Architect of massive WWII rescue of downed US fliers gets medal — at 95
NEW YORK — The US government has recognized the World War II architect of a mission to rescue more than 500 fliers shot down over Nazi-occupied Serbia — the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines in any war.
George Vujnovich, a 95-year-old New Yorker, is credited with leading the so-called Halyard Mission in what was then Yugoslavia.
Yesterday, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, presented by US Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, at Manhattan’s St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. Vujnovich received a standing ovation from a crowd of several hundred.
“Better now than never,’’ said the retired salesman, who lives in Queens.
Vujnovich was an officer of the OSS — the precursor of today’s CIA — in Italy when about 500 pilots and other airmen were downed over Serbia in the summer of 1944 while on bombing runs targeting Hitler’s oil fields in Romania, according to United States government field station files, stored in the National Archives.
The airmen were hidden in various villages by Serbian guerrilla fighter Draza Mihailovich — leader of the Chetniks, whom Yugoslav communist officials considered to be collaborators with Germany.
Vujnovich, a Serbian-American from Pittsburgh, was stationed in Bari, Italy. It was no small feat to persuade American officials to let him work with Mihailovich on the clandestine mission dubbed Halyard, meaning a rope used to hoist sails.
By then, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had decided to follow the lead of Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain, abandoning support for Mihailovich in favor of the Yugoslav communists — the strongest grass-roots guerrilla force fighting the invading Nazis and Italian Fascists.
“Vujnovich is the one who sold the mission to US officials. He pushed hard,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Steven Oluic, a former West Point professor who prepared the award submission for the Department of the Army.
On Aug. 2, 1944, three OSS agents with radio transmitters were airdropped near Mihailovich’s headquarters to set up the operation. Dozens of US military cargo planes flew in over the months to pick up the airmen at an airstrip Serbian villagers had helped them build.