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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — George Vujnovich, an American intelligence agent who led the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines during World War II, died last week at the age of 96, according to media reports.

In 1944, the Serbian-American officer in the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) organized successful efforts to insert a team into what was then Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and rescue more than 500 pilots and airmen who had been downed trying to cross the territory to bomb Hitler’s oil fields in Romania, according to an obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The airmen had been hidden in villages and protected by forces loyal to Serbian guerrilla fighter Draza Mihailovich,the obituary said. While stationed in Italy, Vujnovich devised the rescue plan, which included building a secret airfield without any tools, and assembling a team of Serbian-speaking agents to parachute in and lead the effort.

The mission, called “Operation Halyard,” was relatively unknown until a 2007 book titled “The Forgotten 500,” by Gregory Freeman, the obituary said. Vujnovich was awarded the Bronze Star in 2010 for his efforts.

“We didn’t lose a single man. It’s an interesting history. Even in Serbia, they don’t know much about it,” Vujnovich told the Post-Gazette in 2008, when he accepted an award from the OSS Society at age 93.

“I taught these agents they had to take all the tags off their clothing,” Vujnovich would tell The New York Times in 2010. “They were carrying Camel 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.”

Vujnovich was born in Pittsburgh in 1915 to Serbian immigrants, according to the obituary. After graduating high school, he received a scholarship to study at the University of Belgrade. It was there he met his future wife, Mirjana Lazich.

Vujnovich witnessed the bombing of Belgrade by the Germans in 1941 and with his wife, fled to Hungary, then Turkey, Jerusalem and finally to Cairo as Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps approached, the obituary said. Vujnovich found a job with Pan American Airways in Egypt and was commissioned into the Army when the U.S. entered the war and militarized the company.

After being transferred to an air base in Nigeria, he rose to base commander, the obituary said. He was then recruited by the OSS to aid resistance forces in the Balkans because of his experience in Yugoslavia and service as an air officer. After receiving training in Virginia, he was sent to Bari, Italy.

On Aug. 2, 1944, the team landed and met with Mihailovich, the obituary said. They immediately got to work building the 700-foot airstrip that was barely long enough for 15th Air Force’s C-47s. They moved around every night to avoid detection, according to The Associated Press.

Between Aug. 9 and Dec. 27, the rescuers ushered 512 airmen to freedom, right from under the noses of the Nazis, the Post-Gazette obituary states.

Vujnovich, a long retired salesman of aircraft parts, died at his home in Queens, N.Y., of natural causes, The AP reported. His wife died in 2003. He is survived by a daughter and a brother.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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