June 2015Volume 6Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Book review: The Forgotten 500

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (WW I I) in Europe during the spring of 1945, and in the Pacific during the late summer of 1945.

There have been many books, movies and television series over these 70 years depicting certain phases or aspects of WW II. A few that immediately come to mind include the recent movie titled “Unbreakable,” and older accounts in “The Greatest Generation,” “Patton,” “Midway,” “The Longest Day,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band Of Brothers,” “The Pacific” and Ken Burns’ “The War.”

Perhaps for political reasons, a story that was only recently told involved the daring and almost impossible rescue of over 500 Allied airmen behind German lines in Yugoslavia in 1944.

I have chosen The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A. Freeman, as this Newsletter’s book review. This book was published in 2007, and it is available in both paperback (280 or so pages) and electronic format.

It deals with the Allies’ constant bombing of German oil refineries in Romania, starting in 1942. B-17s (because of their better radar) were used as lead planes, followed by B-24s in these bombing missions.

These Romanian refineries were producing a million tons of oil per month for the German military. This was approximately one-third of the petroleum products being used in the German war effort.

The strategy was to strike these refineries at low altitude for better accuracy. That, obviously, resulted in heavy damage to and losses of these bombers.

While Italy, after its liberation, was the primary home base for these bombers, the damage inflicted on those not lost completely to anti-aircraft guns and German aircraft was too great for many airplanes to make it to their base.

Many of the heavily damaged planes were forced to ditch over German held Yugoslavia, with survivors bailing out over the homes of poor Serbian peasants.

The leader of the Serbs in Yugoslavia at that time was Draza Mihailovich, who was also a leader of one of the underground forces fighting the Germans there. He was also an arch rival and enemy of Josip Tito, who led other Yugoslavians fighting the Germans. Great Britain and the United States considered Mihailovich a Communist, with stronger ties to Russia than Tito. Therefore, the Allies, perhaps to placate Tito, turned their backs on Mihailovich and the Serbian people in Yugoslavia during WW II.

As a side note, it is said that Winston Churchill admitted sometime after the war that this shunning of Mihailovich was one of the biggest blunders of WW II. Also after the war, Mihailovich was tried and executed by followers of Tito. Of course this ethnic strife among the factions in Yugoslavia started years before WW II and continued years after WW II, culminating somewhat in The Dayton Accords of 1995.

In spite of the political situation in 1942, Mihailovich and the Serbian people took these downed airmen into their homes, all behind German lines. At great risk to all of their lives, they fed and clothed them, sharing what little they had, including goat’s milk and bread baked with hay to make it more filling. They did not understand each others’ language, and they could only communicate by hand gestures and facial expressions.

In my opinion, the most amazing story in this book is that these airmen and these Serbian peasants built an airfield by hand, without adequate tools or equipment. This had to be done almost under the Germans’ noses, who were occupying land extremely close to the mountainous site chosen for this crude airfield.

As if all of this was not enough, the airfield had to be long and flat enough to accommodate C-47s, which were to be used in this mission to rescue over 500 airmen, primarily at night without any lights on the field or on the airplanes.

The brain behind this impossible mission was George Vujnovich, who was the United States control agent with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to our present CIA. It was actually his wife, Mirjana, who first heard about these stranded airmen at a party in Washington, D. C. in May of 1944.

Vujnovich (who just recently died) worked from his OSS office in Italy on this rescue mission, which was known as “Operation Halyard.” The mission was secretly coordinated through Milhailovich and his Serbian guerrillas. The rescue planes first started flying in August of 1944.

The book also discusses the personal lives of several of the downed airmen, and their individual take on their lives among the Serbian people.

One such airman profiled in the book was Lieutenant Robert Wilson of Peoria. He was the navigator on one of the B-17s mentioned earlier. After 20 missions, his plane went down in Yugoslavia in July of 1944. It had a crew of 10, who all parachuted to safety into the hands of these Serbian peasants.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Wilson a few years ago at a friend’s home during a discussion of this book. He had nothing but praise for the Serbs who took him in, fed, clothed and protected him during the months before his rescue. He brought some of the clothes he was given by them, and he autographed a picture of himself in the book for me. ■

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