Forgotten heroGeorge Vujnovich

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During World War II, Vujnovich, the son of Yugoslavian immigrants, worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA. In 1944, intelligence came in saying that more than 500 Allied airmen were being secretly hidden from the Nazis in Yugoslavia, and it became Vujnovich’s job to rescue them. He planned the entire operation, training three operatives how to act once they were parachuted in. “I had to show them how to tie their shoes and tuck the laces in, like the Serbs did, and how to eat like the Serbs, pushing the food onto their fork with a knife,” he said years later. Vujnovich’s Operation Halyard had to build secret runways for cargo planes in order to rescue so many men — yet be camouflaged enough to escape detection by German aircraft. The operation was so perfect, all 512 men were rescued with no loss of life, or even a single crashed aircraft. The operation remained secret for years, but when finally revealed to the public in the 2007 book The Forgotten 500, the U.S. Army awarded Vujnovich the Bronze Star — in October 2010. “He was a genius in the way he put the plan together,” says Tony Orsini, one of the men who was rescued. “He was a hero.” Vujnovich, who went on to sell aircraft parts for a living, died April 24, at 96.

From This is True for 29 April 2012