Military history

Chapter 15

Red. Red. Red.

Jibilian tapped out his Morse code message to Bari, requesting six planes for the following night, and when he received confirmation that the rescue would finally happen the next evening, word spread among the airmen in Pranjane like a bottle rocket skittering through a field of school-children. This was the news they had been waiting for. They were finally going home. Well, they were going home if this crazy plan actually worked. No one was forgetting that the whole idea was a big risk.

The airmen understood that they wouldn’t all be able to leave at the same time. They would be going out a few dozen at a time, starting with the wounded and then leaving in order of their longevity on the ground, with no distinction between officers and enlisted men. Those who had been in Yugoslavia the longest would be at the front of the line, and bomber crews would go out together. Musulin drew up a list of seventy-two airmen, most of them wounded, and told them to be ready to evacuate the next day. He was playing it safe by assigning only twelve men to each C-47, even though they typically carried twice as many troops. Musulin had specified that the rescue planes carry only half a load of gas, just barely enough to get to Pranjane and back, to keep their weight to a minimum. They already were asking the rescue pilots to take off in the dark on a bumpy airstrip that was just barely long enough, so Musulin figured they should keep the planes light by assigning no more than twelve passengers. Plus, there would be fewer casualties if one of the planes didn’t make it.

Hardly anyone slept that night. Like the rest of the airmen, Tony Orsini and Clare Musgrove, who had arrived in Pranjane about two weeks earlier, were way too wired to sleep. They alternated lying down for short stints until they couldn’t stand it anymore with sitting outside in the chilly air talking with each other. Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian were up well into the night double-checking their plans and conferring with the Chetnik soldiers about defenses around Pranjane for the following night. They wanted to be sure that if the Germans came roaring up the mountainside to investigate the C-47 landings, the Chetnik soldiers could hold them off long enough to at least let them get the planes loaded and back in the air. “If we’re going to be attacked,” Musulin told them, “let’s make sure we get some of these boys in those planes and on their way out before it all falls apart. We might not all make it out, but let’s make sure somebody does.”

The air was crackling with excitement and anxiety, so it was no surprise that most of the men were still awake when the machine-gun fire started. All over Pranjane, Americans jumped out of the haystacks and barn lofts where they had been trying to sleep, throwing on the rest of their clothes as the rapid staccato of a large-caliber machine gun carried through the damp night air. They were ready to bolt into the darkness and run for their lives. Musulin and his team sprang into action at the first sound of gunfire, grabbing their weapons and heading toward the firefight. This could be itThey’re onto us and they’re not going to let this rescue take place.

The OSS agents were making their way toward the sound of the gunfire, led by the husky former linebacker, when they met a Chetnik officer coming toward them. Musulin immediately was surprised by the man’s calm demeanor. The Chetnik waved his hands at the Americans as if to indicate everything was okay and shook his head from side to side with a look of chagrin on his face.

“Is no problem. No problem,” he said. “One of my men saw something moving and challenged it. When it did not say anything, he fired his machine gun.”

“Oh, so there’s nobody out there,” Musulin said, lowering his weapon.

“Only cow. Now dead cow.”

The agents and the airmen slept fitfully that night if they slept at all, and when they awoke on the morning of August 9, their first thought was of the rescue. For seventy-two of the men, they knew this was the day they would finally get out of Yugoslavia or die trying. For the others, this was the day they would see if this crazy plan would work and there was an end in sight for their time in Yugoslavia. The plan was to bring the cargo planes in at night to make them less of a target for German fighters, so there was still one more long day in Yugoslavia to get through. There was still work to do, however, so the men could focus on putting the final touches on their improvised airstrip, as well as setting up the flare pots that would help guide the planes in.

Late in the day, Orsini and Musgrove joined more than a hundred airmen and villagers working on the field, looking for soft spots and rocks, pushing carts of dirt here and there to even out the ground as much as possible, while Musulin and Rajacich oversaw the work. Musulin was on horseback, looking for any last-minute problems or areas that could be improved, when he spotted two or three tiny specks off the horizon, coming from the direction of Belgrade. He knew at once they were German planes. Once again, he thought the jig was up, the Germans were onto them and coming in to strafe them just as they were close to rescue. Rajacich saw them too. Simultaneously, both men started shouting to the airmen and villagers.

