The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A Freeman

The true story about the men behind Operation Halyard, the mission to rescue over 500 downed American airmen from behind enemy lines, right under the German’s noses….
Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
28 Sep 2023

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II is possibly one of the greatest war stories you have never heard. Why have you never heard about it? Because the US, British, and Yugoslav governments kept it under wraps for decades because of political reasons.

The oil refineries of Ploiesti in Romania were the target of the B-24’s flying for the 15th Air Force out of Italy. Many of them, shot up by enemy fighters, or damaged by flak, went down in German occupied Yugoslavia. At the time, Yugoslavia, in addition to flighting against the Germans, were embroiled in their own civil war between the followers of Draža Mihailović and Marshal Tito.

James Klugmann, a communist spy who was working for the British as an intelligence officer stationed in Yugoslavia, managed to shift support from the Allies to Tito, who was also a communist. This abandonment of Mihailović and support of Tito would place Yugoslavia under communist rule for decades following the end of WWII.

Despite the abandonment by the allies, Mihailović continued to protect the downed American airmen, sometimes at the expense of his own people. In efforts to find the downed pilots, the Germans would torture the Yugoslavs and sometimes destroy entire villages, killing all the men, women, and children suspected of hiding the airmen.

Freeman does an incredible job weaving together the stories of the airmen and the secret service agents who coordinated the rescue.

You meet the young American, George Vujnovich, who was born in Pittsburgh to Serbian immigrants. He attended the University of Belgrade in Yugoslavia and there met his wife Mirjana. Without her help years later the rescue might never have taken place. 

George Musulin was born to Serbian parents and grew up in Pennsylvania and played professional football in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Chicago before becoming a Captain in the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) during WWII. They changed the weight limits for parachuting so he could drop behind enemy lines, with the jumpmasters wondering how many panels he would blow out of his chute. It was thanks to George that British efforts to sabotage Operation Halyard were unsuccessful.

Freeman introduces you to many others who played key roles in the rescue, including a herd of cows that happened to wander onto the landing strip, which had been constructed by hand, at just the right time to fool a patrol of German planes.

Freeman will have you on the edge of your seat, marveling at the courage and love of the Yugoslavian people, amazed at the unrelenting perseverance of those trying to get the men out, shaking your head at the bureaucrats trying to cover their own backsides, and smiling at the final acts of gratitude shown by the airmen to the people who saved them.

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