FREMONT - World War II hero Art "Jibby" Jibilian, who volunteered with two others to parachute into Nazi-occupied Serbia and orchestrate the air rescue of 513 downed U.S. pilots, died Sunday evening in his home.
The 86-year-old had battled leukemia for two years.
His daughter, Debi Jibilian, said yesterday her father was persistent in his goals, including fighting his cancer. He had a dose of chemotherapy just a week ago to try to beat back the disease, she said.
"God love him. He continued to give speeches, he would get blood transfusions, and he would keep traveling," she said. "What I'll miss most is his stubbornness. Persistence, that was his watchword."
He was trained as a U.S. Navy radioman and volunteered as a secret operative with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.
The other two operatives who parachuted in with Mr. Jibilian are dead, said Debi Jibilian. They were Eli Popovich and George Musulin, who played tackle on the University of Pittsburgh's 1936 Rose Bowl team.
The Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black air squadron, provided air cover for what was called "Operation Halyard," which had several phases and took several months.
"They thought they were going over to rescue 50 airmen. Then it was 250, 350, and then 513," said Brian McMahon, a Perrysburg businessman who became friends with Mr. Jibilian after reading about the mission. "They all got together with the Serbians and hacked a runway out of the forest."
Hearing about his death, U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, (R., Bowling Green), offered praise for Mr. Jibilian in a speech yesterday on the U.S. House floor.
He introduced a resolution July 31 to award Mr. Jibilian the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military honor. Only about 3,000 have been given out, the first during the Civil War.
U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), cosigned the resolution, which is still pending and under review. She said gaining congressional approval to bestow the medals on former OSS operatives is difficult because congressmen know many unsung agents have performed heroic acts that may never come to light.
But Mr. Jibilian's story and the massive rescue of pilots has drawn recent publicity and praise with the 2007 book, The Forgotten 500.
The book details the mission, dubbed the biggest rescue of the war, and the geopolitical pressures that kept its success and its operatives largely a secret for decades.
The mission remained obscured, in part, because the supporting cast of Serbian heroes was politically undesirable. In fact, the British tried to sabotage the mission, not wanting Gen. Draza Mihailovich, a royalist and leader of the Chetnik guerillas, to gain public sympathy in the West for having helped save American pilots. The U.S. State Department even opposed undertaking the rescue mission.
But General Mihailovich, a lower-ranked officer in that army, decided to fight on. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union later that year, an army of Communist Partisans under Josip Broz, a Croat known as Tito, also joined the fight.
By the time Mr. Jibilian and two others parachuted into Serbia in 1944, the number of pilots in need of rescue had swelled.
The initial mission went badly. Mr. Jibilian 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.
The Americans fled higher into the mountains. They jettisoned 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.
Mr. Jibilian volunteered to go back again despite the experience of just weeks before.
On the next phase of the mission, about 200 airmen and 300 Chetniks dug out a small dirt airstrip on a plateau halfway up a mountainside.
Transport planes carried soldiers away. Several planes made several pickups.
Over several months, transport planes carried away the stranded airmen while the Tuskegee Airmen attacked German positions so the transport planes could land.
The rescue scenario was repeated several times until the last of the airmen under General Mihailovich's protection was evacuated on Dec. 27, 1944.
"We asked [General] Mihailovich to come out with us," Mr. Jibilian said in a recent interview. "In fact, we begged him. He said no. 'I'm a soldier, this is my country.'•''
General Mihailovich was eventually captured by Tito's Partisans, accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and executed.
Mr. Jibilian tried for the 60 years since to change history to accurately portray the general as the man who helped so many Americans who fought against the Nazis.
It was hushed up for decades because it was Allied policy to support Tito and his Communist Partisans in their civil war over the shape of postwar Yugoslavia.
Mr. Jibilian told The Blade recently that he was pleased with the recent publicity and the publication of the book.
"I don't have to push it anymore; it's got its own momentum going," he said.
"We're on the road now for justice to be done, and if it's possible to change history by clearing his name, I think we will."
Mr. Jibilian had attended the University of Toledo for a year before he joined the military. When his service was over, he went back to school where he met his wife, Beverly-Jo, and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1951.
He is survived by his wife, Beverly-Jo, daughter, Debi Jibilian, sons, David and Mark, two grandchildren, and two great-grand-children. There will be a celebration of life March 27 at the American Legion, 1200 Buckland Ave., Fremont. His ashes will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in a private ceremony.
Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at:
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