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a staunch friend of the United States hated the Nazis and wanted to free his country from ...
on June 30, 2016
The Forgotten 500
Gregory A. Freeman
Every once in a while you discover a book that envelopes your emotions and you wonder how those events could happen. This is one of those stories, a true story.
During WWII one of the Nazis’ main sources of fuel was an oil refinery in Ploesti, Romania. The Allied Powers made it their mission to destroy this refinery by sending countless missions from Brindisi, Italy, over Yugoslavia to Ploesti to bomb the facility. In the course of these missions, many B24 bombers were shot down and hundreds of Allied flyers (mostly Americans) were stranded behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia, a country that most did not know the language or customs.
At that time in Yugoslavia there were two ruling factions. Draza Mihailovich, a staunch friend of the United States hated the Nazis and wanted to free his country from their grasp. Josip Broz Tito, a communist and ally of Russia also hated the Nazis, wanted to get rid of them and, interestingly enough, the two men hated each other. You had a dramatic triad, Mihailovich and Tito, each commanding thousands of soldiers fighting each other for control of Yugoslavia and each fighting the Nazis, their common enemy.
Flyers would parachute into Yugoslavia, not having any idea how they would be received by the populace and wondering if they would be turned over to the Nazis. Much to their surprise and relief villagers would welcome them, hide them in their homes and share their meager supply of food. These villagers would risk their lives guiding them through the mountains of Yugoslavia to the troops of Mihailovich. English speaking Yugoslavians were few and far between and most communication was with gestures and pantomime.
After days and, sometimes weeks, the group would reach Pranjane, Yugoslavia and be united with other flyers. This was Mihailovich’s accumulation point and ended up holding approximately 500 airmen. They would spend months with nothing to occupy their time and no communication with the allies.
During this time, on a political front, Mihailovich was falling out of favor with the British because of the machinations of a Russian mole named James Klugman placed high in British intelligence. This had the effect of spoiling his relationship with the Americans, as well, though totally unfair. The few Americans who had spent time with Mihailovich behind enemy lines and had made it back knew the truth and were a small group trying to salvage the relationship and put together a rescue for the downed flyers.
After several failed attempts to land an initial team at Pranjane to help prepare for the rescue as a combined British and American effort, the Americans decided to go it alone because of their belief of British sabotage. The Americans were able to land the team and, using the men there, built a runway in the mountainous region with hand tools which was no small effort. C-47 cargo planes were the ones chosen for the exfiltration and required a landing strip of 700 feet. The one built was exactly 700 feet with trees and mountains all around it. There was no room for error.
Considering the fact that each plane only would hold 12 passengers and held just enough fuel to make the round trip from Brindisi to Pranjane, it is no small miracle that between August 9, 1944 and December 28, 1944, the Americans rescued over 500 airmen, 345 of them Americans with no fatalities. This, despite the fact they were flying over enemy territory in slow planes, easy targets for German Messerschmitt fighters.
The trumped up case of Mihailovich collaborating with the enemy got worse because of Klugman and other communists in the ranks and he was cut off from the United States. Despite this, he remained a friend to the end and saw to it the airmen were protected at Pranjane through the entire operation.
Not much longer the war ended and Tito gained control of Yugoslavia. He still hated Mihailovich and had him executed. Though Mihailovich was a friend to the very end, we aided in his execution and the eventual Communist control of Yugoslavia. Not our finest moment in history.
Winston Churchill was later quoted saying that his handling of Yugoslavia was his biggest mistake of the war.
In 1997 declassified British papers confirmed the Klugman/Mihailovich story and the truth was official. Mihailovich deserved much better.
Sixty years after this travesty on May 9, 2005 the Legion of Merit was presented to Gordana Mihailovich for the actions of her father for the United States in WWII,
In writing a review, it can be hard to decide what to include and not to include. It is a review, after all, not the book itself. Gregory Freeman has so much in this book that is not in this review and does a great job in telling this story that every American should hear. I appreciate him writing it.