Military history

Chapter 16

Going Home Shoeless

Everyone feared the same thing: The mission was a failure. No one had been sure that the airstrip was long enough or that the C-47 pilots would have the nerve to land here in the dead of night. Seeing the plane touch down and then roar off again was a terrible disappointment, but not necessarily a surprise.

The despair, however, was quickly pushed aside by another glimmer of hope. The second plane was coming in! The airmen had feared that the first plane, presumably the lead C-47 carrying the pilot in charge of the whole group, had told the other planes that the airstrip was too short. They fully expected the planes to regroup and just fly back to Italy. But here was a second C-47 coming in for this dangerous landing. Again, all eyes were on this plane as it lined up in the darkness to try and hit this little airstrip just right. Once again, the plane came down at a steep angle, slammed its wheels on the ground and cut the power. But this time, the pilot hadn’t overshot the runway. He dropped in hard on the leading edge of the field so he could use every single foot in front of him to stop the plane, braking hard and taxiing all the way down to the end of the runway, then maneuvering off to the side as much as possible so the next planes wouldn’t hit the first one.

Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian joined the airmen in letting out a wild cheer as they saw the airplane come to a safe stop. This is like Babe Ruth hitting a home run to win the Series, Musulin thought.

Airmen and Serb villagers rushed the plane, screaming in celebration and urging the crew to hop out so they could be welcomed to Pranjane. Musulin and his team, along with some of the Chetnik soldiers, worked to keep the airstrip clear, pushing the crowd away from the parked plane and off the airstrip. Other planes were coming in, or at least Musulin hoped they were, and each landing was going to be just as risky as the one before it.

Musulin crouched by the airfield again, and with everyone else, watched as the second and third planes came in for landing, ignoring his previous orders to wait for the previous plane to take off and clear the field before coming in. The OSS team was on edge, wondering if they would end up with a pile of planes running into one another on the small field. Each landing was nerve-racking, but the planes made perfect landings—all except one that ran into a haystack near the airstrip and ended up with a severely dented wing tip. The planes taxied off the airstrip as much as they could, the wings of one plane sometimes passing over the wings of another, clearing by only a few inches. Then the first plane, the one that had overshot the runway, came back in for another attempt. Musulin felt for the crew, having to make this frightening landing more than once. But on the second try, the pilot knew exactly where to find the sweet spot. The last of the planes was on the ground and everyone could relax again. At least for a moment.

The airmen shook the hands of the C-47 crews, who all looked tremendously relieved to be on the ground, and the villagers greeted them with the same over-the-top show of hospitality to which the downed airmen had become accustomed. Burly men and stout women gave the rescue plane crews hearty bear hugs and kisses on both cheeks, while others threw flowers on them and pressed cups of plum brandy into their hands. Women and young girls rushed the C-47 crews to drape garlands of flowers around their necks. The moment was joyous, with the villagers singing songs in celebration and also as a farewell party for some of their American friends.

In the midst of the celebration, Musulin, Rajacich, and Jibilian were pleasantly surprised to see Nick Lalich step out of one of the C-47s. Vujnovich had thought it a waste to keep Lalich in Bari when he was so eager to help with this mission, so he sent him out on one of the first planes. He knew the OSS team could use another experienced hand on the ground, and he was right. As soon as they could make their way through the throng of airmen and villagers surrounding the planes, Musulin welcomed Lalich with a strong handshake and said he was glad to have the help.

As usual, Musulin was a favorite of the villagers and everyone wanted to sing and dance and drink with him, but the big American had to demur, for he still was in the middle of carrying out the most dangerous part of this mission. The planes were on the ground, and now he had to get them back in the air. He also kept worrying about whether the Germans would show up at any minute.

Four American planes circling, signal lights, flares, burning haystacks, and a green flare to top it all off. Could we do anything else to invite the Germans in?

