Rescue Behind Enemy Lines

The field in Pranjane, a small village in central Yugoslavia, that was turned into an emergency airstrip
for the evacuation of Allied airmed in 1944

Muted cheers erupted when the crowd caught the sound of the approaching C-47s. Rajacich rushed out onto the field with an Aldis lamp to give the identification code, squeezing the trigger three times with the predetermined signal: Red, Red, Red. The lead C-47 responded with the same signal. Rajacich gave the go-ahead signal for landing, to which the plane responded with the prearranged code word, X-ray.

“We’re on boys! This is it!” Musulin shouted to his men, who again burst into cheers. On Musulin’s orders, his men torched hay bales and set off flares to mark the edges of the field.

Now came the trickiest, most terrifying part of the operation for the pilots of the Fifteenth Air Force’s 60th Troop Carrier Group—landing in near-darkness on an improvised runway deep in enemy territory. The first of four C-47s overshot the runway and was forced to go around again. The other planes touched down successfully, followed by the first aircraft on its second try. The only mishap was one aircraft’s minor run-in with a haystack, which dented the C-47’s wingtip.

Within a half-hour of the lead aircraft’s touchdown, the first evacuees had said their emotional farewells to the Serb families who had sheltered them, and the fully loaded planes were ready to go. Seconds before takeoff, the side doors of all four planes swung open to reveal the rescued airmen unlacing their boots and holding them up for the villagers to see. One after another, the airmen tossed their boots out to the Serb villagers as a final expression of gratitude to their caretakers, many of whom had nothing to wear on their feet but traditional Serb felt slippers.

Allied airmen marching to work on the improved airstrip in Pranjane, Yugoslavia

All four C-47s took off successfully, though just barely. Two more flights of C-47s duly arrived at the makeshift airfield the next morning, this time with a strong escort of P-51 and P-38 fighters. The fighters peeled off, shooting up neighboring German garrisons as a diversion, and the C-47s were able to land much more safely than they had the previous night.

In only the first two days, Operation Halyard successfully retrieved 241 American airmen—but the OSS team was less successful when it came to obeying the government edict that the agents not furnish any supplies or give any aid to Mihailovich’s men. George Musulin, who approved the evacuation of two seriously wounded Chetniks along with the Allied airmen, was ordered home in August 1944 for aiding Mihailovich’s forces; he was replaced as mission commander by Lt. Nick Lalich.

But as Halyard continued, events in the rest of Yugoslavia conspired to interrupt it. Tito, now firmly in control of all Yugoslav provinces except Serbia and parts of Bosnia, launched a final drive in September 1944 to solidify his grasp on power, surrounding Pranjani with his Partisan army and crushing Mihailovich’s forces. The Chetniks were forced to evacuate Pranjani on September 10, and from that point forward, Operation Halyard resembled a traveling road show throughout Serbia and Bosnia. Evacuations over the next three months were improvised affairs, using whatever broad, flat spaces were available—mostly farm fields. And even as the Chetniks moved into Bosnia in Halyard’s final phase, they collected airmen to be brought for evacuation: not just Americans, but British, French, Italian, and Russian aviators as well.

By December 1944, the OSS decided that Operation Halyard had run its course. The end of the Ploesti campaign meant there were no more planes flying over the region, and no newly downed airmen requiring rescue. By the time of its termination, Vujnovich’s team had airlifted 512 downed Allied airmen without the loss of a single airman or plane—a truly impressive accomplishment. The last evacuation flight, which also carried the operation’s OSS team, left Boljanic, Bosnia, on December 27, 1944. In a final and surprising gesture of generosity, Nick Lalich’s OSS superiors radioed Draza Mihailovich an offer to evacuate him on the last flight out. Though he was in desperate straits due to Partisan resistance and the Allied ban on material aid and support, Mihailovich declined, preferring to share the fate of his people instead.