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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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.

At 8 a.m. the next day, Jibby heard the second round of transports—12 more C-47s—accompanied by the deep, throaty roar of fighters: one group of P-38s and another of P-51s. The -51s had red tails, the markings of the Tuskegee Airmen. “They came in numbers of six and 10, accompanying the guys landing on the mountain,” says Petrovich. “They would have a lot of fun flying around strafing German planes” parked on the ground at Cacak and at two other German garrisons nearby.

Airmen quickly filled the bare benches running the length of the C-47 cargo holds, and transport after transport pulled away. A couple hundred more men—in addition to the 248 who’d already been flown out— were evacuated on flights carried out over August 12, 15, and 18. The farewells between the airmen and the Serbs who had risked their lives helping them often brought tears from both sides, as well as last-minute gestures of goodwill. “The Chetniks and Serbians had very poor clothing and shoes,” says Musgrove. “They wore boots made out of felt, and things like that, so when we got on the plane we kicked our shoes off to them.”

“[The airmen] had these leather suits, and they would give us that to use,” says Petrovich. “The guys would give us their Colt pistols, which we loved very much.” In return, the Serbs gave the airmen homemade rugs, and one guerrilla handed airman Ray Weber his Chetnik cap. Weber was “a souvenir kind of guy,” says his daughter Sue Brown. Right after bailing out, Weber had started collecting mementos, tucking away a scrap of silk from his parachute, plus the ripcord.

Mihailovich asked if he could send two seriously ill Chetniks to Italy for medical attention, and Musulin felt he couldn’t refuse. When the men arrived in Bari, however, they were spotted by Tito’s Partisans, who reported them. “All hell broke loose,” said Jibby. “They were going to court-martial Musulin.” Cooler heads prevailed, but Musulin was ordered out and replaced with Nick Lalich for the rest of the operation.

Mihailovich told Lalich, the U.S.-born son of Serbian emigrants, that if the Air Force was interested, he could deliver more airmen to Pranjani. Jibby radioed the message back to the 15th’s headquarters, and received orders to continue Operation Halyard—with no promises to the Chetniks.

For a few more weeks, as soon as a few flights’ worth of airmen collected at Pranjani, Jibby called for more transports. The airstrip in the meadow operated almost like any other military airfield. “We didn’t do a couple of evacs because of bad weather,” said Jibby, “but I can’t say it was ever really a factor.” The OSS even flew in a doctor and two assistants to treat burns and flak wounds and set broken bones.

While waiting for their flight home, the airmen hid out and slept anywhere: On the ground near the strip, in villagers’ homes, in barns, atop fir needles in the nearby forest. The wounded always took priority, sleeping in beds while their hosts slept on the floor. Always, they were guarded by the Chetniks.

“Sometimes you would eat once a day,” said Jibby. “Sometimes twice or three times—sometimes you wouldn’t eat at all. You learned that you can overcome hunger. Keep going and after a while the hunger goes away. It hurts, but sooner or later, the host will come to you with a hunk of cheese and black bread with straw in it and you eat. Or chicken broth or beef broth with potatoes. Once in a while there would be a great celebration—they had chicken and lamb and we had a feast. Our stomachs would be shrunken so much we couldn’t eat much.”


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