An American whose U.S. Air Force bomber was shot down over the Balkans during World War II is on a new mission in the region: Correct a historic injustice against a former Serb guerrilla leader.
In the summer of 1944, Lt. Col. Milton Friend's B-24 Liberator was downed by German fighter planes over central Serbia. He said Gen. Draza Mihailovic saved his life _ and those of 500 of his fellow airmen _ in the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines during a war.
The former Air Force navigator, now 88 and living in Boynton Beach, Florida, is to testify at a Belgrade court Friday at a hearing to exonerate the Serb general, whom Yugoslav communists sentenced as a Nazi collaborator and executed in 1946.
Mihailovic was not "a villain, but a hero," Friend said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press.
"He saved 500 people and helped them rejoin their families. He did not save only 500 lives, but thousands of their future generations now living in the United States," Friend said.
About 500 U.S. pilots and other airmen were downed over Serbia between 1942 and 1944 while on bombing runs targeting Adolf Hitler's oil fields in neighboring Romania, according to U.S. government field station files, stored in the National Archives.
Along with the Americans, some 100 British, French and Canadian airmen also were saved in the rescue operation, dubbed "Halyard," a word meaning a rope used to raise or lower a flag.
Friend said the airmen were hidden in villages by Serbian guerrilla fighters, known as Chetniks, who were led by Mihailovic. The prewar military officer launched the first Balkan resistance against the Nazis in 1941, before also turning against the communists led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
"Mihailovic told us that an American escape committee has been formed and that an airstrip will be built to help our rescue," said Friend, adding that he spent two months sheltered by the Serbs.
"They fed us as gave us rakija" a strong Serbian plum brandy, Friend said. "Of course, at first we thought it was water, but we soon found out we were wrong. I still have the taste of that brandy in my mouth."
Three American intelligence agents strapped with radio transmitters were airdropped on Aug. 2, 1944, near Mihailovic's headquarters in central Serbia to set up the rescue operation, Friend said.
One of the three OSS agents was Capt. George Musulin who played football at the University of Pittsburgh and also was on the Pittsburgh's Steeler team, in 1938 called Pirates, Friend said.
"He landed with his parachute on a chicken coop and killed some chickens because of his size," Friend said. "He immediately offered 10 dollars to the villagers, but they, of course, refused."
Dozens of U.S. military cargo planes flew in over the months to pick up the airmen. Serbian villagers had helped them build an airstrip by the village of Pranjani, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital, Belgrade.
According to historians, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt then decided to follow British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's lead and abandon support for Mihailovic in favor of Tito's partizans, the strongest grass-roots guerrilla force fighting the invading Nazis and Italian fascists.
"This was a purely political decision," Friend said. "In the first two years of the war, there were no partizans fighting the Nazis in Yugoslavia."
Increasingly isolated, Mihailovic was alleged to have later collaborated with the Germans. After the war, when communist Yugoslavia was established, he was sentenced to death in what many claimed was a rigged trial.
He was put to death in 1946, and his remains were buried at a secret location because the communists feared the grave could one day become the shrine for his loyalists.
U.S. President Harry Truman posthumously awarded Mihailovic the Legion of Merit for the rescue. However, historians say the honor was classified secret by the U.S. State Department for decades to avoid disrupting the friendly U.S. policy toward Tito.
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this report from New York.