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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2010

A hero to us all

ART “Jibby” Jibilian was a hero whose World War II exploits were buried in the mark of global politics. In recent years, details have emerged of the daring, behind-enemy-lines rescue of hundreds of downed Allied airmen in which he played a prominent role. These details make clear that Mr. Jibilian, who died this month at 86, was indeed one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

The Toledo native was a 20-year-old Navy radioman when he volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. His mission was to parachute with two others into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to coordinate the rescue of downed U.S. airmen.

What began as a quick strike to extract a few airmen hiding among Serbian villagers and royalist guerillas turned into the stuff of Hollywood. It included narrow escapes from Nazi forces in occupied Yugoslavia, the aid of resistance fighters under command of a charismatic leader, and a massive airlift using a temporary airstrip carved by hand out of a mountain plateau under cover provided by the famed Tuskegee Airmen. In all, more than 500 pilots and crew were saved as a result of “Operation Halyard.”

That all this derring-do did not end up the silver screen was largely the result of politics. The resistance fighters aiding the Americans were called the Chetniks, who began the war as Yugoslav royalists but had developed into Serbian nationalists.

The Allies, however, had thrown their lot in with a rival group, the Communist Partisans. Mr. Jibilian and other Americans who had come to respect the Chetniks were ordered to keep their stories to themselves.

More than six decades later, their story was told by Gregory Freeman in his 2007 book, The Forgotten 500. Friends, neighbors, and coworkers were amazed to discover the hero in their midst, but that often is the case with members of the Greatest Generation.

America's World War II heroes are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day. Before many decades, they all will be gone, many with their stories untold. But, Mr. Jibilian's story did not die with him, and for that we are thankful.

Although he didn't live to receive the Medal of Honor for which he was nominated last year, he did live long enough for a grateful nation to thank him in person for his service and sacrifice.



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