The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the GreatestRescue Mission of World War II

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the GreatestRescue Mission of World War II

by Gregory A. Freeman


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The astonishing, never before told story of the greatest rescue mission of World War II—when the OSS set out to recover more than 500 airmen trapped behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia...

During a bombing campaign over Romanian oil fields, hundreds of American airmen were shot down in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Local Serbian farmers and peasants risked their own lives to give refuge to the soldiers while they waited for rescue, and in 1944, Operation Halyard was born. The risks were incredible. The starving Americans in Yugoslavia had to construct a landing strip large enough for C-47 cargo planes—without tools, without alerting the Germans, and without endangering the villagers. And the cargo planes had to make it through enemy airspace and back—without getting shot down themselves.
Classified for over half a century for political reasons, the full account of this unforgettable story of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and bravery is now being told for the first time ever. The Forgotten 500 is the gripping, behind-the-scenes look at the greatest escape of World War II.

“Amazing [and] riveting.”—James Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451224958
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 33,001
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Gregory A. Freeman is an award-winning writer and a leader in the field of narrative nonfiction. Known for books that make a true story read like a gripping, fast-paced novel, his works include The Forgotten 500, The Gathering WindSailors to the EndTroubled Water, and The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys. He lives in the Atlanta area.

Read an Excerpt


One of the last untold stories of World War II is also one of the greatest. It’s a story of adventure, daring, danger, and heroics followed by a web of conspiracy, lies, and cover-up.

The story of Operation Halyard, the rescue of 512 Allied airmen trapped behind enemy lines, is one of the greatest rescue and escape stories ever, but almost no one has heard about it. And that is by design. The U.S., British, and Yugoslav governments hid details of this story for decades, purposefully denying credit to the heroic rescuers and the foreign ally who gave his life to help Allied airmen as they were hunted down by Nazis in the hills of Yugoslavia.

Operation Halyard was the largest rescue ever of downed American airmen and one of the largest such operations in the war or since. Hundreds of U.S. airmen were rescued, along with some from other countries, right under the noses of the Germans and mostly in broad daylight. The mission was a complete success, the kind that should have been trumpeted in newsreels and published on the front page of the newspapers. But it wasn’t.

It is a little-known episode that started with one edge-of-your-seat rescue in August 1944, followed by a series of additional rescues over several months. American agents from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA, worked with a Serbian guerilla, General Draza Mihailovich, to carry out the huge, ultrasecret rescue mission.

These are the tales of young airmen shot down in the hills of Yugoslavia during bombing runs and the four secret agents who conducted their amazing rescue. These are the stories of young men—many of them first-generation Americans, the proud, patriotic sons of European immigrants—who were eager to join the war and fight the Germans, even finding excitement in the often deadly trips from Italy to bomb German oil fields in Romania, but who found themselves parachuting out of crippled planes and into the arms of strange, rough-looking villagers in a country they knew nothing about. They soon found that the local Serbs were willing to sacrifice their own lives to keep the downed airmen out of German hands, but they still wondered if anyone was coming for them or if they would spend the rest of the war hiding from German patrols and barely surviving on goats’ milk and bread baked with hay to make it more filling.

When the OSS in Italy heard of the stranded airmen, the agents began to plan an elaborate and previously unheard-of rescue—the Americans would send in a fleet of C-47 cargo planes to land in the hills of Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines, to pluck out hundreds of airmen. It was audacious and risky beyond belief, but there was no other way to get those boys out of German territory. The list of challenges and potential problems seemed never ending: The airmen had to evade capture until the rescue could be organized; they had to build an airstrip large enough for C-47s without any tools and without the Germans finding out; then the planes had to make it in and out without being shot down.

The setting for this dramatic chapter in history is a region that, for modern-day Americans, has become synonymous with brutal civil war, sectarian violence, and atrocities carried out in the name of ethnic cleansing—an impression that, though it may ignore the region’s rich cultural history, is not inaccurate. Serbia covers the central part of the Balkan Peninsula, also known as the Balkans, a region in southern Europe separated from Italy by the Adriatic Sea. Serbia borders Hungary to the north; Romania and Bulgaria to the east; Albania and the Republic of Macedonia to the south; and Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west.

Throughout history the area has been neighbor to great empires, a proximity that contributed to a rich mixture of ethnicities and cultures, but also to a long history dominated by wars and clashes between rival groups of the same country. The fractious nature of the region even led to the term “Balkanization” or “Balkanizing” as a shorthand for splintering into rival political entities, usually through violence. The word “Balkan” itself is commonly used to imply religious strife and civil war.

The former Yugoslavia is a region seemingly in a constant state of flux. During World War II, Serbia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which then became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945. In 1992 the country was renamed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro from 2003 to 2006. When Montenegro voted independence from the State Union, Serbia officially proclaimed its independence on June 5, 2006.

