PRANJANI, Serbia --
U.S. Marines, Soldiers and Airmen, along with members of the Serbian Armed Forces, stood on the hills of Pranjani, Serbia, Aug. 10, 2009, honoring the local Serbs for their extraordinary sacrifice and heroism on the 65th anniversary of Operation Halyard.
The mission was the largest Allied airlift conducted behind enemy lines during World War II, evacuating more than 500 Allied airmen from the hills of what is now the Republic of Serbia. The troops’ planes were shot down during bombing runs over the German-occupied oil fields of Romania. The local Serbs fed and sheltered these crash-landed Allies and risked their lives to protect them from the Nazis.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to be here, whether (the people of Serbia) saved one or five hundred, they went out of their way and put their lives on the line to save Americans and their Allies,” said Gunnery Sgt. Laureano Perez, detachment commander of the Marine security guards for the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, who laid a memorial wreath during the ceremony.
Under the direction of Chetnik leader Gen. Dragoljub Mihailovic during World War II, the surviving pilots and crew members were centralized in Pranjani because the surrounding hills and mountains cloaked them from the Nazis. The number of Allies quickly grew and soon the local populace could not sustain the large number of stranded airmen. The troops, with the help of Mihailovic, began organizing Operation Halyard to evacuate the Allies. The people of Pranjani, along with Chetnik forces started the construction of runways, which allowed the Allies to be successfully airlifted to Italy.
Shortly after Operation Halyard, the communist Yugoslavian government arrested and executed Mihailovic as a war collaborator. President Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovic the Legion of Merit, the highest award ever given by the U.S. government to a foreign national. The award was not physically presented to Mihailovic’s family until 2005.
A revival of documentation and information concerning the Halyard mission has occurred over the past decade, sparked by improved relations with the Republic of Serbia through programs like the National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program—Ohio is partnered with Serbia—and the efforts of the rescued airmen who wished to recognize their saviors.
Soldiers of the Ohio Army National Guard’s 1194th Engineer Company were present at the Halyard’s 65th anniversary ceremonies in Pranjani, and visited the Svetog Spasenji—the St. Savior church—where the allies who died before they could be evacuated were buried.
“I want to tell you how good, honest and honorable the people from Serbia really are,” St. Savior Priest Kosta Mitrovic told the Soldiers.
Mitrovic met with three of the surviving rescued Allies in 1995, one of whom was Richard Felman, who also testified to the hospitality and character of his saviors in his speech in May 1994 at the 50th anniversary of Operation Halyard in Chicago, Ill.
“No sacrifice was too great for the Serbian people in making us comfortable,” Felman said. “It was they who sheltered us in the hills and in their farmhouses, often at great risk to themselves. Those of us who were wounded received whatever medical supplies were available. If there was one slice of bread in the house, or one egg, it went to the American. If there was one blanket or one bed, it went to the American while our Serbian host slept on the bare ground. Many of the peasants were tortured, tortured to death, because they would not tell the Germans where we were.”
The Soldiers of the 1194th were then taken to a museum dedicated to the Halyard mission. The museum and the revival of the history itself is a huge undertaking, collecting information from documents that are more than 50 years old. At the head of this undertaking are Air Force Lt. Col. John Cappello, the U.S. attaché at the American Embassy in Belgrade, and Daniel Sunter, the executive director of the Euro-Atlantic Initiative, a non-governmental organization started in 2005 to bring Serbia closer to NATO and the European Union. Cappello and Sunter are collecting historical evidence to make a documentary on the Halyard mission.
Cappello said they went through 13 boxes of unclassified documents in the National Archives related to the Halyard mission.
“We’re trying to build bridges between Serbia and the United States using history,” Sunter said.