The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II

By Gregory Freeman. 305 pp. Caliber Books, 2007. $23.95.

Sixty years ago, more than five hundred Allied airmen—starving, frightened, hiding from the Germans—lurked in the hills of Yugoslavia. They’d been shot down during years of relentless bombing runs against a crucial target: the Romanian oil fields that supplied the Germans with nearly a third of their fuel supplies. Serbian peasants hid the downed flyboys, at considerable risk, while the men, living on goat’s milk and bread baked with hay (to make it more filling), waited for a way out. It finally came in 1944, when the OSS in Italy conceived Operation Halyard.

This daring operation remained largely unknown for six decades afterward, due to government red tape, political machinations, and lack of public interest. It was stored mainly in top-secret files and the minds of the men who experienced it. Now, drawing on recently declassified documents in the United States, Britain, and former Yugoslavia, The Forgotten 500 brings Halyard into the revealing light of day.

The plan had some fascinating and far-out elements. Four OSS agents, going to ground for months in the Yugoslav countryside, would organize the dispersed, secreted airmen. Hardly robust after months of hiding, the men would then have to build an airstrip large enough for C-47s without any real tools, and without detection in the heart of Nazi-occupied territory. Last but not least, the C-47s would have to fly in and out over one of the war’s most heavily fortified German-held regions—beginning with daring nighttime landings, but later in broad daylight, flanked by waves of fighters.

That it all came off is a tribute to both the luck and the skill of the Allies, augmented by the heroics of a few good men like Clare Musgrove and George Vujnovich. These figures are at the heart of Freeman’s frequently gripping tale, shot through with ironies as it is. Just one example: Gen. Draja Mihailovich was friendly toward the Allies, and though his village of Pranjane was in Nazi territory, it became a gathering place for the first wave of rescued airmen. Like the Serbian peasants, Mihailovich protected them for months despite the obvious dangers. When the war ended, he got his payback: believing Mihailovich had been aiding the Nazis, the Allies backed Marshal Josip Broz, a.k.a Tito, and despite the pleas of the men Mihailovich had helped save, the nationalist general was tried and sentenced to death by (Communist) firing squad—a sentence finally carried out in 1946.

 

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.