“German planes! German planes! Run! Get off the field! Hurry!”

Everyone scurried like field mice from an approaching hawk, sprinting and hobbling off the airstrip and into the closest tree line, squatting down in the ground cover to hide from the planes. Musulin and Rajacich joined them, watching the specks get closer and louder. It didn’t take long to see that the planes were a Stuka dive bomber and two JU-52 Junker planes that were similar to the American C-47s expected later that night, only more angular and boxy. The Stuka dive bomber struck fear in the hearts of the airmen, who easily recognized it on sight. Though it looked more like a small fighter plane, airmen and infantry the world over knew the Stuka as a fearful plane to encounter when you were helpless on the ground beneath it. In addition to strafing, which most any plane could do, the Stuka was specially designed for precision bombing of critical ground targets—including airfields. One of the most advanced and successful planes used in World War II, the Stuka had a dedicated autopilot system that put it in a steep controlled dive, allowing the pilot to aim the bomb with great precision, and then the system automatically pulled the aircraft out of the dive and back to level flight when the bomb was dropped. The extreme G-forces of such a near-vertical dive often caused pilots of other planes to temporarily lose consciousness during the pull out of the dive, resulting in a crash, but the Stuka’s autopilot prevented that from happening. The Stuka pilot also had an excellent view from the cockpit and special indicators to inform him of his dive angle and when he reached the optimal bomb release altitude, allowing him to focus entirely on precise aiming during the fast, steep dive. The sight and sound of a Stuka diving right at you should have been plenty frightening enough, but Hitler wanted to maximize the terror. So he ordered the Luftwaffe to equip the Stuka with a screaming siren that made the sound of its dive far more frightening, even rattling some antiaircraft gunners so much that they did not fire at the plane.

While they were primary transports of one type or another, like the C-47s, the German Junkers were armed with machine guns and could make slow lazy circles around the airmen, strafing the men on the ground until the bodies were heaped in piles. On this day, it was likely that the Junkers were on a routine mission and the Stuka dive bomber was accompanying them for protection. It might have been pure chance that their path had brought them right across the Pranjane airstrip, but Musulin and Rajacich couldn’t be sure. They were only a few hours away from carrying out this mission, and German planes were flying right toward the field. . . .

All around the airstrip, tended lovingly with bloodied hands and improvised tools, the hearts of the American airmen sank as they watched the planes approach. When they saw the Stuka dive bomber, they all had the same thought. Musgrove looked at the planes with anger. Damn, they’re going to bomb our field. A few bombs on this airstrip and it’ll take forever to repair it enough for C-47s to land. Even if the Germans hadn’t sent the planes specifically to foil the rescue attempt, they all knew that the pilots would notice something amiss when they spotted the freshly cleaned strip of land and the extension into the woods. Having the pilots see that big stretch of land near Pranjane with nothing happening on it, no farmer plowing or tending a crop, would look almost as suspicious as seeing the Americans working on it. But it was too late to send a villager out there with a plow in an effort at looking normal. They could see the planes coming in right toward the field at about one thousand feet and very slowly, slow enough that the pilots would get a good look if they just glanced down at the right moment. Everyone tensed in their hiding places, watching the planes get closer and closer.

Then Musulin noticed a most providential herd of cows sauntering onto the airstrip. The bovine pack’s attention was drawn to the fresh grass on the airstrip, which had been denied them while the workers were busy all day and into the night for weeks prior. The cows waddled up into the field and didn’t seem to notice when the three planes flew directly overhead at low altitude, giving the field exactly the look the airmen needed at that moment—that of a normal farm field in the mountains of Yugoslavia.

