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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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.

“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.


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