George Vujnovich Dies
George Vujnovich orchestrated Operation Halyard, which rescued 512 airmen whose Dakota C47s (pictured) had been attacked by Nazi Luftwaffe aircraft during World War II. Greg Heywood

George Vujnovich led what has been called one of the greatest rescue missions of World War II. He passed away of natural causes in New York City on April 24 at age 96.

Vujnovich was a Bronze Star Medal recipient. He served as an agent for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a U.S. intelligence organization that preceded the CIA. Vujnovich orchestrated Operation Halyard in 1944, stealthily rescuing a group of U.S. airmen who were stranded in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia during the final years of World War II. But those who don't know his name can be forgiven, as the story of Vulnovich's greatest triumph was kept under wraps for over 60 years.

The Untold Story

A book about Operation Halyard, called The Forgotten 500, was written by Gregory A. Freeman in 2007. In 2010, Vujnovich received a Bronze Star Medal of Honor for his work. Despite these recognitions, there was relatively little public knowledge about this Pittsburgh-born veteran. Now, Vujnovich's death has occasioned new interest in his extraordinary story.

Vujnovich was born to Serbian immigrants in 1915. He traveled to Belgrade for university studies, where he met his wife Mirjana. When Germany bombed the city in 1941, Vujnovich witnessed the carnage in person. He and his wife decided to flee Belgrade.

On their way to Bulgaria, an outlandish coincidence helped them make their escape.

Mirjana did not have a passport, but was helped through customs by none other than Magda Goebbels, the wife of Hitler's minster of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Mirjana became airsick while sitting next to Magda, who felt sorry for her ailing seatmate. Upon landing, Magda Goebbels angrily rebuffed the customs officer who asked for Mirjana's documents, enabling her to slip through security.

This was an especially strange twist of fate since it was Mirjana who would be the first to alert her husband to the plight of the U.S. airmen hiding from Nazi forces in Yugoslavia.

Men Down

In 1944, U.S. air forces were en route to Romania to bomb the oil refineries around Ploesti, which was a major fuel source for Axis powers. But under Luftwaffe air fire, a group of planes went down over the area that is now Serbia. Pilots were forced to bail out of their aircraft and parachute down into Nazi-occupied territory.

Those troops were found and assisted by Yugoslav guerillas under the command of General Draza Mihailovich, a royalist Serb who supported the Allied cause.

Vujnovich, meanwhile, had joined the army and was recruited into the OSS. By 1944, he was stationed in Bari, Italy. Mirjana had taken a job at the Yugoslav Embassy in Washington, D.C.

At the embassy, Mirjana came across a telegram from Yugoslavia. The message, sent to alert American authorities to the presence of downed Allied airmen, came from General Mihailovich. He and his forces had been helping Allied soldiers hide from the Nazis in barns and farmhouses.

Mirjana relayed the information to her husband, and Vujnovich took action. Thus began Operation Halyard, which would rescue hundreds of Allied soldiers from Axis territory.

We didn't lose a single man, said Vujnovich to the New York Times 66 years later. It's an interesting history. Even in Serbia they don't much know about it.

Vujnovich would have gone to Yugoslavia himself, had that idea not been vetoed in a telegram from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. So it was from Italy that he orchestrated the risky mission, which involved getting Allied agents into Yugoslavia undetected by training them to behave like Serbs.

I taught these agents they had to take all the tags off their clothing, Vujnovich said. They were carrying Camels and Lucky Strikes cigarettes, and holding U.S. currency. I told them to get rid of it. 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 onto their fork with the knife.

With the help of Mihailovich on the ground in Yugoslavia, the operation was successful. Using no sophisticated tools or machinery, Allied agents under Vujnovich's command carved a makeshift runway out of mountainous terrain. It was just long enough for Allied C-47 Skytrains to land and lift off. Over the course of six months, Allied planes flew right under Axis noses to quietly rescue 512 airmen.

A Clandestine Operation

For years, hardly anyone knew about Operation Halyard. That's because the mission was kept under wraps after the Allies threw their support behind a communist Yugoslav named Josip Broz Tito, a rival to royalist Mihailovich and his Chetnik Detachments.

The Allies' allegiance to Tito's communist forces was engineered partly to justify the Soviet Union's heavy troop losses against Nazi Germany.

America ceased to support Mihailovich, and the story of his efforts to help U.S. airmen was suppressed. So, too, was the overall story of Operation Halyard; not even Vujnovich discussed it after retiring from the military. There was a strict rule in the OSS to not talk about these things -- they teach you to compartmentalize them and lock them away, he explained.

Mihailovich was executed by Tito's government in 1946.

Vujnovich's achievements were not fully recognized by the U.S. military until 66 years after Operation Halyard. Mirjana had passed away, and he had been living alone in Jackson Heights, Queens.

In October of 2010, Vujnovich was awarded the Bronze Star during a small ceremony behind the red wooden doors of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sava, which is on West 26th Street near Broadway in Manhattan.

Flanked by bouquets of white flowers, Vujnovich wore a brown suit and glasses as he addressed the small crowd before him. I am deeply honored to accept the Bronze Star Medal for my work on Operation Halyard, he said. He recounted some details of his 1944 mission, mentioning his wife Mirjana and wishing she had lived to see the ceremony. At the end of his short speech, Vujnovich expressed his undying gratitude for those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the cause of freedom.

Vujnovich is survived by his brother, daughter, son-in-law, and one granddaughter. His funeral service was held on April 28 at the St. Sava Serbian Cathedral.