66 Years Later, a Bronze Star for a hero from Queens

The New York Times


Also posted „in excerpt and link form as required by the NYT“ on Free Republic at:


and on www.generalmihailovich.com at:



Aleksandra Rebic


October 14, 2010, 12:57 pm

66 Years Later, a Bronze Star for a hero from Queens


George Vujnovich, 95, at home in Jackson Heights.
Photographs by Uli Seit for The New York Times
George Vujnovich at home in Jackson Heights, Queens. On Sunday, he is to receive a Bronze Star for his role in a daring rescue of more than 500 Allied forces airmen during World War II.
For more than 50 years, George Vujnovich was a mild-mannered salesman working away at his small business in Queens and living a quiet life on a quiet block in Jackson Heights. He never spoke, even to his closest friends, about his secret role organizing one of the greatest rescue missions of World War II.

“There was a strict rule in the O.S.S. and not talk about these things — they teach you to compartmentalize them and lock them away,” Mr. Vujnovich said.

The O.S.S. was the Office of Strategic Services — a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. And what Mr. Vujnovich kept locked away all these years was his key role as the operations officer for Operation Halyard, a daring rescue of more than 500 Allied forces airmen during World War II in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.

Mr. Vujnovich’s efforts went unrecognized because the operation was kept secret by the United States military until a few years ago. But now, 66 years after that summer of 1944, he will receive the Bronze Star for his service, in a ceremony on Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral of St. Sava, a Serbian Orthodox church on West 26th Street in Manhattan.

“Better now than never,” Mr. Vujnovich, 95, said on Wednesday at his home on 87th Street in Jackson Heights. He adjusted himself on the couch and with a still-clear mind and a sharp memory, he recounted how he trained agents to infiltrate the Nazi-occupied region and organize an airlift of 512 downed airmen, from a hastily cleared runway on a mountaintop.
Mr. Vujnovich in 1943, on a visit to his home in Jackson Heights.
Mr. Vujnovich on a visit home in 1943.
The airmen had been sheltered from the Nazis for months in farmhouses, with the help of Draza Mihailovic, the Yugoslav guerrilla leader who was a political enemy with Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader of the partisans in Yugoslavia. The United States government’s support for Tito over Mihailovic complicated the rescue mission and prevented it from being publicized afterward, he said.

“His story was kept behind the scenes for many years because of the politics of the time, and the divisiveness within Yugoslavia,” said Representative Joseph Crowley, whose district includes Jackson Heights and who petitioned the Army in July to award Mr. Vujnovich the Bronze Star.

“It’s a story that has everything: espionage, intrigue, Roosevelt, Tito, Churchill, Stalin,” Mr. Crowley said. “To me it’s just amazing: it has cloak-and-dagger, and the hush-hush of the O.S.S.”

Mr. Vujnovich may well be last living rescuer from Operation Halyard, said Lt. Col. Steven Oluic of the United States Army, who helped research and prepare the application for Mr. Vujnovich’s award.

Mr. Vujnovich was born to Serbian immigrant parents in 1915 in a Serbian section of Pittsburgh, and in the mid-1930s he traveled to Belgrade to study. After experiencing the bombing of Belgrade by the Germans in April 1941, he and his future wife, Mirjana, fled, and traveled from Budapest to Turkey to Jerusalem, and around Africa, often barely escaping German forces. Mr. Vujnovich joined the Army and quickly became a second lieutenant, and was then asked to join the O.S.S. He was flown to Virginia and told he would be picked up on a specific street to be taken to a secret training academy known as The Farm.

“They told me to stand on a certain corner and that I’d be picked up in a car with darkened windows and taken to The Farm,” he said. “They told me to put a flower in my lapel and tuck a newspaper under my left arm.”

Mr. Vujnovich was stationed in Bari, Italy. Mirjana stayed in Washington as a secretary at the Yugoslav Embassy, where she was privy to communications from Yugoslavia to United States officials claiming that there were more than 100 American airmen trapped there. Mirjana wrote to her husband. He contacted Air Force officials and began planning a rescue mission.

The trapped airmen had been shot down while on bombing runs to the Romanian oil fields that supplied the Germans. Many airmen abandoned their planes and parachuted into a Nazi-occupied area in what is now Serbia and were shepherded to a mountainous, wooded region — and a measure of safety — by the forces of General Mihailovich.

Washington officials prevented Mr. Vujnovich himself from from going in as an agent, but he began recruiting and training Serbian-speaking agents to blend in, after parachuting into the region where they would help organize the airlift rescue out.

“I taught these agents they had to take all the tags off their clothing,” he said. “They were carrying Camel and Lucky Strikes cigarettes, and holding U.S. currency. I told them to get rid of it. I had to show them how to tie their shoes and tuck the laces in, like the Serbs did, and how to eat like the Serbs, pushing the food onto their fork with the knife.”

The men helped clear a runway and helped guide in the C-47 transport planes sent in to pick up the stranded airmen.

After the war, the Tito regime tried General Mihailovich on charges of treason and executed him in 1946, despite protests from many of the airmen who said General Mihailovich had saved them from the Nazis. President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded him the Legion of Merit medal, which was not delivered until 2005, when Mr. Vujnovich and other veterans presented it to the general’s daughter, Gordana Mihailovich. A 2007 book by Gregory A. Freeman, “The Forgotten 500,” helped publicize the mission.

The commotion over his World War II service has brightened his life, Mr. Vujnovich said. A few years back, he traveled to Belgrade with others veterans for a commemoration of Operation Halyard. He has lived all these years in the house he bought in 1950 for $17,000. Mirjana died eight years ago, and the days pass quietly in the living room filled with historical books.

“It’s not something I felt the need to talk about, after the war,” he said. “What was frustrating was that Mihailovich never got credit, because he saved so many American lives.”

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