Operation Halyard was the name given for the OSS operation in 1944 to liberate downed Allied airmen who had been shot down over Serbia. It was the largest rescue of downed airmen of the war and it was led by three OSS operatives. According to the official report submitted to the OSS 417 Allied airmen were rescued by the operation. According to the report prepared by the OSS to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 432 Americans and 80 Allied airmen were evacuated by the operation. The actual liberation of the men was accomplished by Chetnik partisans, and they were flown out of Serbia by the US Fifteenth Air Force.
In 1944 prior to D-Day American bombing of targets in Romania and Bulgaria intensified, and bomber losses grew. While some of the airmen who bailed out of damaged aircraft were captured, others landed in areas where they were protected by partisans in Yugoslavia. As the number of these airmen increased, the OSS developed a plan in which they could be rescued via airlift. Many of the airmen were sheltered in private homes, unknown to either the Germans or the partisans. As the number of these men increased to over 100, a rescue team was assembled of three OSS operatives, who would be tasked with working with the Chetniks to collect them.
Conflicts with the British over the partisan sides (they had shifted their backing to Tito) hampered the early efforts of the OSS to maintain contact with the leader of the Chetniks, Draza Mihailovic. The OSS selected Lt. George Musulin, who had previously led an OSS liaison mission with Draza, to head the insertion team, which was known as Operation Halyard. The members of the team were Michael Rajacich, and Arthur Jibilian. This team parachuted into Serbia and Mihailovic’s territory in August, 1944. Chetnik partisans provided security and engaged German troops, but the German interference was marginal.
The Chetniks built an airstrip for the operation, digging it with shovels rather than heavy equipment, and brought the airmen to the region for evacuation. Though the British SOE thought the airstrip too short, their mission to Tito’s partisans used it to depart Yugoslavia before it was complete, in May 1944. The airstrip, near Pranjani, was used to evacuate airmen until the Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia in September, when the operation was moved to another improvised airstrip. Yet another airstrip was built in late October and the operation continued from there. During the winter the operation continued, the strips cleared of snow by Serbian peasants.
Although the Serbians, the Chetnik partisans, and the US Fifteenth Air Force were all involved in the evacuation, it was the OSS planning and liaison with Mihailovic which allowed it to be a success. By December 1944 the mission was completed. The mission received little publicity at the time and little since. In 1944 the world was watching the Allies sweep across France, followed by the disaster of Operation Market Garden and then the Battle of the Bulge. There was only so much headline space. After the war the participation of the Chetniks was downplayed so as not to offend the communist government of Yugoslavia.