Musulin, Rajacich, and the rest of the airmen watched intently as the German planes continued on their path past Pranjane, never turning to come back and take another look. Everyone started breathing again as they realized that the German pilots who could have put an end to Operation Halyard didn’t notice a thing, perhaps due in part to the impromptu cow camouflage. They were all talking about how sure they had been that the Germans were onto them. But apparently not, they said. Just a random flight.

Musulin wasn’t so sure. He was keenly aware that the success of this mission depended on operational security. The mission was so risky to begin with that he could only hope for success if the Germans didn’t get wind of it too early. There was no way he could carry out this rescue and engage in an all-out battle with the Germans simultaneously, so Musulin was worried that those three planes weren’t just a random overflight. The enemy might have intercepted a message from Bari and sent that seemingly random flight over Pranjane to take a look at the airstrip and check for defenses. If it was a reconnaissance flight, it would make sense that they didn’t attack or come back for a second look. With just hours till game time, this ex-linebacker was getting his game face on; Musulin was suspicious of everything.

If they’re onto us, that was just recon for an attack later. They might have been checking us out in the daylight so they’ll know how to attack us tonight when the planes come in.

Musulin considered calling off the rescue, postponing it for another night. But he realized it was probably too late. The planes were probably already taking off in Brindisi, and besides, every day they waited just made the risk worse. He asked one of the Chetniks to check on the German garrison in the valley below, using a secret telephone line, to see if there was any unusual activity that could signal an impending attack. The Chetnik supporters in the valley reported that all was normal.

The big brawny American stood in the field, the wind blowing through his bushy black beard, and watched as the men got back to work, looking for any way to make the airfield just a little bit safer for that night’s rescue. As he looked over the men, ragged and scrawny but still working hard, Musulin knew they were willing to risk everything to be rescued.

We’re on. We’ve got to start getting them out. Tonight.

The airmen and the villagers continued toiling on the makeshift runway throughout the day and well into the evening, some bringing carts of dirt to level out another dip in the field, others wielding crude farm axes to bring down just a few more trees on the end. If they didn’t have any specific task to do, many of the airmen roamed the field methodically, their eyes cast downward looking for any bump or soft spot, any rock that had been overlooked. Even if they couldn’t do much more in the hours before the rescue attempt, they couldn’t sit still. Orsini felt that he had to be out there, doing something, anything, to give himself just a bit more hope that this wild plan could actually work. They were all doing their damnedest to make sure this little farm meadow on a plateau in the mountains would be the last place they touched the ground in Yugoslavia.

As night fell and forced the men to stop working, they retreated to the homes in Pranjane for what seventy-two of them hoped would be their last meal in the village, their last cup or two of plum brandy. They were tired from the day’s work and from living for weeks or months in Yugoslavia on little food, and the wounded were suffering from their broken bones, lacerations, dislocated shoulders, and myriad other injuries. But on this night, no one was eager to bed down in the haylofts and small cottage rooms. The men were anxious to see if this rescue could really happen, seventy-two of them realizing they were the most fortunate to be going out that night, but also the most at risk because they would test the details of this plan with their lives. But there wasn’t an airman in Pranjane who wouldn’t trade places with them and willingly take that risk.

The night was clear but dark, exactly what Musulin wanted for this operation. Though it greatly intensified the challenge for the pilots of the rescue planes, the night landing would help protect the lumbering C-47s from German fighters. All through Pranjane, downed American bomber pilots asked themselves the same question: Could I pull this off? If they asked me to fly into some strange country and land on a little airstrip in the dark, could I do it without killing myself and a few dozen men? No one ever had a clear answer. They told themselves they could do it if they had to, and they assumed that the pilots on their way to Pranjane were saying the same thing to themselves.

