Crowley gives Jackson Heights man the Bronze Star

Jackson Heights resident George Vujnovich (c.) receives the Bronze Star from U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley for rescuing 500 pilots downed in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in World War II. Tony Orsini (l.), one of the rescued airmen, applauds. AP PHOTO/Diane Bondareff
By Rebecca Henely

U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) presented World War II veteran and Jackson Heights resident George Vujnovich with the Bronze Star at a Manhattan church Sunday for his service during a formerly secret mission to rescue 512 Allied pilots in Yugoslavia.

“George Vujnovich orchestrated what is believed to be the largest airlift rescue mission behind enemy lines. Yet, his extraordinary story has — until now — escaped headlines,” Crowley said in a statement.

Vujnovich, 95, a small businessman for more than 50 years, had kept his role in organizing Operation Halyard in World War II a secret even from his closest friends, The New York Times reported. During the war, Vujnovich had served in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

“There was a strict rule in the OSS [to] not talk about these things — they teach you to compartmentalize them and lock them away,” Vujnovich told the Times.

The operation occurred in 1944, when Allied airmen flying over Europe were shot down while attempting to immobilize the Ploesti oil complex, Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s most important oil pipeline. The attacks meant many soldiers were trapped within Axis territory, Crowley’s office said.

Through the help of Vujnovich’s wife, who worked at the Yugoslav embassy and revealed the location of the airmen to her husband; Gen. Draza Mihailovich, a Yugoslav guerilla leader; and Serbians who had safeguarded the shot-down pilots, Vujnovich planned with the OSS an operation to airlift the soldiers out of the territory without the Nazis’ noticing. The operation was 100 percent successful, Crowley’s office said.

Due to the U.S. government’s support for the communist leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, who was an enemy of Mihailovich, the government kept the operation secret for many years, Crowley said. The congressmen had urged the government to give Vujnovich the long-overdue medal for his actions earlier in 2010.

“Better now than never,” Vujnovich told the Times.

Crowley presented the Bronze Star to Vujnovich at the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.

“George has our eternal respect and admiration, and our nation will forever be grateful,” Crowley said. “Jackson Heights, and all of New York for that matter, is proud to be home to a true American hero.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

More from Around New York