US honors Serbian support of massive WWII airlift
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 21, 2016
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — More than 70 years after villagers in rural Serbia risked their lives to rescue hundreds of Allied airmen from behind Nazi lines, U.S. and Serbian military and government officials are helping to ensure their story isn’t forgotten.
On Friday, the State Department, the U.S. Air Force, the British air force, Serbian armed forces and local government officials attended a commemoration event in the town of Pranjani, Serbia, to honor the villagers who did the heavy lifting — literally — in Operation Halyard.
The operation resulted in the rescue of more than 500 allied airmen from German-occupied Serbia — then part of the former Yugoslavia — over a six-month period between July and December 1944, without a single casualty or loss of a transport plane.
Planned and organized by the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, it’s considered one of the greatest rescue missions of World War II and remains the largest rescue operation of U.S. airmen in history.
“It was pretty amazing what these common people did to take care of people they didn’t even know but who had a common enemy against the Nazis,” said Brig. Gen. Randy Huston, who represented the U.S. Air Force at the ceremony and at other events last week in Serbia.
Huston spoke to villagers, local mayors and other officials at the outdoor ceremony held on a hilltop field where a makeshift air strip was built during the war to facilitate the airmen’s rescue.
“It’s amazing how everybody in the village turned out to prepare this runway, to level it off, to expand it and bring in rocks,” Huston said in a phone interview from Serbia Friday, noting that he was told many of those rocks can still be found in the area.
Walking the same ground, Huston said, “you can still see why it was the only location really that they could land the C-47s at, in this hilly and mountainous terrain.”
Many ordinary Serbs remain angry at the United States for leading a NATO bombing campaign in 1999, which claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. Since then, Serbia’s government has declared its military neutrality and has rejected proposals to join NATO.
Foreign and Serbian delegations placed wreaths at the base of a monument in the hilltop field that commemorates the bravery of the villagers and the organizations involved in the operation, according to a U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa news release.
Kyle Scott, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, also spoke at the ceremony. “This event commemorates the incredibly strong friendship between our two nations,” he was quoted as saying in the release. “Through the course of two world wars, we have stood shoulder to shoulder.”
Huston said the ceremony was intended to recognize the sacrifices made by individual Serbian citizens and to convey Americans’ gratitude.
Villagers cut down trees, used work animals to plow the field and built the runway with their bare hands, all while under “the watchful eye of the Germans,” Huston said, “hiding it so it looked like they were expanding the field for agricultural purposes.”
Scores of U.S. and British bombers were shot down over Yugoslavia en route from Italy to bomb the Romanian oil fields vital to the Nazi war effort. The bombers, which were detected by Germans when they had to climb over the Yugoslav mountains, were intercepted by fighter aircraft and then pummeled by massed anti-aircraft guns.
Hundreds of airmen parachuted from their stricken bombers into Nazi-controlled territory, not knowing where they were and what they would find once on the ground, Huston said.
Instead of capture, they were met by people who “wrapped them in their arms,” gave them a local plum brandy called rakija; took them into their homes and gave them food, when they barely had enough food to feed their families, Huston said.
It’s important to remember “so they know that we haven’t forgotten,” he said, and to express “the incredible gratitude we have that they took care of our folks.”
Huston and the group also toured several other sites, including a hospital where injured airmen were treated during the war and a farmhouse where an airman helped take care of a family’s small child during his two-month stay.
Along the way, the group saw some of the seven bilingual markers that were unveiled to help tell the story of the Halyard Operation, Huston said.
The heroic acts of Operation Halyard were swept under the carpet for many years after World War II, when the communists took control of Serbia in 1945.
“I’m pleased that the truth is coming out,” Huston said. “When you hear the story, you learn what the Serbian people truly are, and that is a really hospitable, giving, just courageous people.”