Nick Petrovich, the young Chetnik soldier who was among the thousands of Mihailovich’s fighters around Pranjane, was on guard duty during the rescue. He was stationed about half a mile away on the one road leading up the mountain and into the village, crouched in the woods waiting for a German patrol to investigate the air show they must have seen from below. Petrovich was manning a fifty-caliber machine gun taken from a downed bomber, which he knew from experience acted more like a small piece of artillery than a machine gun. He had torn through German troops, trucks, and cars with the big gun already, so he was confident that if the Nazis came up the mountain to stop the rescue, he and his fellow soldiers could hold them off long enough to let the planes get back in the air. As they had many times before, Petrovich and the other Chetniks chose a spot on the road that was slightly elevated to give them a firing advantage, and on a curve so that the vehicles could be surprised when they came around the bend. If a patrol came near, the ambush team would hold their fire and let the first one or two vehicles come by, then open fire with the big fifty-caliber and their other weapons. Several soldiers were ready with hand grenades to throw at any Germans who tried to flee the vehicles.

But for the moment, the road was empty. No sign of Germans. Petrovich was trying to concentrate on watching the road, but he couldn’t help staring off in the distance at the airfield, which he could see clearly from his elevated hiding place. The airstrip danced with the flickering lights of the flares and burning haystacks, illuminating the hundreds of figures dancing in the open field and pressed close to the four big planes that Petrovich saw come in earlier. He had watched in awe as the C-47s came down at treetop level, just barely clearing the surrounding woods and then dropping down sharply onto the airstrip. Petrovich was sure the planes were going to crash, especially when he saw the first plane go down and right back up again. When the next planes went down and taxied to a safe stop, Petrovich and his fellow soldiers were overjoyed, letting out a cry of celebration that echoed the cheers rising from the airfield, waving their rifles high in the air and hugging one another with joy. The Americans are here!

Petrovich couldn’t take his eyes off the spectacle below, and he longed to be with the rest of the Chetniks celebrating on the airfield. But he was also immensely proud to be part of the operation, and he knew it was vital that he guard the road. There was still every reason to think the Germans would come investigate this outlandish incursion into their territory.

He tried to keep his eyes on the road, but he kept going back to stare at the airfield in the distance. It was such a sight.

It looks like a movie. Just like an American movie.

The celebration on the airstrip continued as Musulin conferred with the pilots of the rescue planes and discussed plans for the next rescue flights that would come in. He wanted to know if the field was suitable for more rescues and if they could count on more of the men going out in the next few days. The pilots assured him the field was okay, though it made for a dicey landing. The first plane just overshot the runway, touching down too far down the runway, and then the other pilots knew where they needed to aim.

Once he had the information, Musulin didn’t want to waste any more time. About ten thirty p.m., Musulin ordered the men to clear the field so the planes could be readied for takeoff. Then he called for the predetermined seventy-two men who were going home that night, and the group ran and hobbled toward the planes at the end of the field, some helping the injured airmen along. Musulin divided the men up into groups of twelve to assign them to planes, and then had to break the bad news to the last twenty-four on the list.

“You boys won’t be going tonight,” he told them. “The other two planes couldn’t make it in, so you’ll have to go out tomorrow.”

The twenty-four men were disappointed to have come this close only to be told they would still have to wait. One of the C-47 pilots spoke up and told Musulin that he could take more than the twelve he was assigned, but the boss vetoed that idea.

“You’ll be lucky to get over those trees with just twelve,” he said. “We can’t let you take any more.”

That was the end of the discussion, and the airmen began loading up on the planes. Thomas Oliver, the airman whose complicated code helped set the rescue in motion, was among the lucky ones going out on this first night. One of the C-47s was mired in the soft ground at the end of the airstrip, so a couple dozen airmen manhandled it back onto solid ground before the men loaded. As the four planes were loading, those going home said their good-byes to the other airmen, shouting, “See you in Italy!” and those staying behind yelled, “Tell them to have chow ready when I get there!” The airmen leaving Pranjane knew they would not be apart from their friends for long because they were all going to the same base in Italy to be debriefed and receive medical care, but the situation was different with the local Serb villagers who had sheltered them and risked their lives to protect them. These people had tears in their eyes as they watched their American charges board the planes, and more than a few Americans began to tear up as they hugged the men and women who had done so much for them and who had to stay behind in German territory. As much as Musulin wanted to load the planes in a hurry and get them airborne, he couldn’t deny people the chance to say good-bye. The embraces were long, and even though most of the villagers and airmen could not speak more than a few words of each other’s language, the expressions on their faces said everything. The villagers were happy for the airmen but sad to see them go, and the Americans were so grateful that they had to keep saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and hope that their hosts understood. Some of the villagers presented the departing airmen with homemade Serbian national rugs, a unique handcraft of the region, draping them around the men’s shoulders and kissing them on the cheeks. After long emotional moments, the embraces ended and the airmen clambered aboard the four airplanes, waving a final good-bye to everyone outside.

