This past spring, I made two business trips to Serbia. March was my first time ever to visit this Balkan country, which was part of the former Yugoslavia. Upon arrival, jet-lagged though we were, my distributor took a colleague and me to see a piece of history with which we were previously unfamiliar.
The rugged mountains southwest of Belgrade continue to lose population. After many winding hair-pin turns through seemingly abandoned villages, we arrived in the village of Pranjani. This was among the villages to secretly provide shelter for many American pilots and air crews, who had been shot down, as the Nazis had divided Yugoslavia and occupied Serbia.
In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which is the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), recruited two American soldiers who spoke Serbian, Lieutenant George Musulin and Sergeant Mike Rajacich, for a very dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Once on the ground, they linked up with Yugoslav Army Captain Zvonko Vuckovic. Together, they organized the villagers and American airmen and, by hand, converted a crop field near Galovica into an improvised air strip.
From August 9 to September 5, 1944, during day and night landings with C-47 transport aircraft escorted by P-51 Mustangs, 343 pilots along with others, totaling over 500 airmen, were evacuated in flights across the Adriatic Sea to Bari, Italy. This became known as Operation Halyard, which was the greatest American rescue mission of World War II.
Today, the poor village of Pranjani has a modern school. It was built as a gift from the USA through the US European Command in Stuttgart, Germany and the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) of the US Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. Throughout the building are mementos from various American visitors, to include the Ohio National Guard and Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, among others.
Mr. Manojle Jevtovic’s household was a safe house to the B-24 crew led by pilot Charles Davis. Today, his grandson, Slavko Jevtovic, has an agritourism bed & breakfast and restaurant near the improvised air strip. We were fortunate to have dinner there. On his wall was an award presented to his family in recognition of their dedication and sacrifice displayed in coming to the aid of US airmen in the face of great danger. To this day, the Jevtovic and Davis families are very close!
The Halyard Mission Foundation was established with Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) John Cappello as its president. The foundation organizes a Day of Remembrance on the third Saturday of each September. Descendants of the rescued American airmen and descendants of those who rescued them gather for a solemn ceremony at the Pranjani Memorial Complex.
After I told him of my first experience in Serbia and this part of World War II history I never knew, my friend Rob Davis told me that this story has been written and loaned me his book, The Forgotten 500! I am now in the process of reading it.
On this Veterans’ Day, please remember military linguists, such as Lieutenant George Musulin and Sergeant Mike Rajacich, and the perilous missions they fulfilled for the freedom of others. After all, our country is now welcoming many Afghan linguists and their families, who put their lives at risk to help us.