Written by Dabney B. on Friday, May 4th, 2012
Just recently, George Vujnovich, a former OSS agent, passed away at the age of 96. He was a central figure in Operation Haylard, a covert plan that successfully rescued hundreds of US troops stranded in Serbia.
During World War II, the US flew bombing sorties deep into Romania to take out Hitler’s oil fields. A number of US aircraft were shot down during these missions, forcing many of the airmen to parachute out of their planes over Bulgaria and Romania. This left approximately 500 US airmen trapped behind enemy lines. A few of the airmen were captured by the Germans or their allies, but many were brought under the protective wings of the Serbian locals. With the help of rebel leader Draza Mihailovic, the US airmen were offered food and refuge until the US government could organize a rescue mission.
That task fell to George Vujnovich, a former European who had fled Europe at the onset of World War II. Then a member of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA), Vujnovich devised a plan to rescue the stranded troops. He trained three volunteers who were willing to travel halfway around the world to help their comrades. He taught them how to fit in as Serbian locals, teaching them tricks such as how to eat properly and how to tuck in their shoelaces. Meanwhile, the US troops and local volunteers were working on building a makeshift airstrips for US planes.
On August 2, 1944, an American plane dropped the three highly trained troops over Pranjani in central Serbia. Armed with hidden radios, they stealthily organized the rescue mission. Evacuations began in July of 1944 and continued until December 27. The USAAF flew in C-47 transport aircraft with a protective escort of P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightning fighters. A total of 417 men were rescued over five separate missions, and not a single life or aircraft was lost. This made Operation Haylard one of the largest aerial evacuations in history.
One strange quirk of history is that all of this may not have ever been possible if not for Magda Goebbels, the wife of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous minister of propaganda. When George Vujnovich and his wife, Mirjana, were attempting to flee Europe they sat next to Mrs. Goebbels on the plane. Mirjana became terribly airsick and was comforted by Magda. When they landed, Magda chastised the security officers for asking to see Mirjana’s passport — which she didn’t have. This auspicious turn of events gave the couple a chance to escape suspicion from the German authorities. Years later, it was Mirjana who pointed out to her husband that US airmen were trapped in Yugoslavia.
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