They were going home. They were finally getting out of Yugoslavia. The airmen sat on the hard metal seats lining the edges of the plane’s interior, facing the center of the plane, and readied themselves for the most dangerous takeoff they would ever experience. If they could get off the ground safely, and avoid German fighter planes for several hours, their journey out of Yugoslavia would be complete.

But as they sat there waiting for takeoff, the airmen in the four planes, almost as a group, had a sudden realization. The airmen and locals gathered outside saw one of the plane’s doors open again, followed by another, another, and then all of the doors were open. Musulin wondered what was going on. These planes need to get in the air. They barely have enough fuel to get back to Italy, so we can’t keep them here much longer.

And then he saw the first airman at the door bend down and unlace his army boots. He held the boots up high and yelled to a local villager he had befriended. “Radisa! Here! For you! Take these!” Then another man was at the door of another plane shouting the same thing. In seconds, the doors were crowded with airmen shucking their boots and throwing them out the door to the astonished villagers, many of whom were making do with nothing but traditional felt slippers even when the weather turned cold and snowy. The airmen were glad to have some way to show their appreciation, some even tossing their flight jackets, socks, and shirts to the villagers, who cheered and shouted their thanks, their eyes filling with tears all over again.

With the doors finally closed for the last time, the crowds moved away and Musulin gave the order for the first plane to take off. He wasn’t at all sure the celebration would last, because he knew the C-47s were going to have a hard time getting in the air again.

This could all be for naught if they crash trying to take off. This isn’t over by a long shot. Not yet.

Everyone else knew the challenge facing the pilots, too, and the mood quickly turned from celebratory to anxious again. The hundreds of airmen and villagers spread out along the sides of the runway and prayed for the best, all knowing that this moment was every bit as risky as the landings that had scared them so much a half hour earlier. Musulin stood with Rajacich and Jibilian, watching as the plane’s engines roared to full throttle and the pilot started off down the airstrip, bumping along the uneven ground so much that the airmen in the back struggled to stay in their seats. In a reversal of the landing they had just witnessed, everyone in Pranjane stared intently at the plane as it picked up speed, its nose pointed high as it rumbled along toward the trees at the end, hundreds of prayers following it along. In what seemed slow motion, the rear of the plane left the ground so that the body was horizontal and the nose pointed forward; then finally the plane’s big front wheels left the ground. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the plane rose into the air and those watching on the ground tensed with anticipation. The trees were so near, and the plane was not gaining altitude quickly . . .

A long moment passed as the plane struggled upward . . . and then the plane roared over the treetops, pulling its wheels in just in time to give it the few inches of clearance that made the difference between success and failure. From his guard post in the woods, Petrovich watched with wonder and admiration as the plane nearly brushed the treetops and flew right over him. He turned to watch the plane fly on and climb ever higher. Then within a few minutes, another C-47 repeated the same feat with about the same margin of error. Before long, all four planes were back in the air, circling Pranjane as they climbed higher and higher for enough altitude to get over the nearby mountain range.

Onboard the planes, the airmen were excited to be going back to Italy, and relieved that they hadn’t died on takeoff. They settled in for a long, cold flight, many of them shoving their bare feet in canvas bags and wrapping themselves in anything else they could find on the plane.

Musgrove and the other men left behind were overjoyed at the sight of the four planes flying off and disappearing into the inky black night. All of the waiting and worrying, all the hard work they had put into this airstrip had paid off. Those men were on their way, finally, and every other airman could finally let himself think that he too would be back in free territory before long.

