Retired Quaker Valley teacher, Rep. Gaydos travel to Serbia for World War II anniversary

Monday, October 28, 2019 | 6:01 AM


Of World War II’s countless accounts of devastation and triumph — the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Siege of Leningrad, the Battle of the Bulge — Operation Halyard is one of the more obscure.

For Mim Bizic, though, the amazing-but-true account of a secret mission in which more than 500 Allied airmen were rescued from Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia is one she has cherished since childhood.

“To me, they were real-life American heroes,” said Bizic, a retired Quaker Valley School District teacher. “Everyone else had Captain Marvel and Superman. I had my Pittsburgh heroes.”

Toward the end of World War II, hundreds of Allied airmen were being shot down by the Germans in a region that is now Serbia. As many as 50% of Allied planes that flew over the area were shot down as they targeted the Ploesti oil fields that supplied German war machines. Many were killed or captured.

With support from the leader of the royalist faction, the “Chetniks,” Gen. Draja Mihailovitch,“Dragoljub Mihailović,” the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) trained airmen to parachute from their damaged planes and make their way to Pranjani. There, villagers took the men in, cared for them and hid them from the Nazis. A small runway was created that allowed transport planes to retrieve the stranded soldiers.

Considered the largest successful rescue mission of the war, Operation Halyard took place over five months and saved more than 500 Allied soldiers — a majority of whom were American. But the mission remained mostly a secret for 60 years. After the war, the communist regime accused Mihailovitch of conspiring with the Germans and tried him on charges of treason.

The airmen involved in Operation Halyard were outraged. They went to news organizations, telling the story of how they were saved by the general. They urged members of Congress to declassify Operation Halyard and save the man who helped rescue them from the Nazis.

It was reported that the U.S. did forward the airmen’s testimony to the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, who refused them.

Mihailovitch was convicted and died by firing squad in 1946.

Unbeknownst to the airmen, in 1948, President Truman awarded a posthumous Legion of Merit to the general for his aid to the Allies. The award, and reports of Operation Halyard, remained classified for decades. It wasn’t until 2005 that a group who had participated in the mission presented the award to Mihailovitch’s daughter in Serbia.

While the story remained largely unknown, Bizic had in-depth knowledge. Her father, Milan Karto, a writer, editor and photographer, put out a monthly magazine, “American-Serb Life,” in which he published Nick Lalich’s diary, “I was with Mihailovich.”

Lalich was a captain in the Army and leader of the OSS team involved in Operation Halyard. He was one of many heroes to emerge from the mission. More than 20 of the men involved, including those who participated in the mission and those who were saved, had ties to the Pittsburgh region — among them George Vujnovich, George Musulin, Bobby Marjanovich, Paul Mato and Carl Walpusk.

Vujnovich, who planned the mission and ran it from Italy, was born in Pittsburgh. He grew up across the street from Bizic’s father.

Bizic’s apartment in Aleppo Township contains hundreds of documents and photos related to the mission. Of Serbian descent, she has been recognized many times for her efforts to preserve the culture and for her work in education. Bizic maintains a blog, which includes many historic documents, at www.babamim.com.

With the 75th anniversary of Operation Halyard approaching, Bizic started to make plans to travel to Serbia for the dedication being planned there. When family members couldn’t join her, she called up a friend.

“I had told Mim, ‘If you want to go the library or something, I’ll go with you,’ ” said state Rep. Valerie Gaydos, a Sewickley native. “Fast forward, all of the sudden, she gives me a call. ‘Would you go to Serbia with me?’ I said, ‘Mim, I was talking about going to a museum, or something.’ ”

Though the ceremony was only three weeks away, Gaydos made the trip happen. A longtime volunteer with Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit that transports veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials, Gaydos was helping out with one of the flights and visiting the National Air and Space Museum this past year when she came across a book — “The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II” by Gregory A. Freeman.

“There were so many connections to Pittsburgh,” she said. “When I saw that, I got really interested. My dad was a dentist in Ambridge, where Arthur Jibilian went to school.”

The story left an impression on Gaydos, who, in interviews while campaigning for office, talked about the book.

“It’s a really powerful story. It’s about doing the right thing, regardless of politics,” she said.

Bizic saw one of the interviews and reached out to Gaydos about her connection to the “Forgotten 500” men. Later, when she couldn’t find a companion for the Serbia trip, she thought of Gaydos.

The women paid a visit to Walpusk, a retired state trooper who lives in Moon Township. Now in his 90s, Walpusk was one of the men rescued in the mission.

“To have a conversation with Carl, and hearing first-hand his appreciation for the people who saved his life, that’s what was special,” said Gaydos, who paid for the trip personally. “As a legislator, I go to a lot of celebrations. This was made real because of having that connection with Carl.”

On Sept. 15, Bizic and Gaydos walked upon the same airfield from which the airmen were rescued. Thousands of people gathered for the anniversary, including a man who was just a boy when the airmen were taken in by his village, and President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic, who addressed the crowd and talked one-on-one with Bizic.

During their whirlwind, four-day trip, Gaydos presented a proclamation from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to the school in Pranjani and Maja Gojković, president of the National Assembly of Serbia.

Gaydos, whom Bizic called her “guardian angel” on the trip, said an event to honor Walpusk is in the works. She is grateful for the opportunity to represent Pennsylvania and express gratitude to the many who aided the airmen. She said the experience is all thanks to Bizic.

“Mim doesn’t wake up, she launches. I was so delighted to see her excitement,” Gaydos said. “This is something she wanted to do. It was beyond her dreams. That made it really special.”

For Bizic, it was the trip of a lifetime.

“It’s a dream come true,” Bizic said in a video posted to social media. “I knew the story well. All the people in the OSS were my friends through my father.

“Thank you for the opportunity,” she said with tears streaming down her face. “I loved it.”