U.S. Airmen with Dragoljub Mihalović
Operation Halyard was the largest Allied airlift operation behind enemy lines, of over 500 Allied airmen downed over Nazi occupied Serbia by Serbian Chetnik guerrillas, led by General Dragoljub Mihailović, with the assistance of American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) liaison officers. Most of the airmen had been shot down during numerous bombing runs, most of which were on their way from Italy to bomb German occupied oil fields in Romania. They were not captured, but instead practiced escape and evade until coming into contact with the Chetniks.
This operation took place between August and December 1944 from a crudely constructed airfield created by Serbian peasants in Pranjane, Serbia. It is little known today, and largely unknown to most Americans. It is the subject of the 2007 book The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All For the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II, by author Gregory A. Freeman. In his book, he describes it as one of the greatest rescue stories ever told. It tells the story of how the airmen were downed in a country they knew nothing about, and how the Serbian villagers were willing to sacrifice their own lives to save the lives of the air crews.
The OSS planned an elaborate rescue involving C-47 cargo planes landing in enemy territory. It was an extremely risky project, involving the planes not only entering enemy territory without being shot down themselves, but also landing, picking up the downed airmen, then taking off and flying out of that same territory, again without being shot down themselves. The rescue was a complete success, but received little to no publicity. Part of this was due to the timing, and the world being focused on the D-Day operations in France.
Because of this operation, and due to the efforts of Major Richard Felman, U.S. President Harry S. Truman posthumously awarded General Mihailović the Legion of Merit award for his contribution to the Allied victory during World War II. The award was presented to Mihailović's daughter Gordana by the U.S. State Department on May 9, 2005.
For the first time in history, this high award and the story of the rescue was classified secret by the U.S. State Department so as not to offend the then Communist government of Yugoslavia. Such a display of appreciation for the Chetniks would not have been welcome as the Allies switched sides to Josip Broz Tito's Partisans during the war.
On September 12, 2004, four American veterans, Clare Musgrove, Art Jiblian, George Vujnovich and Robert Wilson visited Pranjani again for the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the Pranjani airfield.