Felman and Musulin were thrilled to see the planes get off the airstrip, but they were worried. It all seemed too dicey to do it over and over again. Everything about the rescue was on a knife’s edge, requiring nothing but a gust of wind or a pilot’s uncertain push on the yoke to turn the success into a disaster. The two men conferred and ultimately it was Musulin’s decision as the OSS team leader. He called Jibilian over and told him to send a message to Bari.

“Tell them this was too much, Jibby. We’re pushing our luck. Tell Bari we’re not doing any more night landings. Let’s try again at dawn.”

Jibilian sent the message as instructed, but the OSS team didn’t know what would happen next. He kept looking for a return message from Bari that would confirm the landings for the next morning, but there was no signal. Did that mean Bari disagreed and wouldn’t send the planes again? Or were they just not hearing the radio reply?

Musulin wasn’t sure yet what the army would decide to do if night landings were too risky, so he was waiting to see. The army had insisted that night landings were necessary to keep the rescue planes safe from German attacks, and Musulin knew that they were right. Those planes were lucky to get in and out without running into a Messerschmitt even at night, and it would be asking even more of them to come in during the day when German planes were everywhere. How much could they ask of these C-47 pilots? Was it too much to think that tonight’s rescue could be repeated over and over? Surely those C-47 pilots were going to report that the landings and takeoffs were death-defying feats. Musulin and Felman worried that, as exhilarating as it was to see those forty-eight men rescued, it might have been a lark. They were incredibly lucky tonight, but what would happen next time, and the next time after that? They had to consider the idea that, as much as they hated to even think it, maybe those forty-eight men were the only ones who would be rescued in Operation Halyard.

Word spread throughout the airmen that the night landings had been canceled. Felman did his best to keep the men’s spirits up, assuring them that the planes would be back, but the airmen’s emotions were on a delicate balance now. The least thing could send them soaring into euphoria or plunging into despair. The news that tonight’s feat would not be repeated made more than a few conclude that the operation was over and they had not been lucky enough to get out on the first night. Surely those C-47s wouldn’t stroll right into German territory like this in broad daylight.

No one left the airstrip that night. They huddled in the woods or out under the stars, unwilling to leave the field in case the planes returned unexpectedly. Some were optimistic and scanned the skies for any signs of an incoming plane, but many grew depressed at the idea of remaining behind enemy lines for God knew how long.

But at eight a.m., as the men huddled in the cold, everything changed. A few men heard it first and perked up, standing to scan the horizon. They heard planes. Others joined them in looking for the source of the sound, a loud rumble that signaled more than just a lone German scout plane. Had last night’s debacle tipped off the Germans to their location? Was a whole wave of German planes about to bomb and strafe them?

Many of the airmen, along with the OSS agents, at first thought the sound might be another sortie of bombers passing overhead on the way to bomb Ploesti. They saw the overflights regularly, and this sounded big enough to be a bomb run.

Then they saw them. They weren’t German planes. They were American, but not bombers. And not just another C-47 willing to risk landing on their little airstrip. The airmen saw a beautiful sight in the morning’s blue sky: a whole swarm of American P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightning fighter planes, well known to the airmen for their ferocity and the ability to strike fear in any German pilot. And right behind them, the C-47s. Not just one. It looked like half a dozen. The sky was full of planes.

They had returned—in daylight, with fighters! The men couldn’t believe it. The doubters went from the deepest depression to uncontrollable joy in an instant. The men counted six C-47s and about thirty fighters—a buzzing cloud of American spirit headed for their airstrip. The P-51 Mustang, a single-engine fighter, and the P-38 Lightning, a two-engine twin boom fighter, routinely escorted bomber planes on their missions over Europe, so every one of the bomber crews on the ground in Pranjane knew them as one of the most welcome sights when they were in trouble. The fighters were a good match for the Luftwaffe, and the downed airmen instantly felt protected. The C-47s would take them home, but by God, those Mustangs and Lightnings were the cavalry coming in to save the day.

