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FREMONT — For three decades, Willard Snyder knew his work colleague Art “Jibby” Jibilian as the short-statured, serious-minded fellow whom everybody liked.
It wasn't until two or three years ago that he and almost everyone else heard the jaw-dropping revelation: Humble Mr. Jibilian was a World War II hero and secret operative, a radioman who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Serbia to help orchestrate the rescue of 513 downed U.S. airmen in “Operation Halyard.”
“Nobody knew anything about this,” Mr. Snyder, 78, of Bettsville, Ohio, recalled yesterday at a celebration of life ceremony for Mr. Jibilian, who died March 21 in his Fremont home at age 86 after a battle with leukemia. “I couldn't believe it. All this time and I was working around a hero.”
More than 90 people attended yesterday's ceremony in the American Legion hall on Buckland Avenue, joining Mr. Jibilian's family in paying final respects to the man and his extraordinary war contribution for which he was sworn to secrecy.
“If it wasn't for him, there'd be 513 airmen who probably wouldn't have made it,” said Don Alsbro, president of Lest We Forget, an organization that highlights U.S. veterans' accomplishments.
Other speakers included a rescued airman, Clare Musgrove, and one of the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots, Harold Brown, who provided air cover for the C-47 military transports that rescued the stranded fliers.
“You talk about mission impossible — that is precisely what it was,” Mr. Brown said. “How they got it done is nothing less than a miracle.”
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A U.S. Navy radio operator who volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services — the CIA forerunner — Mr. Jibilian parachuted with two others into Serbia in 1944 to coordinate a rescue for downed U.S. airmen.
After risking his life to get an initial wave of airmen out, Mr. Jibilian volunteered to go back for a second phase. That operation involved digging out a dirt airstrip halfway up a mountainside that could barely accommodate the transport planes.
Over several months, the C-47s carried out the airmen as the Tuskegee Airmen attacked German positions so the transports could land. The mission was accomplished Dec. 27, 1944, when the last airman made it out.
Mr. Musgrove, a B-24 tail gunner who stayed with Serbian families after his bomber went down, said that Mr. Jibilian's efforts ultimately helped save his life.
“Jibby had the knowledge to use the radio most effectively. If it hadn't been for that radio, [Operation Halyard] would not have been successful,” Mr. Musgrove recalled. “That was the initial beginning of our chance to get help. He was the man who had the skills to get the message back to our home base.”
There were multiple displays on view yesterday of Mr. Jibilian's most cherished decorations, photographs, and objects related to the war. One of the larger exhibits was organized by Mark Albright of Northcoast Veteran's Museum in Gibsonburg, Ohio, who learned of “Operation Halyard” and Mr. Jibilian's contribution to it by reading the 2007 book The Forgotten 500.
Mr. Jibilian saw the museum's traveling display the week before he died. The war hero explained his hope that the rescue operation's recent publicity can bring awareness to the role played by the many Serbian farming families who risked their lives to hide the American airmen from the Nazis, Mr. Albright said
And Mr. Jibilian also wanted to see history accurately portray the role of Gen. Draza Mihailovich, a leader of the Chetnik guerillas who gave protection to the airmen until they could be rescued.
The general was later captured by the Partisans, accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and executed.
Mr. Jibilian was awarded the Silver Star for his heroics. Efforts are under way to gain congressional approval to bestow Mr. Jibilian with the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military honor.
A resolution for the medal, co-signed by U.S. Rep Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) and U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) is pending.
Brian McMahon, a Perrysburg businessman and an admirer of Mr. Jibilian's accomplishments, noted yesterday how the U.S. government was for years reluctant to publicize the rescue operation for political reasons and said he hopes that the medal could be awarded to Mr. Jibilian post-humously this year.
“I think that unfortunately there is a greater likelihood of Art getting the medal now that he is no longer alive,” Mr. McMahon said.
Contact JC Reindl at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6065.