The Daily Telegraph specializes in carrying obituaries that draw attention to people who have done something remarkable about which the public knows little or nothing. George Vujnovich is a case in point. He had his moment of inspired heroism and deserves to be commemorated.
Born in Pittsburgh as the son of Serb immigrants, he happened to be studying in Belgrade in 1941 when the Germans invaded and conquered Yugoslavia. Escaping home, he was recruited into the OSS, the Office for Strategic Services, the war-time intelligence service and fore-runner to the CIA. He was then stationed in Bari, in southern Italy, in co-operation with British counterparts from SOE, or Special Operations Executive. The overt struggle against the occupying Germans concealed the simultaneous struggle waged between Communist partisans under Josip Tito and the militia of Colonel Draja Mihailovich, a Serb and a royalist. At stake was the future of that whole country.
Three hundred and fifty Allied bombers had been shot down during raids in the Balkans and Vojnovich made it his mission to bring home all the airmen who had bailed out. Most of these were in territory controlled by Mihailovich. However, SOE in Bari was in the hands of Communists. James Klugmann, a member of the British Party’s Central Committee, and his assistant Basil Davidson, were falsifying reports of the campaign against the Germans in order to persuade Churchill to drop Mihailovich in favor of Tito — Churchill afterwards recorded in his memoirs that this was the worst mistake he made in the war. The airmen themselves had to improvise a runway for aircraft to land, but the first six attempts to rescue them failed. The Telegraph obituary says that the OSS “began to suspect sabotage from communist moles in the SOE.” Misled by these traitors, Churchill had tried to stop Vujnovich. OSS’s director, William “Wild Bill” Donovan appealed to President Roosevelt, and is quoted saying to him, “Screw the British! Let’s get our boys out!” In the end 512 airmen were flown out to safety without a single casualty or the loss of an aircraft. The Germans never discovered the runway.
After the war, Tito arranged for Mihailovich to be put on trial and shot. One of the more shameful features of the Cold War was the way the Western Allies excused Tito’s crimes and his Communism. For fear of giving offense, Vujnovich’s feat was carefully obscured. “We couldn’t get the truth out,” the Telegraph reports him saying as late as 2008, “Everything was covered up from beginning to end.”
It seems fitting that after the war he became a successful businessman supplying aircraft parts. He lived in New York and died there, aged 97. R.I.P.