The airmen cheered and jumped up and down, waving their caps and blankets at the planes as they drew nearer. As they passed over the airstrip, the fighter planes wagged their wings in salute and made a few dramatic stunt maneuvers for the airmen before breaking off, diving down into the valleys to attack German camps and keep them busy while the cargo planes landed. The fighters attacked anything German within a fifty-mile radius of the airstrip as the C-47s circled and positioned themselves for landing. The airmen could hear the fighters strafing the German encampments and zooming back up to circle around for another run. They were giving the Germans hell, and the airmen couldn’t have been happier.

Lalich was on the radio serving as air-traffic controller for the C-47s coming in. The airstrip was just as short and bumpy as it had been the night before, but in the light of day, the big planes were able to get down safely. It was nonetheless still the kind of landing that the pilots would talk about over beers for many years to come. To make sure they didn’t run off the end of the runway and into the trees, some of the pilots even used a potentially disastrous technique called the “ground loop,” a rapid horizontal spin on the ground. This quick U-turn solves the problem when running out of runway, but only if the pilot avoids the tendency for the inside wing to rise and the outside wing to scrape the ground, which happens more if the ground surface is soft like on an improvised airstrip. If the outside wing digs in, the aircraft will skid violently or even cart-wheel. The ground loops amounted to a dramatic flourish for the airmen on the ground, who knew the danger in pulling such a maneuver in a big plane like the C-47. The airmen let out another hearty cheer of appreciation when they saw the risky maneuver completed successfully. Musulin admired the bravery of the C-47 pilots and thought they must be the best around, but he also thought they might have more guts than brains.

Everyone involved with preparing the field was elated at the success of the landings. The Mihailovich soldier in charge of guarding the airfield strutted around with his chest puffed out, a big grin on his face.

“Tell me,” he asked an airman standing nearby, “is LaGuardia airfield anything like this?”

The scene from the previous night was repeated, with cheers and celebration every time a C-47 touched down, but today there was more of a sense of urgency. Once the six planes were on the ground, Musulin and Felman quickly hustled the chosen men onto them, usually twelve at a time. Seeing that the planes could take off safely, if not easily, Musulin eased up a bit on the twelve-man limit and allowed a few more men on some planes. The first men on the planes were the twenty-four sick and wounded who hadn’t made it onto the previous night’s planes, followed by other injured men, including Felman. As he boarded the C-47, Felman was overcome by the way the airmen wanted to show their gratitude to the Serb villagers who had helped them. Like those on the planes the previous night, many of the men on the rescue planes were shoeless and shivering in the cold, having given everything they could to the peasants who had kept them alive for so long.

In a repeat of the previous night’s dramatic departures, the planes rumbled down the runway as fast as possible and slowly climbed to just barely clear the surrounding woods, more than one brushing the treetops with its wheels as it soared away. Musulin was astounded at the skills of the C-47 pilots and concluded they were some of the hottest fliers he had ever seen. A half hour after landing, the first six planes were off again, circling Pranjane to gain altitude and then forming a clumsy V formation for the return to Italy. When the rescue planes were assembled, the fighter escorts regrouped around them and the American planes dipped their wings in a farewell salute before heading toward the horizon.

Half an hour later, at nine a.m., another group of six C-47s and twenty-five fighter planes arrived for the remainder of the airmen, including Musgrove. They repeated the same scene again with cheering airmen, jubilant villagers, and more fighter attacks on the surrounding German forces.

One of the last planes became mired in the mud and Musulin worried for a while that it might have to be left there. Leaving the plane was in itself not a huge concern because the crew and passengers could be spread among the other departing planes. But leaving a big C-47 sitting out in the open would be a glaring sign to any German planes flying overhead later, and the villagers of Pranjane would pay the price after the Americans were safely back in Italy. They couldn’t let that happen, so Musulin organized a hundred Serbs to push the plane out of the muck.

As the planes lined up for the takeoffs that would take out the rest of the airmen currently in Pranjane, Musulin checked his records and saw that one was missing. No one knew where he was and Musulin wasn’t about to hold up the planes to look for him. Just as the last plane out of Pranjane was about to take off, the missing man came stumbling out of the woods, rushing to the plane in a stagger. He had overindulged in plum brandy during the night and almost missed his flight.

