The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II
(New American Library, August 2007)
By Gregory A. Freeman
One of the last untold stories of World War II is also one of the greatest – a story of adventure, daring, danger and heroics, followed by a web of conspiracy, lies, and coverup.
THE FORGOTTEN 500 is one of the greatest rescue and escape stories ever, but hardly anyone has heard about it. And that’s by design. The U.S., British, and Yugoslav governments hid details of this story for decades, purposefully denying credit to the heroic rescuers and the foreign ally who gave his life to help allied airmen as they were hunted down by Nazis in the hills of Yugoslavia.
THE FORGOTTEN 500 tells the story of Operation Halyard in 1944, the largest rescue ever of downed American airmen. More than 500 U.S. airmen were rescued, along with some from other countries, all right under the noses of the Germans, and mostly in broad daylight. The mission was a complete success – the kind that should have been trumpeted in news reels and on the front page. (By comparison, the famed escape of allied prisoners from a German POW camp portrayed in the movie “The Great Escape” involved 200 men, and only 76 were successful.)
It is a little known episode that started with one edge-of-your seat rescue in August 1944, followed by a series of additional rescues in the following months. American agents from the OSS, the precursor of the CIA, worked with a Serbian guerilla, General Draza Mihailovich, to carry out the huge, ultra-secret rescue mission.
THE FORGOTTEN 500 weaves together the tales of a dozen young airmen shot down in the hills of Yugoslavia during bombing runs, and the five secret agents who conducted their amazing rescue. These are the stories of young men who were eager to join the war and fight the Germans, even finding excitement in the often deadly trips from Italy to bomb German oil fields in Romania, but who found themselves parachuting out of crippled planes and into the arms of strange, rough looking villagers in a country they knew nothing about. They soon found out that the local Serbs were willing to sacrifice their own lives to keep the downed airmen out of German hands, but they still wondered if anyone was coming for them or if they would spend the rest of the war hiding from German patrols and barely surviving on goat’s milk and bread made with hay to make it more filling.
When OSS agents in Italy heard of the stranded airmen, they began planning an elaborate and previously unheard of rescue – the Americans would send in a fleet of C-47 cargo planes to land in the hills of Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines, to pluck out hundreds of airmen. It was audacious and risky beyond belief, but there was no other way to get those boys out of German territory. The list of challenges and potential problems seemed never ending: the airmen had to evade capture until the rescue could be organized, they had to build an airstrip large enough for C-47s without any tools and without the Germans finding out, and then the planes had to make it in and out without being shot down.
Could it really be done? No one knew, but they were going to try.
THE FORGOTTEN 500 takes the reader along on this suspenseful adventure, while also explaining how the Yugoslav guerilla fighter who made it all possible was betrayed by his western allies. THE FORGOTTEN 500 is the story of young men struggling to make it back home to their families, and their decades-long quest to acknowledge the secret agents and the foreign soldiers who risked all for them.
Long silenced by the governments of several nations, the full story of Operation Halyard and the young men who risked everything for their fellow soldiers is revealed for the first time in this book.
THE FORGOTTEN 500 is truly the greatest World War II story never told.