World War II Vet Honored for Saving 512 Airmen

George Vujnovich was awarded the bronze star for orchestrating the daring rescue of hundreds of trapped American airmen. CBS Evening News, Oct. 17, 2010.
CBS
A New York City man was honored Sunday for his role in a little-known chapter of World War II. The U.S. government awarded George Vujnovich the bronze star for orchestrating the daring rescue of hundreds of trapped American airmen.

"I feel we should have helped those men," says Vujnovich.

For a half-century he lived a humble life as salesman in blue collar Queens, New York. During World War II he was a 29-year-old officer for the Office of Strategic Services - the CIA of its day - training men for a top-secret rescue behind enemy lines.

"I feel great that I helped save them," says Vujnovich.

Called Operation Halyard, it was a massive airlift of more than 500 Allied pilots and crew.

"I was the operations officer, knew the circumstances over there, knew the country," says Vujnovich.

It was the summer of 1944, reports CBS News correspondent Sean Hennessey. Hundreds of Allied airmen, mostly Americans, were shot down in the hills of Yugoslavia. They were surrounded by Nazi troops. Vujnovich's wife, who worked for the Yugoslavian embassy, tipped her husband off about the secret location of the downed men.

"My wife wrote me a letter. 'See what you can do,'" says Vujnovich.

And so a bold mission was born. "We trained them in espionage as much as we could," says Vujnovich.

To get them out, he had to build a makeshift airfield for C-47s to make quick, daring rescue drops, an operation that went on for four months without being detected by the Germans.

He trained Serbian-speaking agents in Bari, Italy, who learned how to blend in with Yugoslav rebels hiding the Allied soldiers in farms.

"They nourished us. They hid us from the Germans. And some of them lost their lives," says Tony Orsini, a navigator during World War II.

Orsini spent five weeks protected by Serbian villagers before being airlifted home. In total, it took more than 40 flights to rescue 512 airmen. Orsini credits Vujnovich with saving his life.

Orsini still keeps the missing-in-action telegram given to his parents and the Serbian dagger given to him for protection.

Of Vujnovich, Orsini says, "He is the architect of the greatest rescue mission in World War II."

A 95-year old architect who's story is no longer a secret, but his award bittersweet.

"I'm sad because some of these men that we sent in are not here so they can share in this honor," says Vujnovich.

An honor, along with the thanks of grateful nation.