The Americans were so thankful to the local Serbs for their help in saving the airmen that they offered evacuation to two who needed urgent medical attention. One was a man going blind, and the other had a serious leg injury. Musulin, as the rescue team leader, found it hard to shun these men when the Serbs were doing so much for the Americans and he gave approval for these two men to be evacuated on one of the first C-47s to arrive that day. But by the end of the morning he found out that he had stepped on some toes back in Italy. The Serb fighters were still officially seen as Nazi collaborators, no matter what they had done for American airmen, so army leaders in Bari were not pleased to see them step off the plane with the rescued airmen and considered their evacuation a grave indiscretion by Musulin. The error might have been overlooked except that several of Tito’s Partisans were at the airfield in Bari when the plane landed and they recognized the two Serbs as Mihailovich guerrillas. Musulin soon had orders to get on one of the rescue planes and return to Italy. He argued with his superiors by radio, hoping to change their minds and stay to help rescue more airmen, but his immediate concern was whether Germans were soon going to attack Pranjane.

Assuming that there was no way the Germans didn’t notice what happened in Pranjane, Musulin and his team retreated ten miles into the mountains to wait. While hiding out and keeping an eye on the village below, Jibilian received radio communications from Bari congratulating the team on a successful mission. As they hid in the mountains, villagers brought them five more Americans who had arrived in Pranjane only hours too late. The airmen were furious that they had come so close to rescue but missed their ride.

After several days in the mountains with no evidence that the Germans would attack Pranjane, Musulin decided to take the OSS team and the five airmen back down into the village. Though they found it hard to believe, the only conclusion that made sense was that the American fighter planes had so effectively attacked the German garrison that the troops dug in for protection and never saw the C-47s.

The team remained in Pranjane and greeted more American fliers, but the urgent messages from Bari kept ordering Musulin out. Reluctantly leaving Yugoslavia for a second time, Musulin returned to Bari on August 26. Initially there were calls to court-martial Musulin for refusing the order to offer no aid to Mihailovich during the mission, but the furor soon died down.

Rajacich and Jibilian stayed behind but didn’t know how long they would be permitted to stay in Yugoslavia. Nick Lalich took over the OSS team and concluded just as quickly as Musulin had that the Serbs were completely loyal to the American cause. Lalich obtained permission for the team to stay in Yugoslavia, soon reporting that he had met with Mihailovich, who said he could funnel many more men to be rescued. We can take more, Lalich reported. There are a lot more men to be rescued. Despite ongoing misgivings about whether Mihailovich could be trusted, the authorities in Italy gave permission for Lalich, Rajacich, and Jibilian to stay in Yugoslavia and coordinate more rescues.

The airmen were surprised to hear from the crew members on the C-47s that some of the rescue planes had dropped supplies to Tito’s forces, the enemy of the man who had harbored the airmen, on the way to Pranjane. In one of the later rescue flights, a crewman stepped out of the C-47 and happily announced that they had made a successful drop to the Partisans on the way over. The unsuspecting airman nearly had his throat slit by the Serb fighters before the Americans intervened and bundled him back into the plane.

Two hundred and forty-one U.S. airmen were rescued on the night of August 9 and the morning of August 10, along with six British, four French, nine Italians, and twelve Russians—a total of 272 men rescued, when Vujnovich and the other OSS leaders thought it would be a stretch to retrieve one hundred. Still, these airmen were only the first of hundreds to be rescued through Operation Halyard. All made it safely back to the U.S. air bases in Italy.

A mission that was supposed to last a couple of weeks went on for six months, during which the OSS team rescued 432 American airmen, and eighty personnel from British, Canadian, French, Italian, and Russian units. As Robert Wilson, Mike McKool, and all the other downed airmen made their way to Pranjane under the protection of Mihailovich and his fighters through December 27, 1944, they learned of the ongoing mission and prepared for repeats of the same landing and takeoff dramas that preceded them. The total number of men rescued was 512, with not a single life lost in the effort.

Operation Halyard, an audacious response to a desperate radio call for help and the query of a curious young woman in the States, turned out to be the most successful rescue ever of downed airmen behind enemy lines and one of the largest rescue missions of any type in World War II or since.

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