The history of World War II tends to be pretty grim subject matter, despite this, there are still many stories of courage, hope, perseverance and rescue, which shine rays of light into the dark years of the conflict.
One such story is captured in the book The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II by Gregory A. Freeman. This extraordinary undertaking, known as Operation Halyard, involved the successful rescue of 512 Allied airmen who had been shot down over Serbia, who were on their way or returning from bombing the German-controlled Ploiesti oil fields in Romania, the source for nearly one-third of the petroleum products used in the Nazi war machine.
The first strike against Ploiesti on August 1, 1943, named Operation Tidal Wave, resulted in 53 of 177 bombers being shot down and another 54 heavily damaged with 660 airmen lost, the worst death toll ever for a single mission of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). Subsequent missions would also bring heavy losses. The “lucky” airmen who survived being shot down and parachuted into the unknown and were found by heroic and selfless Serb villagers who chose to help them, faced weeks or months of dangerous travel from one safe house to another, before ultimately reaching the Chetnik camp near the village of Pranjani.
Before any rescue mission of the downed airmen could be planned, the OSS and the U.S. military command had to be informed of the fact that hundreds of airmen were being hidden and protected by Serbian partisans, and dozens more were being found and rescued as the weeks and months between the summer of 1943 and the spring of 1944 went on.
Radio transmissions and other messages filtered in until it was decided to send a team into Serbia to assess the situation. Led by George Musulin, the team made contact with General Draza Mihailovich, the Serbian nationalist leader of the Chetniks, a resistance movement that fought both the Nazis and the communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito. The challenging political situation was another hurdle for any prospective rescue, as the British had authority over Allied forces in the Mediterranean, and favored Tito and the communists.
The initial mission of the planned rescue operation was unprecedented in its daring and danger. It involved sending in a fleet of Douglas C-47 Skytrain cargo planes to land on an improvised airstrip in Serbia in an area largely in German hands, and shuttle a dozen airmen at a time back to Italy. The airstrip, which was little more than a field near Pranjani, had to be meticulously cleared of debris, flattened and lengthened by sympathetic Serbian villagers, soldiers and the Allied airmen.
Miraculously, the operation succeeded beyond all expectations. No planes were lost and from August 9-18, 1944, the most active part of the operation, 447 airmen were rescued from Pranjani, while dozens more were rescued in subsequent missions from other locations in the months that followed.
A tragic prologue to the mission, was that General Mihailovic, along with many of the Serbs that helped the Allied airmen, were eventually arrested and imprisoned or killed by Tito’s government, which won backing from the Allies. Despite this somber fate, the men saved by the Chetnik resistance fighters, never forgot them and campaigned actively on behalf of Mihailovic in the United States, when he was subjected to a communist, show trial and soon after executed.
I discovered this book while researching Operation Wildhorn I, another daring plane mission into Nazi-occupied Poland. Its amazing to think of the planning and logistics involved in such missions, and the high probability of failure in part or in whole. The intense pressures of wartime also inspired great creativity and courage that ultimately saved the lives of hundreds of Allied pilots, who had all but lost hope that they would see home again. I highly recommend the book.