George Vujnovich died last week at the age of 96. Vujnovich was a World War II veteran, and widely known as a hero for having saved 500 people in a daring rescue operation.
George, a Serbian-American, was an officer in the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor too the Central Intelligence Agency), and organized a mission called, “Operation Halyard” in 1944, to rescue more than 500 pilots and airmen who were downed while attempting to cross Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, in order to bomb Adolf Hitler‘s oil fields in Romania.
Vujnovich came up with the plan, which included building a secret airfield with no tools, and gathering together a team of Serbian-speaking OSS agents, who would parachute in to assist with the effort.
At the time, the airmen were hidden in villages, protected by people who were loyal to Draza Mihailovich, a Serbian guerrilla fighter. The mission was barely known until a book by Gregory Freeman called “The Forgotten 500″ came out in 2007.
In 2008, George Vujnovich accepted an award from the OSS Society, and stated of the operation that:
“We didn’t lose a single man. It’s an interesting history. Even in Serbia, they don’t know much about it.”
The hero also received the Bronze Star in 2010 for his rescue efforts. Recalling the mission, George stated:
“I taught these agents they had to take all the tags off their clothing. 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’s team landed and met with Mihailovich on August 2, 1944, where they proceeded to construct a 700-foot airstrip, moving at night to avoid getting caught. The airstrip, long enough for 15th Air Firce’s C-47s, saw activity between August 9th until December 27th, during which time they helped 512 achieve freedom right under Hitler’s nose.
Vujnovich, a Serbian immigrant, was born in Pittsburgh, and studied at the University of Belgrade, just before the war. After he witnessed the bombing of Belgrade, he and his wife Mirjana Lazich fled to many countries, eventually ending up in Cairo, where he received a job at Pan American Airways. He was drafted into the military when the U.S. entered the war.
George Vujnovich passed away in Queens, New York of natural causes, and is survived by a daughter and brother.
Check out George Vujnovich’s acceptance speech for the Bronze Star here: