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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Fremont man honored with Tuskegee Airmen

BY JACK KELLY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

OSHKOSH, Wis. - Art Jibilian of Fremont hoped his presence here at the largest private air show in the world would, in a small way, help right the terrible wrong that had been done so long ago.

Mr. Jibilian and surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering squadron of black fighter pilots, were being honored at AirVenture 2009, which began Monday, for the roles they played in the greatest rescue of downed American airmen in World War II.

The story of Operation Halyard is one our government suppressed for decades because those who cared for and protected the American airmen after they were shot down were deemed politically incorrect.

Between Aug. 9 and Dec. 27, 1944, 512 mostly American airmen were spirited out of the former Yugoslavia under the noses of the Nazis. To accomplish the rescue, members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) , had to fight not just the Germans, but the British, who tried to sabotage the mission.

Mr. Jibilian, then 21, was the radio operator on the OSS team and his presence was critical to the mission's success, as was perhaps the biggest hero of Operation Halyard, Gen. Draza Mihailovich, the leader of the Chetnik guerrillas in Yugoslavia.

It was mostly General Mihailovich's men who went to the assistance of American fliers who parachuted into his country from crippled airplanes, fed them and hid them from the Nazis at great risk to themselves, and who helped the fliers and OSS men construct the makeshift airfield near General Mihailovich's headquarters in Pranjane from which they were evacuated to Italy.

But it was Allied policy to deny General Mihailovich and his Chetniks support, or even credit for their contributions to the Allied cause. That's why the British tried to keep the mission from taking place, and why - after it brilliantly succeeded - the British and our State Department insisted the story be hushed up.

This is why Art Jibilian's arrival was so important to the success of Operation Halyard. First, some background.

For Americans, World War II was us against the Fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. In Yugoslavia, things were more complicated.

Yugoslavia was cobbled together from various parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire after its collapse at the end of World War I. The pre-eminent population group was the Serbs, but there were also Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, and Montenegrins, many of whom disliked being in a kingdom ruled by Serbs.

Germany invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, and the Royal Yugoslav Army was quickly crushed, surrendering unconditionally on April 17, 1941. But Draza Mihailovich, a colonel in that army, kept on fighting.

Also opposing the Nazis were the Communist Partisans under Josip Broz, a Croat better known as Tito - though they didn't join the fight until after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941.

In November, 1941, the Partisans attacked the Chetniks. From that point forward, the two guerrilla armies fought each other more than they fought the Germans.

This was the stew of ideological, ethnic, and religious hatreds (Serbs are Orthodox Christians; Croats are Roman Catholics) into which Mr. Jibilian parachuted on March 15, 1944.

"Jibby" had been drafted into the Navy in March, 1943, from his home in Toledo, and was at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago learning to be a radio operator when he got a visit from an OSS recruiter. The OSS desperately needed radio operators, the recruiter said. Would Art Jibilian be willing to volunteer for hazardous duty behind enemy lines? He was.

While waiting in Cairo for his first assignment, Jibby volunteered again when he heard Col. Lynn Farish was looking for a radio operator for a team he was taking into Yugoslavia. Colonel Farish had been in Yugoslavia before, but had had to rely on British radio operators. He insisted upon having an American this time.

The mission, into territory controlled by the Partisans, went badly. Jibby set up his radio and tried to make contact with the base at Cairo. But there was no response. It turned out no one at headquarters was listening. They'd thought the mission had been canceled.

Though the Americans hadn't been listening, the Germans were. One day while Mr. Jibilian was transmitting, German fighters and dive bombers appeared overhead.

Dodging bombs and bullets, the three-man OSS team fled higher into the mountains. They had to run so fast they had to jettison their equipment, including the radio. After five days and six nights of cold and hunger, they evaded their German pursuers.

As they were making their way back down the mountain, peasants told them about American airmen hiding from the Germans. They found a dozen, and were able to make contact with the base in Cairo. On June 16, the airmen and the OSS team were evacuated.

General Mihailovich had been sending radio messages about the airmen for months, but the British ignored them.

George Vujnovich, a member of the OSS team, learned there were many more downed airmen hiding in Yugoslavia and proposed a rescue mission. It was opposed by the British and our State Department, but Gen. Nathan Twining, commander of the 15th Air Force, wanted to get "his boys" back.

Art Jibilian volunteered to go back despite his harrowing experience of just weeks before. But thanks to the British, on whom the team initially relied for air support, they almost didn't make it. Four insertion attempts were aborted. On the fifth attempt, the British tried to parachute them into an ongoing battle.

"They were hoping we would just drop into the battle and just disappear," Mr. Jibilian recalled. "They obviously didn't want us to go in there."

In Pranjane, just 30 miles from a German garrison, 200 airmen and 300 Chetniks built - literally with their bare hands - a 700-foot dirt airstrip on a plateau just 50 yards wide halfway up a mountainside.

Four C-47s made it in on the night of Aug. 9, carrying several dozen airmen to safety, just barely clearing the woods at the end of the runway.

At dawn on Aug. 10, six C-47s escorted by about 30 fighters, most of them P-51s flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, arrived over Pranjane. The fighters bombed and strafed German positions within 50 miles while the C-47s circled for landing. No sooner were they airborne than another six C-47s appeared. A total of 272 airmen were rescued on the night of Aug. 9 and the morning of Aug. 10 without a single casualty.

"This was an extraordinary feat of airmanship," said Jeff Underwood, the historian for the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.

The rescue scenario was repeated several times until the last of the airmen under General Mihailovich's protection - 512 in all - were evacuated on Dec. 27.

"We asked Mihailovich to come out with us," Mr. Jibilian said. "In fact, we begged him. He said no. 'I'm a soldier, this is my country,' he said."

General Mihailovich was captured by the Partisans, accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and after a show trial was executed on July 17, 1946.

Today, the historical record is being corrected. A seminal event was the publication, in 2007, of Gregory Freeman's book, The Forgotten 500.

"I first became aware of this during the conflict in Bosnia," Mr. Freeman told the Post-Gazette. "The story was amazing, and so was the fact that it had hardly been told. But I didn't want to tell it in the context of the violence that was going on then, so I put the project off for five years."

Art Jibilian was in Oshkosh to tell members of the Experimental Aviation Association attending AirVenture 2009 his story because Toledo real estate developer Brian McMahon, a member of the EAA, picked up a copy of Mr. Freeman's book at the airport to read during a flight. He was fascinated to learn a former Toledoan had played such a prominent role. It was Mr. McMahon's idea for the EAA, of which he is a longtime member, to honor Mr. Jibilian and the Tuskegee Airmen.

"This story would make a heckuva movie," Mr. McMahon said.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jack Kelly is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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