The airmen awaiting rescue didn’t know it yet, but the rescue had already begun. Six C-47s were in the air and on their way to Pranjane. When the planes took off from Bari, George Vujnovich knew it would be hours before he heard anything about the mission, good or bad. But like the airmen in Pranjane, Vujnovich would not sleep that night. He occupied himself as best as he could, shuffling paper and writing letters, anything to keep him busy so he didn’t just sit and worry about the mission. After all the bureaucratic infighting and resistance from the British, Operation Halyard was in the air. Vujnovich thought again of his last days in Yugoslavia and how much he had yearned to get out and be free of German oppression. He knew the men in Pranjane must feel the same way, and he was right. They could think of nothing else, every sense on alert as they waited for the appointed time. A couple of hours after darkness enveloped the airfield, Musulin sent the word: He ordered the first seventy-two airmen to gather at the airfield and prepare to leave.

The chosen seventy-two made their way to the airfield just outside the village, many of them hobbling with their injuries, and waited in the cold night air. The rescue planes were not due for another two hours, but Musulin did not want to run the risk that the planes would show up early and the men would not be ready. The makeshift airstrip was crowded again, just as it had been during the day, because most of the other airmen had come along to see what would happen. They milled about in the darkness in an imitation of their last-minute runway inspections before losing the sun, but this time the men said good-bye to those who were chosen to leave that night, and the talk was all about whether the planes actually could land out here in the dark. And whether the Germans might crash the party.

Dozens of villagers and Chetnik soldiers also converged at the airfield with the Americans, some of them with a specific task to aid the rescue and some just wanting to see this great event that everyone had been talking about for so long. Everyone who had been aiding the airmen for months turned out to see the final act, and they were as excited as if the circus were coming to town. And in a way, it was. The mood was jovial at first, but it grew more and more somber as the hours passed and the time for the rescue grew near. Conversations died down and even the most exuberant of the men became quiet, sensing that the coming hour would bring something momentous to this tiny village in the mountains, and that whatever it brought would deserve some respect. Either dozens of men would be saved tonight, with the promise of many more soon after, or dozens of men might be killed and along with them the hopes of all the rest. What was about to happen in Pranjane would be profound, in one way or another.

Musulin and his air force contacts in Bari scheduled the rescue to begin at ten p.m. on August 9. Musulin checked his watch obsessively and nearly every other airman who still had a watch followed suit, all of them reflexively making sure they were in place, that they were ready on their end as soon as the planes arrived. As ten p.m. grew nearer, Musulin ordered everyone off the airstrip. The men made their way to the tree lines on either side, just as they had done many times before when a German plane flew overhead, leaving the makeshift runway empty. Then Musulin spoke with the Chetnik officers at the field and made sure that the soldiers manning the flares, improvised out of oil cans and hay bales donated by the villagers, understood what to do. As soon as Musulin gave the order, he wanted the Chetniks to light the flares and hay bales lining either side of the runway, giving the incoming pilots some rudimentary indicators of the landing field’s parameters. The Chetniks were ready. The airmen were more than ready. Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian were scanning the skies looking for any sign of an incoming plane.

Hundreds of airmen crouched in the brush and trees along their newly made airstrip. They were eager and hopeful, but they were worried, too. Then, at exactly ten p.m., they heard the drone of a plane. A wild cheer arose from the trees, shattering the silence in the pitch-black night.

Musulin and his team heard the plane at the same time, the cheers quickly drowning out the welcome sound. Right on time, Musulin thought, looking at his watch again. Okay, this is it. Let’s get this done. He yelled to the men in the trees, giving final orders before the planes came in.

“Stay where you are!” he yelled, trying to overcome the sounds of celebration. “If you are not going out tonight, stay off the field! I don’t want a madhouse out here when the planes land!”

The airmen understood Musulin’s orders and remained in place, scattered all along the sides of the runway so everyone could see what happened, the cheers steadily dying down and giving way to silence again. The young men crouched in the bushes could hardly breathe as they waited to see their fate played out on this makeshift airfield.

As the roar of the planes grew louder and came closer, Musulin and everyone else realized that it was more than just one plane. The planes made their way toward the airfield at low altitude and began to circle Pranjane.

That’s when Musulin saw there was a problem. There were only four planes, not the six he had requested. He didn’t know that two had been forced to turn back because of engine trouble along the route.

