A New Yorker who orchestrated the largest air rescue of American soldiers behind enemy lines in history was honored 66 years after the heroic operation.
George Vujnovich, 95, a retired salesman from Queens, was bestowed the Bronze Star on Sunday for bringing home 512 downed airmen in 1944 from what was then Yugoslavia.
"I feel deeply satisfied," said Vujnovich, who was studying in Belgrade when the war broke out and was later tapped by the OSS, a predecessor of the CIA. "Not for myself, but for men who gave their lives to save these airmen."
Born in the U.S. to Serbian parents, he knew his way around the Nazi-occupied Balkans and was called on to help the U.S. rescue the airmen downed while bombing Hitler's oil fields in Romania.
A secret air strip was built inside a corn field to allow cargo planes to land and rescue the Americans, who were hidden by the local resistance.
"It was a genius plan," said Tony Orsini, 87, a B-24 navigator who was one of the rescued men. "It all took place without any casualties."
Orsini, of Iselin, N.J., who hid under a bed to avoid the Nazis, recalled "the gracious attitude of the Serbian people." And he joked about "all the rakija I drank," referring to the alcoholic beverage of choice in the area.
Yesterday he was at Vujnovich's side during the ceremony at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in Manhattan.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steven Oluic, who prepared the medal submission, called what was dubbed the Halyard Mission "an incredible feat that will echo in the annals of American military."
Monday, October 18, 2010
Man awarded Bronze Star 66 years after daring rescue.
From the NY Daily News: