A former U.S. soldier told a Serbian court Friday how he and his fellow service members were rescued during World War II by fighters led by a Serb guerrilla who was later executed as a traitor by the postwar Yugoslav communist authorities.
Milton Friend, now 88 and living in Boynton Beach, Florida, testified before a court reviewing the 1946 verdict against Gen. Draza Mihailovic.
Friend is one of some 500 U.S. Army soldiers whose planes were shot down over the Balkans during the war and who were rescued by Mihailovic's fighters.
The soldiers were hidden in villages by the 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 turning against the communists led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.
The U.S. then organized what became the largest rescue operation of Americans behind enemy lines during a war. The operation prompted U.S. President Harry Truman to posthumously award Mihailovic the Legion of Merit.
However, in Yugoslavia, Mihailovic was accused of treason by the new authorities and executed after a brief trial in 1946. The Communists said Mihailovic had collaborated with the Nazis and that his troops committed atrocities against non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.
Friend denied this during the hearing at Belgrade's Higher Court. He said that the U.S. airmen had tried to testify in favor of Mihailovic during the initial trial in 1946, but that the then communist Yugoslav authorities rejected that.
"This is why I am here now," he told the judges.
Friend said that back in 1946 he and the other U.S. Army airmen were "astonished" to hear about Mihailovic's arrest. They chartered a plane and flew to Washington, collecting more than 600 pages of testimonies in favor of Mihailovic.
Friend described Mihailovic as "warm, pleasant and calm." He said that Mihailovic wore no insignia or emblems to mark his military ranks during their two meetings.
The proceedings to exonerate Mihailovic were launched at the request of his followers and relatives who claim the trial against him had been staged and politically motivated.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that Friend was then flying with the U.S. Army, not the U.S. Air Force, which became a new branch of the military in 1947.)