Serbian borders and regions are determined largely by natural formations, including the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkan Mountains, which create the mountainous region that formed a hurdle for crippled American bombers trying to return to their bases in Italy, but which also sheltered downed fliers from the German patrols hunting them.

From the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo, which set off World War I, to the Nazi occupation in World War II, the region was in the center of global conflicts while contending with its own internal strife. The former Yugoslavia is a mix of different ethnic and religious groups, including Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Slo- venes. Throughout history, ancient and recent, most of the fighting in the region has been a struggle among these groups for the control of territory. After World War II, the Bosnian Muslims were strong supporters of Communist leader Josip Broz Tito, partly because he was successful at keeping the ethnic groups peaceful—just as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time. Serbs were the most populous ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia, with a national identity rooted in the Serbian Orthodox Church.

After World War I, the Serb monarchy dominated the new nation of Yugoslavia. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies were killed by Croat Fascists, called Ustashe, and by Germans. Some Muslims fought for the Nazis, while many other Muslims and Croats fought for the Partisans led by Tito. Serbs supported the exiled royal government.

These age-old hatreds and ethnic disputes erupted in 1992 to cause the bloodiest fighting on European soil since World War II. More than two hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, were killed and millions more were left homeless. As the fighting raged and the world learned of atrocities committed against civilian populations simply for being of the wrong ethnic background, European nations responded with numerous peace proposals that produced no peace. Then the United States moderated peace talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. The talks led to a November 21, 1995, peace accord that relied on sixty thousand NATO troops to stop the killing.

The Bosnian war of the 1990s was particularly vicious. While Serbs are generally considered the aggressors in the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, there also are legitimate charges that Croats and Muslims operated prison camps and committed war crimes. Some critics accused former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic of looking the other way while his Muslim soldiers committed war crimes in retaliation against Serb attacks. Many Serbs acknowledge the well-documented atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb militia against Muslim and Croat civilians, but they also argue that Serb civilians were the victims of similar crimes and that the Western media coverage was skewed by a bias in favor of the Muslim and Croat sides.

The Dayton accord did not completely end the violence in the region. Between 1998 and 1999, continued clashes in Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia, between Serbian and Yugoslav security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army prompted a NATO aerial bombardment that lasted for seventy-eight days. The peace among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the area of the former Yugoslavia still is a fragile one.

American fliers who parachuted out of their bombers over Yugoslavia in World War II had little idea of the complex, troubled history of the country in which they were about to land, or of the international disputes in which they were about to become entangled. They sought refuge and a way back home, and they were humbled by the outpouring of support from the poor Serb villagers who risked their own lives to help the Americans drifting down out of the sky.

As the world came to know only the modern-day violence of the Bosnian wars, there was a small band of men who knew that the people in that distant country had once done a great service to the American people and to many young men who were scared, tired, and hungry. They held on to that story and told everyone they knew, yet the story slowly died with the forgotten 500.

Only a handful of the rescued airmen and OSS agents are still alive to tell the stories, their health and memories fading fast. But they insist that the world know the truth of what happened in Yugoslavia in 1944, including the series of almost unbelievable coincidences and near misses—everything from an improbable meeting with a top Nazi officer’s wife to a herd of cows that show up at just the right moment—that made their rescue possible.

They never forgot, and they refuse to let the story die with them.


Excerpted from "The Forgotten 500"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Gregory A. Freeman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction     xi
We'll Get Them Out     1
Abandon Ship!     10
Counting Parachutes     26
Americanski?     37
Long Journey to Somewhere     59
Escaping Yugoslavia     79
Passports, Please     99
Man of the Year     113
Abandoned Ally     129
Screw the British     147
Goats' Milk and Hay Bread     168
An All-American Team     183
SOS ... Waiting for Rescue     189
Sure to Be a Rough Landing     199
Red. Red. Red.     213
Going Home Shoeless     225
Gales of the World     240
Secrets and Lies     267
Epilogue     274
Partial List of Airmen Rescued in Operation Halyard     281
Acknowledgments     285
Notes     287
Bibliography     301
Index     307
Contact the Author     309

What People are Saying About This

Gregg Olsen

A literary and journalistic achievement of the highest order, a book that illuminates [and] thrills... It will take your breath away. (Gregg Olsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Deep Dark)

James Bradley

Riveting. (James Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers)

