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In 1944, Operation Halyard airlifted 417 American airmen from behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia

Ian Harvey

During the Second World War, over 400 American airmen had to bail out behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia due to their planes having become too damaged to continue to fly. Some of the airmen fell into Romanian, Croatian, German, and Bulgarian hands, and ended up in POW camps. Some were lucky to be found by the Chetniks, who rescued them and hid them.

The first American airmen landed in German-occupied Serbia on 24 January 1944, after they had to bail out of their stricken plane. The Chetnik Toplica Corps rescued the crew of nine and hid them in the homes of Chetnik leaders. By July 1944, over 100 American airmen were hiding in areas under Chetnik control.

B-24D’s fly over Ploiești during World War II

B-24D’s fly over Ploiești during World War II

The Germans often spotted the parachuting airmen, and substantial rewards were offered for them. The airmen were welcomed into homes and fed, without any Allied help. In Pranjani village, a hospital was established for any ill or wounded airmen.There were two groups looking after downed pilots – partisans under Marshall Tito’s control, and Chetniks under the command of Draza Mihailovic.

The Commander of the 15th Air Force, General Nathan Twining, was insistent on rescuing his men. With his help, an Air Crew Rescue Unit (ACRU) was established; it was responsible for finding and rescuing Allied airmen in the Balkans. Finally, after many failed attempts, the Halyard Mission team parachuted into Pranjani to help organize the recovery of the airmen.

Mihailović was posthumously awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit

Mihailović was posthumously awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit

The airmen who were there in Pranjani were also able to give valuable information regarding Mihailovic and his Chetniks since there was a question about their loyalty. They would and did give their lives for those they were hiding, but they would also collaborate with the German forces. At the time, the Chetniks were fighting against Tito’s partisans.

Joint US/Chetnik military ceremony in Pranjani September 6, 1944. Capt. Nick Lalich (OSS Halyard Mission), Gen. Dragoljub Mihailovic (Yugoslav Army in the Homeland), and Col. Robert McDowell (OSS Ranger Mission). Photo Credit

Joint US/Chetnik military ceremony in Pranjani September 6, 1944. Capt. Nick Lalich (OSS Halyard Mission), Gen. Dragoljub Mihailovic (Yugoslav Army in the Homeland), and Col. Robert McDowell (OSS Ranger Mission). Photo Credit

On August 10th, the largest evacuation from Pranjani began. The airstrip had finally been finished and, with the help of Captain Brooks, a pilot who had bailed into the area, contact was established firmly with the Allies.

Planes and help were promised and delivered. It is not entirely clear how many US transport aircraft were used, but it was somewhere between 10 and 14, and they were protected by P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightning fighters.

Draža Mihailović in 1943

Draža Mihailović in 1943

The operation was so successful that it was repeated on the 12th, 15th and 18th of August. In total, 417 Allied airmen were evacuated from Chetnik territory in this operation.

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After the war, Mihailovic was captured by the communists and tried for war crimes and treason. The airmen he had rescued were not allowed to testify at his hearing. He was executed. In 2005, his daughter accepted a posthumous award of the Legion of Merit for his contribution to the Allied victory.