The Great Escape

For U.S. airmen trapped in Yugoslavia during World War II, building a secret airstrip was their only way out

Operation Halyard was managed by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services’ Nick Lalich (front row, third from left) and radio operator Arthur Jibilian (back row, second from left). (Courtesy Debi Jibilian)
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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.”

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.


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