By Jelica Tapuskovic
Belgrade, Aug. 5, 2009,(Serbia Today) - At the end of July, publisher Euro – Giunti from Belgrade released a non-fiction book “The forgotten 500” by American publicist and journalist Gregory Freeman. This book is a true story about saving the American pilots, during the biggest rescue operation in Second World War, called Halyard. When the book was released, publisher brought as a special guest the author Gregory Freeman, who made promotion in village Pranjani, near Cacak, where this operation took place. Mission Halyard started in 1944 in August, and lasted until December.
During that time peasants of village Pranjani showed remarkable courage by risking their own lives to save and help the American pilots in reaching allied localities in Italy. This, maybe the last untold story from The Second World war, is a story about almost 512 pilots who were rescued, when the Germans struck their airplanes, after bombing Nazis oil fields in Romania.
American agents from the OSS, the precursor of the CIA, who worked with a Serbian leader, General Draza Mihailovich, to carry out the huge, ultra-secret rescue mission, organized operation Halyard.
When OSS agents in Italy heard of the stranded airmen, they began planning rescue – and they decided to send C-47 cargo planes to land in the hills of Yugoslavia, only 30 km far from enemy lines, to save those 500 airmen. They had many challenges there - the pilots had to stay hidden until the rescue could be organized, they had to build an airstrip large enough for C-47s without any tools and without the Germans finding out, and then the planes had to make it in and out without being shot down.
„The forgotten 500 weaves together the tales of a dozen young airmen shot down in the hills of Yugoslavia during bombing runs, and the five secret agents who conducted their amazing rescue in conjunction with Mihailovich and the local Serbian people who cared for the shut down airmen.
These are the stories of young men who were eager to join the war and fight the Germans, even finding excitement in the often deadly trips from Italy to bomb German oil fields in Romania, but who found themselves parachuting out of crippled planes and into the arms of villagers in a country they knew nothing about.
They soon found out that the local Serbs were willing to sacrifice their own lives to keep the downed airmen out of German hands, but they still wondered if anyone was coming for them or if they would spend the rest of the war hiding from German patrols and barely surviving on goat’s milk and bread made with hay to make it more filling“, said Gregory Freeman for Serbia Today.
Freeman found material for this book by tracking down long forgotten Government documents, some Serbian accounts of the rescue, along with histories of Mihailovich and the Chetniks, but as he said most important part was to find surviving pilots and Chetniks who could tell their stories. He also said that this story was Top secret so long probably because of politic situation after World War II.
„Once Tito emerged victorious in Yugoslavia, the American State Department did not want to offend him by praising Mihailovich in any way or even acknowledging what he had done to help U.S. airmen during the war. It was an approach that clearly was wrong in retrospect, but the State Department was more concerned with maintaining smooth relations with Tito than giving Mihailovich credit“, said Freeman for Serbia Today.
Promotion was held in village Pranjani, and got a big attention of local people, some of them villagers who helped to American pilots.
Many Serbians stayed in contact with pilots after rescue, and municipality is planning to build Memorial home to honor that event.
The book was published in USA two years ago and it has been very popular there, not just among Serbians, but general public, as a true human story. There are reports that some filmmakers are interested in making movie out of this book, the movie that will include some big Hollywood celebrities.
Freemen sent one book to the American president Barak Obama, and as he says, he is hoping that he will learn more about Serbian – American relations if he reads the book.