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Russia Finally Condemns Stalin

In a major break with precedent, the Russian parliament officially condemned Joseph Stalin for the first time ever this fall for his role in the Katyn Forest massacre during World War II, setting the stage for what could become a sweeping reassessment of the Soviet dictator’s place in Russian history. “Published documents, kept in classified archives for many years, not only revealed the scale of this horrific tragedy, but also showed that the Katyn crime was carried out on direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet officials,” the declaration from the Russian Duma said. A year after the Red Army occupied Poland in 1939, the Soviets massacred 22,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia and officer corps in the Katyn Forest, then tried to pin the blame on the Nazis.

The parliamentary declaration, which was welcomed by the country’s former wartime allies—and which preceded a Russian presidential visit to Poland—noted that Katyn was also the scene of great tragedy for Soviet citizens too, thousands of whom were executed in the forest during the Great Terror of 1936–38.

Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s president, has joined this effort to distance Russia from Stalin as well, reportedly ordering a major “deStalinization drive” this winter, which news reports say may involve declassification of several secret Soviet archives, including the millions of case files the government kept on regular civilians. Human rights groups are also pushing the government to conduct searches for the remains of Stalin-era prison camps.

The Russians took great pains during the 65th anniversary of V-E Day last year to draw a distinction between their country’s successes against the Nazis and the crimes of the Soviet leaders of the time—and many of the country’s highest-ranking officials are now using words to describe Stalin that would have been unspeakable only a decade ago. “The Soviet Union was a very complicated state and if we speak honestly, the regime that was built in the Soviet Union…cannot be called anything other than totalitarian,” Medvedev himself said recently. “Unfortunately, this was a regime where elementary rights and freedoms were suppressed.”

OMG! The War’s Irreverent New Front

World War II has its weighty tomes, its classic films, and its solemn memorials. But until last year, there was one ever-so important thing it didn’t have: a Facebook page. That glaring omission was remedied recently, when College Humor, a comedy website, published a feature called “OMG WWII on Facebook!” that cleverly repackaged the war into the new medium of the social network—and served up a hilarious reimagining of how today’s Facebook generation, with their ever-shortening attention spans and cryptic online shorthand (OMG, lol!), might have tweeted their way through the Second World War.

Created by Matthew Leeb, an aspiring comedy writer in Los Angeles, the faux Facebook page has become a viral phenomenon, with more than a million views on the College Humor website alone. Leeb says it took him two and a half weeks to put the piece together, from compiling the history (all researched on Wikipedia) to selecting the right events and translating them into “Facebook teenspeak.”“I didn’t really know that much about World War II before I started this; I just knew the rough timeline of events from what you see in movies,” Leeb says. “When I started my research, I wrote down everything I could that struck me as funny or that I could make a joke out of, and then I just mashed it together with Facebook.”

In the months since it first appeared, Leeb’s work, with its lighthearted friending and defriending between Axis and Allies and cheeky references to everyone from Churchill to Mussolini, has been passed around offices and blogged about incessantly. A few college professors even contacted Leeb asking him if they could use the article in their classes. This fall, the page continued to spark a heated online debate about everything from the decline of American education to the role the Canadians played in World War II. (Leeb, a Canadian, has apologized for being unable to find a way to work his countrymen into the story.)

There has been some predictable nit-picking about the piece’s historical accuracy, ranging from consternation over the flags Leeb chose for each country to whether Italy really would have *liked* Germany’s invasion of France. Some readers have lambasted Leeb for insensitivity, accusing him of disrespecting the millions who died in the war. (“Lighten up,” Leeb has replied.)

There have also been a fair share of younger readers who don’t seem to recognize the joke is partly on them. As one commenter put it: “This is freaking hilarious. WTG n thx [way to go and thanks] 4 the giggle!”

In the end, though, most of the audience seems to agree with a reader named Janae Wiedmaier, who commented on the piece in August: “Can we please, please have Part 2, the Cold War?”

“I do have an idea to follow this up with a sequel, maybe the Civil War or the Cold War,” Leeb says. But before he expands the franchise— and finds a way to friend Khrushchev and Robert E. Lee—Leeb has been busy converting his World War II concept into an iPhone app that can be used by teenagers as a study guide (along with other edits to make the piece more historically accurate)—complete with live links under events like, say, the sinking of the Bismarck, that offer more context and details.

