George Vujnovich, 1915–2012
The mastermind of a daring World War II rescue
To his neighbors in New York City, George Vujnovich was a mild-mannered businessman in the aircraft industry. He never spoke, even to his closest friends, about his secret role in organizing Operation Halyard—the daring World War II rescue of more than 500 Allied airmen from Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. “There was a strict rule in the [Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA] not to talk about these things,” he said. But in October 2010, Vujnovich finally broke six decades of silence after being awarded a Bronze Star for his military service. “Better now than never,” he said.
Born in Pittsburgh to Serbian immigrant parents, Vujnovich was studying medicine in Belgrade when the Germans overran Yugoslavia in 1941. He fled to Egypt and soon joined the U.S. Army, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Spotting his experience and language skills, the O.S.S. recruited him to help organize resistance forces in the Balkans. While stationed in Bari, Italy, he learned that Yugoslavian guerrillas were sheltering hundreds of Allied airmen shot down during bombing missions and began plotting an audacious rescue mission. In August 1944, a three-man O.S.S. team—taught by Vujnovich how to blend in with the local population—parachuted into Serbia and helped the airmen and villagers carve a 700-foot-long landing strip in the mountainous terrain.
The mission “proved flawless,” said The New York Times. A total of 512 airmen, most of them Americans, were airlifted to safety from under the Nazis’ noses, without a single casualty or lost plane. “We owe Vujnovich big-time,” said Charles L. Davis III, a former U.S. bombardier navigator rescued during the operation.