The Forgotten 500

By Mark Pearson

It has been awhile since I have written an article on any subject that deals with history.  Most of the articles have dealt with those things that have been forgotten or ignored from our past.  I am referring to those articles referring to Afro-Americans who were part of the 369th division known as the Harlem hell fighters who fought during WW l.  Also referring to the shameful way that the Red tails (Tuskegee airmen) was treated during WW ll even here at Selfridge.

 Our government has not always been perfect in carrying out its policies as we are aware of to this very day. This includes one policy mistake that was made during WW ll and is the subject of this article.  This article involves our involvement in the nation of Yugoslavia.  During the war our air force bomber commands were sending bombers into Romania to attack the oil refineries who were supplying Germany with a good portion of their oil.  These bombers were flying from bases in Italy and these flights took them over Yugoslavia.  As a result, these bombers would have to endure attacks from antiaircraft guns known as flak guns and German fighter aircraft. 

Most of these bombers would get shot up pretty bad as they flew to and from their targets.  Many of these plains ended up crash landing in Yugoslavia where the pilots and crew members were forced to bail out. If they survived the jump and were not captured by the Germans they would be rescued, fed, protected and hidden by the local Yugoslavian people. Unfortunately Yugoslavia wasn’t just trying to fight off the German who were occupiers but were also waging a civil war between the nationalists and the communists at the same time. 

The communists were being led by Josip Bros Tito whoses faction under his command were called the Partisans. The nationalist faction known as Chetniks were being led by a man named Draza Mihailovich who at one time was a general in the Yugoslav army.  Our bomber base commanders under orders by the US state department were told to warn their pilots and crew to steer away from the Chetniks.  Our government and military were fed misinformation by both the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and Tito that the Chetniks would cut off their ears and turn them over to the Germans. This was a lie told our government and the British government by a man by the name of James Klugmann who as it turned out after the war was proven to be a Soviet operative.  This man was able to hoodwink both of our governments into believing all sorts of damaging things that hindered the war effort and got a lot of our people killed.

Over 500 pilots and crewmembers were rescued by the Chetniks and were rounded up and protected by them at the cost of many of them being killed in reprisals by the Germans for helping them.  Even food was scarce but still the civilian population would provide their meager resources to feed our people w.   One of the people who was concerned with the plight of these airmen was George Vujnovich, (Don’t ask me to pronounce it.) a Yugoslav who joined the OSS which was a WWll version of the CIA. Through his efforts he arranged a rescue of all these airmen that included not only Americans but British, Canadians and even Russians. Over 500 airmen were saved as a result of a flight of several C41 cargo planes that landed on a makeshift airstrip. This rescue operation was code named Operation Halyerd.

This has been documented in a book called The forgotten 500, written in 2007 by Gregory A. Freeman. It is an account witnessed by several pilots and crewmembers along with Oss agents and others involved in this rescue.  This whole event took place in the last few months of the war but was deliberately suppressed almost completely by our state and defense departments. This book describes how this operation took place in an area garrisoned and patrolled by the Germans. The people involved in preparing this airstrip were mostly Yugoslavian civilians with the pilots and crew helping them.  They actually leveled and extended an airfield on a plateau that would accommodate the landing and takeoff of several C-47 Cargo Plaines used in the rescue. This operation took place during several nights and days while the locals protected the airfield from the Germans. When this took place it was completely squelched by our military and state department who continue to this very day denying that this event ever took place. 

The official reasons given at the time was that we didn’t want to upset relations with Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately this story doesn’t have a happy ending except for the aircrews that were rescued.  As a result of Klugmann and other operatives who were embedded in high positions in our government and the British government’s believing these spies, Mihailovich was accused of collaborating with the Germans and tried as a traitor and was killed by Tito. This whole incident was attempted to be covered up by our government as well as some of several media outlets so much so that the whole event has been completely forgotten by most people today.

As a result of my own extensive reading over the years I knew of the warfare that took place in this whole region so I knew about the trial and execution of this man who was so ostracized by us and our allies but I didn’t know about this rescue until I read this account. 

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of writers of historical novels who have I hopefully unintentionally perpetrated this lie. One of these authors was one of my favorite.  This man wrote several novels dealing mostly with WWll. He also has written several spy novels such as Ice Station Zebra.  The man I was referring to is Alistair Maclean who was one of the top 10 writers in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the 1980’s. The first book I ever read of his was called Fear is the Key.  After that I bought up every paperback ever written by him. I still have several hardcover books written by him also.  There have been several movies produced over the years based on his books. One of his books that was made into a  movie was Force 10 from Naverone starring Harrison Ford.  This book is about American and British agents on a mission in Yugoslavia to blow up a bridge thereby stopping the partisans from being overrun by the Nazis. Maybe people will remember this movie.  Unfortunately this book and the movie makes the Chetniks look like a bunch of evil monsters and the partisans as a bunch of hero’s.  I also have another book titled Partisans written in 1982 by Alistair Maclean that paints the Chetniks with the same brush.

This is regrettable as I thoroughly enjoyed reading his books so it makes me wonder if maybe he believed the official story that the British government was conveying or was he told to only put the partisans in a good and politically correct light.  This movie was made on location somewhere in Eastern Europe and the armored vehicles used were Russian T34’s.  It would appear to me that this story has still continually been carried on by those governments otherwise why was this movie allowed to be made at all.  I would like to think that the latter explanation regarding Alistair Maclean was the case as it would go a long way in exonerating him at least in my own eyes as he was still one of my favorite storytellers. 

I know that this is another one of many examples of our governmental policies that has backfired over the years including our involvement in Afghanistan. It is not my aim to point these failures out but it is to review and recall a dark part of our history and to recommend this book to any who are students of history. I hope that it will also be for those who are looking for an exciting book to read that corrects some of the misconceptions regarding these events and honors the brave men and women who risked their lives to save the 500.   

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