Honoring an American hero

On October 17, Congressmember Joseph Crowley presented World War II veteran and Jackson Heights resident George Vujnovich with the Bronze Star, one of the military’s highest honors.
“George Vujnovich orchestrated what is believed to be the largest airlift rescue missions behind enemy lines. Yet, his extraordinary story has – until now – escaped headlines,” said Crowley. “Today, that changed. George’s heroic efforts will now forever be a part of our nation’s history books. This honor is the least we can do to pay tribute to a man who did so much for our country.”
In the summer of 1944, Allied airmen flew over Europe with the aim of disrupting the Ploesti oil complex, Adolf Hitler’s most important oil pipeline. During the treacherous journey from Italian bases to the Romanian oil complex, scores of American crewmen were trapped behind enemy lines and dependent on Serbian villagers to hide them from the Germans.
Vujnovich’s wife, who worked at the Yugoslav embassy at the time, alerted her husband to the location of the downed pilots. Vujnovich served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, during the war. Under his direction, the OSS put together Operation Halyard, a daring mission to airlift the men out of occupied territory without drawing the attention of the Nazis.
Operation Halyard was a complete success, with all 512 Allied pilots rescued from behind enemy lines. The mission’s success was due in large part to General Draza Mihailovich, a Yugoslav guerrilla leader who helped to carry out the operation, and the courageous Serbian locals who risked their lives to safeguard the airmen. The operation was declassified and Crowley helped secure the overdue medal for Vujnovich.
“George has our eternal respect and admiration, and our nation will forever be grateful,” said Crowley. “Jackson Heights, and all of New York for that matter, is proud to be home to a true American hero.”

More from Around New York