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Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
RitaMay22_1982 More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. I am a 1st generation Serbian-American. In fact, when my Dad was a pre-teen, he lived very close to that constructed landing strip; and my Mom (also a pre-teen at the time)lived in a nearby village of that same landing strip. I've grown up listening to my parents tell me about their childhood experiences in WW2. So, while reading this book, it occured to me that there were quite a few references in the book, that matched directly with some of the stories I heard my parents talk about- concerning their experiences of living that horrible time of their childhood. One story - My Mom remembers being given a piece of silk fabric from a parachute that was entangled in a tree-and sometimes seeing that saved soldier being whisked between houses when Ustashe were nearby. Another story- My Dad recalls hearing intermittent loud plane engines at nighttime. Said all of a sudden he'd hear a plane- like it was dropping out of the sky & might hit the hillside above him- and then the engines were cut off/turned off; a few minutes later-he'd hear a plane engine rev up suddenly- uptop of the same hillside and within seconds it was gone and all was quiet again. There are more stories - but these were told to me years before this book was ever written. This book stirs the soul. I am VERY thankful & fortunate, my parents were able to survive the war at such a tender age...and eventually were able to leave Yugoslavia with my sister and brother;and start a new life in JohnstownPA and have one more child. Also Thankful for those who risked & sacrificed to feed and hide 500 stranded airman - allowing enough time to rescue all 500 of them and bring them back to their families. Tom Hanks or Ron Howard need to read this book and produce a film for our children & future generations to REALLY see and appreciate the TRUE sacrifice of all involved in the rescue of the Forgotten 500! The school History textbooks need to include this event so it is never forgotten!
dominotes More than 1 year ago
I had no idea about this piece of WWII -- Yugoslovia. As engaging as the parts are about the American airmen being shot down returning from bombing runs from Italy to Romania, and having to ditch in Yugoslovia, the part that really enlightened me was the politics of the Serbs, General Tito, and General Mihailovich and how the power struggle affected the result after the war. A good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Upon reading this book and being of Serbian heritage I have known about this story for years but the rest of the world had not known the whole story. The book reads in detail how the Serbian people help the American Soldiers to be protected until our troops could come in and get them.
Josh_A_M More than 1 year ago
The Forgotten 500 is a well written none fiction book. Written from the perspectives of several men who were downed over Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and a few of the men trying to get airmen out. The down airmen had to convert a field into a makeshift runway with Nazi troops only a few miles away. I enjoyed learning what these men went through even if it was a heart wrenching story. The information was presented in a well organized manner. But it can be difficult to read at some points with the very different and diverse back stories that needed to be told in order to fully comprehend why certain people felt and acted the way they did. The story of the men and women involved in Operation Halyard should be made known to every one whether it is through reading this book which covers much of it, being told in class, or doing the research on their own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not usually a history buff but out book club chose it. Wonderful read - true story. The beginning is a little too historical but then you get roped in and are cheering by the end.
GWJOR More than 1 year ago
A real tribute to the bravery to those people who fought to keep the world from going over the precipice of darkness in World War Two.Should be a must read for high school students.A part of American history that should be remembered and not forgotten.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I heard about the Halyard Mission throughout my life from my father. This book answered many of my questions that my dad could not – for example, how was the airfield constructed so that the Germans did not detect it and how did anyone know these men were alive and needed to be returned to Italy. The details Mr. Freeman reveals are amazing and coincide with all my father told me about his experiences. Yes, my dad was one of the Forgotten 500. Great book and discloses the details even those rescued did not know!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The drama of getting the abandoned men out of harms way was good. The politics of the situation and todays world are similar. I recommend this book to anyone who knew people involved in WWII.
Jackwindcrest More than 1 year ago
This excellent book tells the story of the rescue of over 500 allied bomber crews lost over Yugoslavia while conducting bombing raids on the refineries of Rumania. These crews were gathered under the protection of anti-communist resistance leaders for eventual rescue. It tells the story also of the impact on British foreign policy by communist moles in British Intelligence that eventually led to Allied support of Tito and the post war domination of the Balkans by the Soviet Union. Bravery, sacrifice and stubbornness of a handful of people saved a large number of individuals.
KitTN More than 1 year ago
My husband and I are 84 and 74 young. We give The Forgotten 500 5 Stars. My husband is not much of a reader but may well become one due to this book. Kit
stuckinmissouri More than 1 year ago
This is a very well written account of a little known event. Not only a great adventure, it is also the story of a terrible wrong done by the Brits to a Yugoslav patriot. I consider this book an absolute must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love ww2 books and this is a great story. If you are younger it might be alittle hard to follow but it is still a awesome story and people should know about these airmen and the people that risked thier lives.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just one more ww 2 stroy I did not know about....till now