Mastermind of American Airmen Rescue Receives Bronze Star

George Vujnovich, who served as an American intelligence officer during World War II, was awarded a bronze star this fall for masterminding a little-known—but monumentally successful—operation that rescued 512 American airmen trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia in 1944. Operation Halyard, as it was called, was one of the largest American rescue missions ever attempted, but it was kept secret for decades because it was made possible only with the help of a Serbian general who was a rival of Tito, an important American ally during the Cold War. “I feel deeply satisfied,” said Vujnovich, now 95 years old, after he received his medal in a ceremony in New York. “I’m sad because some of these men that we sent in are not here so they can share in this honor.”

Vujnovich, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Serbia, was studying medicine in Belgrade when the Germans overran the city in 1941, and he only narrowly escaped before being recruited into the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. He was working as an operations officer in southern Italy in 1944 when he received word from his wife, who worked in the Yugoslav embassy in Washington, that hundreds of American fliers who had been shot down during the summer-long bombing campaign against the Ploesti oil refinery had survived and were being sheltered by Serb partisans.

Working with a team of OSS officers, Vujnovich came up a with a plan to drop a group of agents behind German lines and construct an airfield that would allow American transport planes to ferry the aircrew out. He took responsibility for training volunteers so they could blend in, teaching them local customs like tying and tucking in their shoelaces and pushing food onto their forks with their knives during meals. “It was a genius plan,” said Tony Orsini, 87, a B-24 navigator who was one of the rescued men, at the awards ceremony.

Vujnovich had originally intended to accompany his agents into Yugoslavia himself, but in a strange twist, his involvement was vetoed for political reasons by none other than Winston Churchill himself. The reasons are murky—centering around the British switching their allegiance from Draza Mihailovich, the Chetnik general whose men were protecting the American pilots, to a rival Croat leader, Josip Broz, known as Tito.

Whatever the rationale, Vujnovich was out, so he chose another Serbian American, Lieutenant George Musulin, to lead his men, and the mission went off without a hitch. Musulin and a group of agents dropped into Yugoslavia in August 1944, and within weeks had constructed a secret airfield in the middle of a cornfield and were ferrying the pilots out on C-47s. Ultimately, 512 pilots were funneled through the Yugoslav countryside onto the waiting transport planes—without incurring a single casualty.

After the war, Operation Halyard was hushed up, with Tito in power and Serbs like Mihailovich on the outs. It was only after the Cold War ended that Vujnovich and his men were finally recognized. Musulin, who died in 1987, was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit several years ago.

Fourth Grader Raises $20,000 to Honor War Hero

An 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy raised over $20,000 this fall to support the construction of a statue in Normandy of Major Dick Winters, the D-Day veteran made famous by the book and HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Jordan Brown (left), whose home in eastern Pennsylvania is only a few miles from the farm where Winters, 92, lives, decided to start raising money after reading a newspaper article about the effort to build the monument, which will ultimately require $400,000 in donations. “He said, ‘Mommy, I want to make sure this happens,’” Yasmin Brown, his mother, told reporters. “When he came to me, there was no way I could say no to this. There’s so much good in this. It was good on so many levels.”

Jordan has raised much of the money by selling army-green rubber wristbands, inspired by the yellow Livestrong bracelets that support cancer research, inscribed with the words “HANG TOUGH”—a phrase Winters often used in combat to inspire his men. His parents helped him get started by giving him the first batch of 1,000 wristbands for his birthday. “We need to thank these heroes before it’s too late,” Jordan told reporters, saying his goal is to reach $100,000.

The Winters monument is part of an effort called the Richard Winters Leadership Project, led by a Rhode Island filmmaker, Tim Gray, and supported by many of the men who fought with Winters through France and Germany. “This is not a monument just for Major Winters,” Gray, who is making a documentary film about Winters’s leadership qualities, told reporters. “We used him as an example of what leadership was on D-Day.” The proposed bronze statue is expected to be raised this year at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, a small town near where Winters and his company parachuted into France. (Information on donating to the monument foundation and ordering a wristband can be found online at


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.