graze the cattle,” says Petrovich. Life in the village returned to normal, while the Nazis suffered heavy losses in the east.
“[The Germans in Serbia] were demoralized,” says Petrovich. “They were in a strange country. They didn’t know if they were going to get home. Some would start crying, ‘I didn’t come here on my own volition,’ trying to justify themselves. At the beginning they were killing 100 Serbians for every German soldier killed, but when they became weakened and the garrisons depleted, then the whole game changed.”
At the end of 1944, the Soviets marched into Serbia. Two years later, Tito’s Partisans captured Mihailovich, accused him of collaborating with the Nazis, and executed him. The U.S. government downplayed protests by the rescued airmen in New York City and Washington, D.C. In 1948, the United States secretly and posthumously awarded Mihailovich the Legion of Merit, the highest U.S. commendation for a foreign citizen. “General Mihailovich and his forces,” it read in part, “although lacking adequate supplies and fighting under extreme hardship, contributed materially to the Allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory.”
When Mihailovich was captured, Petrovich and the other Chetniks were imprisoned and later forced to join the Partisans, but Petrovich escaped to Athens, Greece. “I was shot only three times and still alive and no airman was killed,” he says. “But the Nazis, Bosnian SS, and Croatian Nazis left their bones in the gorges and river beds.” Petrovich, now 83, lives in Mexico City.
In 2004, the Serbian government held a 60th anniversary reunion at the Pranjani strip to dedicate a plaque; two airmen, Clare Musgrove and Bob Wilson, made it. The next year, Mihailovich’s Legion of Merit was officially presented to his daughter, Gordana Mihailovich. Jibby was one of five Halyard veterans at the presentation. In July 2009, U.S. Congressman Bob Latta of Ohio introduced a bill to award Jibby the Medal of Honor for his actions during Operation Halyard. And last October 17, in a ceremony in New York City, 95-year-old George Vujnovich received the Bronze Star for his role in the rescue.
Souvenir collector Ray Weber left the military and built a tool-and-die business. “On June 11, we would have burnt toast and cottage cheese,” says his daughter Sue Brown. “It was symbolic of the day that he got shot down, and what he ate there most of the time—burnt bread and goat-cheese-something. But cottage cheese was the closest Mom could do to it.”
In 1955, Weber received a letter from one of the Serbian families he’d lived with while he was on the run. It was in Serbian, so Weber had it translated. The writer simply reminded Weber that he had hid with his family and asked how he was. Weber, who died in 1996, made copies of the letter and sent one to each member of his crew. His daughter doesn’t know if any of the men responded. The original letter, written on fading airmail paper, he saved in a box labeled “War Stuff.”
George Musulin, who died in 1987, worked with the OSS’s successor, the CIA, for a few years after the war. “My dad didn’t talk about the mission to his family directly, but we always heard it in conversation when he got together in social circles with our friends,” says daughter Joanne Esteban De La Riva. “Certainly I know it was a highlight of my dad’s life, that operation.”