George Vujnovich: OSS agent whose Operation Halyard saved allied airmen

A runway for the cargo planes was built on a plateau only 50 yards wide halfway up a mountain

Major George Vujnovich was an OSS agent who planned and organised one of the greatest rescue missions of the Second World War, Operation Halyard. Audacious and daring, its execution, over a six-month period between July and December 1944, was flawless and saw 512 Allied airmen stealthily rescued from behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia without a single casualty or loss of an aeroplane. However, the operation remained secret for over 60 years thanks to the political intrigues of post-war Europe and the Cold War.

The son of Serbian parents who emigrated to the US in 1912, George Mane Vujnovich was born in Pittsburgh in 1934. He won a scholarship from the Serb National Federation to read medicine at Belgrade University and there met and married Mirjana, a teacher. In April 1941, following the Luftwaffe's bombing of Belgrade, the couple fled, ending up in West Africa, where George got a job with Pan Am Airlines. His wife reached the US and secured a job at the Yugoslav Embassy in Washington.

With America's entry into the war Vujnovich received a commission as second lieutenant and assumed command of an airbase in Nigeria. There he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the US intelligence organisation that preceded the CIA, because of his knowledge of Yugoslavia.

After the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, and the successful landing on mainland Italy in September, Italy capitulated. With the Allies in control of southern Italy they turned their attention to the lifeblood of Hitler's war machine, the petroleum refineries in Romania. During the summer of 1944 they flew thousands of sorties against the oil refineries around Ploesti, a major fuel source for Germany. But as they flew from Italy and across Yugoslavia to get there, losses were high, with about 1,500 crews bailing out over Nazi-occupied territory. Yugoslavia was enemy territory but much of its Serbian regions remained under the control of the Yugoslav resistance leader Draza Mihailovich and his Chetnik forces. At great risk to the Serbians many airmen were found and sheltered from the Nazis.

Also opposing the Nazis were the Communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito, a Croat who had joined the fight after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Tito wanted to rule a Communist Yugoslavia after defeating the Nazis, but Mihailovich stood in the way. Mihailovich passed information about the downed Allied airmen to the Yugoslav Embassy in Washington from where it went to the US authorities, and, thanks to his wife, to Vujnovich, who was by then based in Bari in southern Italy.

Vujnovich devised an escape plan; although the US State Department and the British opposed the mission, General Nathan Twining, commander of the 15th Air Force, wanted to get "his boys" back and President Roosevelt approved. Because Winston Churchill did not want him making direct contact with Mihailovich, Vujnovich was not allowed to go.

Following a number of aborted attempts, Operation Halyard commenced on 2 August 1944, when a three-man Serbian-speaking OSS team trained by Vujnovich parachuted into Serbia. "I had to show them how to tie their shoes and tuck the laces in, like the Serbs did, and how to eat like the Serbs, pushing the food on to their fork with the knife," Vujnovich recalled.

In the village of Pranjani, 30 miles from a German garrison, 200 airmen and 300 Chetniks built a 700ft dirt airstrip on a plateau 50 yards wide halfway up a mountain, the minimum length needed to land the C-47 cargo planes that would carry the airmen to safety. Thanks to Mihailovich's guerrillas, who secured the terrain, the operation was successful.

Over the next six months Allied planes flew undetected under Axis noses to rescue 512 airmen. The first four C-47 transporters were sent at night to the unlit runway, with the plateau surrounded by mountain ranges, but the landings were deemed too dangerous, so later flights were made during the day with fighter planes providing cover. Most of the airmen were picked up at Pranjani, but some were rescued from improvised airstrips elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

After the war there was much blood-letting in Yugoslavia; Mihailovich was captured by Tito's forces and accused of collaboration with the Nazis, which he denied. He was executed in July 1946. He was, however, posthumously, and secretly, awarded the Legion of Merit by President Truman in 1948, a belated recognition that he had, in fact, been a strong American ally.

Vujnovich accepted an award from the OSS Society in 2008 and received the Bronze Star in 2010. "This mission would not have succeeded without the great courage of Draza Mihailovich and his brave men," he said.

After the war, Vujnovich ran a business supplying parts to aircraft companies.

George Mane Vujnovich, OSS agent: born Pittsburgh 31 May 1915; married Mirjana Lazich (died 2003; one daughter); died New York 24 April 2012.

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
premier league
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam