The Tragedy of Draza Mihailovich
I reminded the Court of Hitler’s message to Mussolini saying that I was the greatest enemy of the Axis, and was only waiting for the moment to attack...I strove for much, I undertook much, but the gales of the world have carried away both me and my work.
Draza Mihailovich, closing speech at his trial, July 1946
By February 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had admitted to each other that they had made a serious error in backing Josip Tito rather than Draza Mihailovich in Yugoslavia. It had become clear that Tito would not form a post war government that was friendly to the West, that he had entered Joseph Stalin’s orbit instead. On 5 April 1945, Tito signed a document permitting the “temporary entry of Soviet troops into Yugoslav territory.” Following Germany’s surrender to the Allies on 8 May, Tito’s Partisans began hunting down General Mihailovich. His friends and allies outside Yugoslavia urged him to escape to Switzerland, but Mihailovich refused to abandon his country. The Partisans captured him in late March 1946 and Tito charged him with collaborating with the Nazis during the occupation of Yugoslavia.
When the story was picked up by American newspapers, the OSS agents and rescued airmen who had known Mihailovich were outraged to see him characterized as a traitor who had sold out his country. Arthur Jibilian went to the offices of the Washington Post to set the record straight. Richard Felman wrote articles praising Mihailovich for the Hearst syndicate of newspapers. Within a matter of weeks, hundreds of the rescued American airmen were lobbying Congress and the U.S. State Department to step in and save Mihailovich from a show trial that would certainly end with his execution. Their visit to Washington received a great deal of press coverage, but Secretary of State Dean Acheson refused to see Felman, and the State Department declined to forward to the court in Belgrade documentary evidence by the men of Operation Halyard that would exonerate Mihailovich.
The public outcry against the railroading of a man who had saved the lives of hundreds of American servicemen finally had some impact. Acheson authorized a letter to Tito that urged him to consider the testimony of the OSS agents and the rescued air crews at Mihailovich’s trial. Tito rejected the recommendations.
On 10 June 1946, in the auditorium of a military school in Belgrade, General Draza Mihailovich appeared before the court that had already concluded he was guilty, appearing utterly worn out. The trial dragged on for a month, with the prosecutors digressing occasionally to denounce the United States and Great Britain for opposing Tito’s alliance with Stalin and the imposition of a Communist government on the people of Yugoslavia.
On 15 July the court found Mihailovich guilty and sentenced him to death. Two later he was executed by firing squad and his body dumped in an unmarked grave.
In 1948, President Harry Truman posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit to Draza Mihailovich for his contributions to the Allies’ victory in Europe. If the award had been publicized at the time, it would have gone a long way to rehabilitate Mihailovich’s reputation, but the State Department insisted that such recognition would antagonize Tito and damage U.S. relations with his government. Public recognition was suppressed until 2005, when the award was at last presented to the general’s granddaughter, Gordana Mihailovich.
Source: Craughwell, Thomas J. Great Rescues of World War II (Pier 9, 2009), p. 152.