By Torsten Ove / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / April 27, 2012 1:25 pm
George Vujnovich, a South Side native and 1933 Ambridge High School graduate who arranged a major air rescue in World War II, died Tuesday at his home in New York City.
He was 96 and 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.
In 1944, as head of the Office of Strategic Services in Bari, Italy, his team of agents — including a former Pittsburgh Steelers player — worked with Yugoslav guerilla leader Draza Mihailovich to airlift more than 500 airmen from a makeshift runway carved on a mountaintop in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.
The 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,” Mr. Vujnovich told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2008, when he accepted an award from the OSS Society at age 93.
“He was great by choice, but humble,” said Mim Bizic, the unofficial historian of the Serb National Federation in Pittsburgh. “We were lucky to have him for so long to continue to guide us as an exemplary role model.”
The son of Serbian immigrants, Mr. Vujnovich was born in 1915. His family later moved to Aliquippa and then Ambridge. After graduating from 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, Mr. Vujnovich found a job with Pan American Airways, which sent him and his new wife to a U.S.-controlled airbase in Ghana. When the U.S. entered the war and militarized Pan Am, Mr. Vujnovich was commissioned into the Army and transferred to an airbase 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 crewman bailed out over Serbia and were taken in by local villagers and protected by Mihailovich’s Chetniks.
Mr. Vujnovich put together a plan to get them out, which included secretly building an airfield without any tools.
Mr. Vujnovich assembled a team of Serbian-speaking agents to parachute in and lead the effort. He wanted to go himself, but was told by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill objected to him going to Mihailovich’s headquarters.
At the time, the Allies backed Marshal Josip Broz Tito and his communist partisans because they needed to support Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whose forces bore the brunt of the German assault in the east.
The lead OSS field agent was George Musulin, a former tackle on the University of Pittsburgh football team who played for the Steelers in 1938.
“I taught these agents they had to take all the tags off their clothing,” Mr. 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.
Mr. Vujnovich was gratified to have helped save so many but never forgave the Tito regime for executing Mihailovich in 1946, despite protests from many of the airmen who escaped because of Chetnik assistance.
“What aggravated me more than anything else,” Mr. Vujnovich said in 2008, “is that we couldn’t get the truth out.”
In addition to the Bronze Star and the OSS award, Mr. Vujnovich had received other recognition in recent years, including a place in Ambridge Area School District’s Hall of Honor in 2009 and a Veterans Day proclamation by New York City Council in 2010.
After the war, he and Mirjana settled in New York City, buying their house in Jackson Heights in 1950. He 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.
In his younger years, he took an interest in helping people escape communist rule in Yugoslavia and stayed active in Serbian affairs his entire life. He was one of the founding members of the Serbian Unity Congress, belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church and served as board president of the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan.
His wife died in 2003. Mr. Vujnovich is survived by his daughter, Xenia Wilkinson of Washington, D.C., and a brother, Peter Vujnovich of New York City.
A funeral is set for today in New York City with a church service there Saturday.
Torsten Ove: email@example.com or 412-263-1510.
First Published 2012-04-27 04:16:13