Gregory A. Freeman presents a riveting account of the previously untold story of the men who risked all for the greatest rescue mission of World War II in The Forgotten 500. The rescue codenamed Operation Halyard has been enmeshed in a web of conspiracy, lies, and cover-ups since 512 Allied airmen trapped behind enemy lines were rescued from the hills of Yugoslavia. This extraordinary feat in August 1944 was accomplished with direction from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and a Serbian guerilla, General Draza Mihailovich, under the noses of the occupying Germans.
When the airmen flew from Italy to bomb the German oil fields in Rumania, some of the Allied planes were shot down. The airmen subsequently had to parachute into the German occupied-areas. Many of the fliers found that their fate lay in the hands of the local Serbs, who risked their own lives to protect the downed airmen from capture by the Germans. What lay before their rescue could be attempted seemed to be an impossible task. The villagers had to keep the Allies hidden while they all built an airfield for the fleet of C-47 cargo planes without the Germans’ knowledge. Even having the planes make it in to land without being shot down was a challenge.
When the rescue plan was presented, no one doubted they could parachute into enemy territory and organize the most daring rescue ever. And build an airstrip right under the Germans’ noses? That would not be a problem. The creativity and ingenuity of these men who planned the rescue, not to mention their bravery, goes beyond explanation. Some problems did ensue, however, because of the British resistance to the plans when it was announced to be a joint British-Allied endeavor. The SEO in Britain had been getting American agents into enemy territory and were reluctant to give this job to the Americans, especially the OSS that had just begun to handle radio communications in occupied territories. The lack of cooperation was resolved when the Americans flew in to coordinate the rescue with an American plane and crew and an American jumpmaster.
As the American airmen languished with little food in the villages in the mountains of Yugoslavia, they had no knowledge of the momentous efforts underway to rescue them. Although the villagers had little food themselves, they shared their meager rations with the airmen. Medical care for their injuries was not available, however, although some of the men were severely injured. The men watched the Germans burn down a village because the villagers would not give up the fliers. How long would it be before all of the airmen were found by the Germans? Weeks and months went by with no word about any rescue attempts. Their original messages to Italy for help were ignored. Perhaps those hearing the transmissions thought it was a trap set by the Germans. Finally, the airmen realized they had to use code with words only they and their base in Italy would know. They also devised a recognition plan of words familiar only to Allied airmen so the trapped airmen would know the rescuers were friendly, and the rescuers would know it was not a trap.
The coded messages were finally received and heard in Italy by a Royal Air Force (RAF) radio operator. An intelligence officer and the commander of the 459th Bomber Group at the Fifteenth Air Force headquarters in Bari labored ceaselessly to decode the messages. Finally, they ‘connected the dots’ and the messages became clear. The commander shouted, “My God! Go get them!”
The C-47 cargo planes were then sent to rescue the airmen. Agents parachuted from the first plane before it landed on the makeshift runway to help with the evacuation. A few dozen men were airlifted at a time because the planes carried minimum fuel to be as light as possible. The wounded left first, and then those with the longevity on the ground were rescued. After the men boarded the planes, those who were able to walk went back to the cargo door and threw their boots to the villagers, many of whom wore only felt slippers in the frigid cold and snow.
The downed airman gave great credit to the OSS, which had facilitated their rescue, and to the Yugoslav people who had harbored them from the Germans. Sixty years after their rescue - May 9, 2005 - they presented the Legion of Merit to Mihailovich’s daughter to honor his assistance. Only a few of the rescued airmen and OSS agents are still alive to tell this history. A large number of black-and-white photographs in the book chronicle these experiences and show some of the unsung heroes instrumental in this covert operation that went above and beyond.