Musulin ordered Rajacich to go ahead with the signal that would tell the rescue planes they were in the right place. He rushed out onto the airfield with an Aldis lamp, a highly focused lantern that produced a bright pulse of light. Most commonly used on naval vessels and in airport control towers to signal planes, the OSS team had brought the Aldis lamp along for exactly this purpose. Rajacich held up the round lamp in one palm, using a sight on the top to aim it at the lead C-47 circling overhead and squeezed the trigger three times to send the predetermined signal: Red. Red. Red.

Using the same device, a crewman on the C-47 signaled the appropriate response: Red. Red. Red.

Then Rajacich sent the next message that would confirm all was ready on the ground and the planes could come in. This time he used the lamp to blink a predetermined code word: -. .- -. Nan.

Everyone waited a long moment for the plane’s reply. And then everyone on the ground saw the flashes: -..- - ....- .-. .- -.--. X-ray.

The airmen in the trees could see the signal and knew what it spelled, but they didn’t know the code words. Likewise, the villagers knew what the signaling was about, but they couldn’t tell if all was going as planned. All of them, the villagers and the airmen alike, looked intently at Rajacich and Musulin. Rajacich let the Aldis lamp drop to his side and began trotting off the field. Musulin stepped out to address the airmen one last time.

“We’re on, boys! This is it!” Musulin’s last words were drowned out by another joyous roar from the airmen and the villagers. He yelled to the Chetniks to light the flares and hay bales, and within seconds, the field was ablaze with fiery orange markers. The night took on an eerie appearance and the crowd grew silent again as they watched the planes circle. When he was sure everything was in order, Musulin marched out to the middle of the airfield, raised a flare gun high over his head, and pulled the trigger. A green flare screamed skyward like celebratory fireworks, the final signal that the landings should begin. The excited airmen let out another cheer as the flare erupted and then quickly quieted down again.

The night was deadly quiet except for the crackling of the burning hay bales, and all eyes were on the first plane in the group. The airmen watched as it dropped out of the circling formation and positioned itself for a landing on their airstrip. Every airmen in Pranjane knew what a risk this crew was taking for them, and in the air, the C-47 pilots from the 60th Troop Carrier Command especially knew what a difficult task lay before them. The airmen on the ground watched the plane come closer and closer and then, finally, they could see the white star on the tail. They knew by now that the planes were American, but still, the sight of that white star added another layer of jubilation for these men who weren’t sure they would ever see home again. The Americans were coming to rescue them!

But the plane still had to land, and that was the tricky part. Everyone waiting in the woods had spent many hours in planes just like that C-47 and they knew that landing at night on such a rough airstrip wouldn’t be easy. They all watched, wondering if they would have the nerve to make the same landing attempt if the roles were reversed. And just as the men on the ground suspected, the pilots coming in for this first landing were terrified. They didn’t know what to expect of this hastily made landing strip and they feared they would crash, either dying in the wreckage or joining the other men in their limbo behind enemy lines. Both on the ground and in the air, scarcely a breath passed the men’s lips as they waited for the C-47’s wheels to touch down.

The plane came in lower and lower. Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian were left to watch just like all the airmen, the same thoughts running through everyone’s mind as they focused intently on the incoming plane.

It looks good so far. You’re lined up on the runway nice and straight. C’mon boys, you can do it. . . . Looks good . . . looks good . . . Hold it steady, boys. . . .

First there was the thump of the wheels; then the pilot cut back on the throttle and the engines changed pitch. The plane raced down the airstrip, nearly silent now, hundreds of eyes watching intently. Maybe this plan would work, after all. The men crouched in the brush were just about to breathe a sigh of relief when they heard the plane’s engines roar back to life.

The plane lifted back into the air, over the trees, and into the darkness.

The field was quiet again, the only sound the crackling of the burning hay bales.

The airstrip was too short. The pilot just couldn’t do it.

Musgrove and the rest of the men were crushed. The dark, quiet night hid hundreds of broken hearts. Musgrove thought that was the end of it all.

“Too short, too short,” he heard another airman say quietly. “They can’t do it. This will never work.”

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