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having read a number of books on World War II, I was surprised to hear about this rescue so recently. The book was well written, documenting the patriotism, the dedication, the heroism, and the humanity of the Airmen, their Serbian protectors, and the OSS operatives who put the rescue together. Unfortunately, it also outlines the worse in treachery and stiff necked diplomacy, much of which cannot be blamed on the fog of war. Along with the addendum THE RED TAILS I highly recommend this book.
ChuckLaBee More than 1 year ago
Excellent History of a Hidden Part of WW2 A great and inspiring story of a mission that nearly did not happen. (The details of why are explained.) Learned a lot about both a well-performed mission (eventually) and about the land and peoples of a little-known part of the world. The history here is still relevant to today's world, where sometimes shameful and shabby attempts at what we now call "political correctness" caused unforeseen consequences and unnecessary future damage to a proud and helpful people. (After the war, rebel leader Draza Mihailovich, who protected the American airmen in this story, was sold down the river by our state department because they didn't want to rock the boat and disturb fragile relations with the communists. It was one of the opening battles of the cold war, and we lost by backing the wrong side. That tragic story is told here as well.)  Besides the actual mission, extremely interesting in itself, there are amazing stories of what it was like as the Nazis took over a city (running through the streets of Belgrade as bombs are falling and planes strafing), and then the fall of the entire country of Yugoslavia and the panic that ensued. There is a quick history of the OSS and the men who ran it, and the people who risked their lives running its operations.  But it's especially the stories of the kind and brave people who risked everything to help downed American fliers that are so touching. The Americans learned, to their immense surprise, that the villagers loved them just because they were Americans - because America was helping to fight the hated Nazis. The Yugoslavian peasants knew that the big planes flying high over their land were bombing Nazi oil-production targets in Romania. When the bombers were too damaged to make it back over the mountains and fell out of the sky (some of those bail-out stories are told in detail), they tried to find the crews, sometimes counting the parachutes before a plane crashed into the mountains, and eventually hiding hundreds of men before the Nazis found them. (The Americans knew none of this beforehand. They had been told that these people would cut off their ears and turn them over to the Nazis. You can imagine their relief as the people instead hugged and kissed them. Several touching and dramatic stories of these first encounters are covered.) Over many months the peasants gathered the men into one place, guarding them with a small lightly-armed ragtag army, and eventually a by-the-skin-of-their-teeth rescue was orchestrated by the OSS. It's a wonderful story. The details are exciting. Photos included of many of the principals.
tedeo More than 1 year ago
One gets somewhat bogged down reading the account in the middle. It picks up the last two chapters.The book shows how people can be so easily maligned. Revelations about the Churchill family and Roosevelt were well kept secrets.
SoberfloydSC More than 1 year ago
Given the circumstances and efforts of the Allied advance in World War II, it it amazing this story remained hidden all these years. As a student of History, I have a grand understanding of the efforts the Allies have to Yugoslavia and the fact the Brits supported Tito. But to find out that Tito only helped a few airmen versus the effort of Mahailcovich is amazing. The work by the OSS and brave pilots to rescue these men is lacking in being recognized. With the 70 the anniversary of D-Day upon us, there is a need for works like this to remind everyone of the sacrifices made to secure freedom. Even if recognizing that sacrifice comes nearly 70 years later. The book is well researched and makes use of diaries and personal accounts, making the work feel like hitting home. A must read for any WW II buff.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Freeman's account is well rounded with appropriate background information and insight into what was going on, but on a 1-to-10 scale I'd only give it a 6 overall. It's an interesting story, but not a particularly strong story as it drags on until the story progresses to the actual rescue operation. It's important points, however, is how the OSS operated in the background to get the operation moving, and how those in command at the highest ranks can get preoccupied with the current battle and easily forget a group of stranded airmen and solders. The story has an interesting kinship with the story of the cruiser Indianapolis and how the navy heirarchy could so easily pass blame elsewhere.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well worth any time spent - very good read!
lilah307 More than 1 year ago
As a woman I loved this book. It was a great read with a truly remarkable story of bravery. It should be required reading in high school history or made into a movie so the masses will know the story of these heroic men & women. I highly recommend it!
Anonymous 6 months ago
marshapetry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable book. However, I found it repetitious, and critical areas were glossed over. Examples:Repetition: How many times did I have to be reminded that the US military told soldiers (wrongly) to look for Tito's soldiers and that Mihilavich's soldiers were awful? OK, I got it - they blew it, but this is a major theme and it's repeated over and over. Tito bad, Mihilavich good. It made me wonder whether the book was written by a supporter of Mihilavich that wanted to rant about how unjust things were.Glossed over: the whole bit about building an airstrip by hand took just a couple of minutes... I'd been waiting through the book to finally hear about the challenges they faced doing this, and how it was done, and it ended up like "it was hard. Really hard.". WTH?But overall I liked the book - interesting story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is an amazing story. Sad reflection of the times that this hero of Yugoslavia was so poorly treated. Glad I read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent historical account and an EYE OPENER well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book