By Torsten Ove, McClatchy Newspapers
May 1, 2012
In 1944, as head of the Office of Strategic Services in Bari, Italy, George Vujnovich guided a team of agents who worked with Yugoslav guerrilla leader Draza Mihailovich to airlift more than 500 airmen from a makeshift runway carved on a mountaintop in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.
The World War II air rescue mission, "Operation Halyard," was relatively obscure until the 2007 release of "The Forgotten 500," a book by Gregory Freeman.
"We didn't lose a single man. It's an interesting history. Even in Serbia, they don't know much about it," Vujnovich told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2008, when he accepted an award from the OSS Society.
Vujnovich died April 24 at his home in New York City. He was 96 and had spent most of his life running an aircraft supply business in the city's borough of Queens and living quietly in its Jackson Heights neighborhood.
The son of Serbian immigrants, Vujnovich was born in Pittsburgh in 1915. After high school, he received a scholarship to study at the University of Belgrade, where he met his future wife, Mirjana Lazich.
In 1941, he witnessed the bombing of Belgrade by the Germans. He and Mirjana fled to Budapest, Hungary, then Turkey and Jerusalem and finally to Cairo as Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps approached.
In Egypt, Vujnovich found a job with Pan American Airways, which sent him and his new wife to a U.S.-controlled air base in Ghana. When the U.S. entered the war and militarized Pan Am, Vujnovich was commissioned into the Army and transferred to an air base in Nigeria, where he became base commander.
Because of his experience in Yugoslavia and service as an air officer, OSS recruited him to help resistance forces in the Balkans. After training in Virginia, he was sent to Bari, Italy.
There he orchestrated "Operation Halyard."
In the summer of 1944, U.S. bombers attacked the Romanian oil fields in Ploesti that supplied the German war machine. They flew from Italy and across Yugoslavia to get there, but many were shot down. About 1,500 crewmen bailed out over Serbia and were taken in by local villagers and protected by Mihailovich's forces.
Vujnovich devised a plan to get them out, which included secretly building an airfield without any tools, and assembled a team of Serbian-speaking agents to parachute in and lead the effort.
"I taught these agents they had to take all the tags off their clothing," Vujnovich told the New York Times in 2010, when he received the Bronze Star for his efforts. "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."
The team jumped on Aug. 2, 1944, met with Mihailovich and got to work directing the airmen to build the airstrip.
It was only 700 feet long, barely enough for the 15th Air Force's C-47s to use, but between Aug. 9 and Dec. 27, the rescuers spirited 512 airmen to freedom under the noses of the Nazis.
After the war, Vujnovich settled with his wife in New York City and pursued a career as an independent aircraft parts supplier. He retired in the 1980s and sold the business but continued to work as a consultant until he was 92.
Vujnovich's wife died in 2003. He is survived by a daughter and a brother.
Ove writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and McClatchy Newspapers.