95-Year-Old WWII Veteran Receives Bronze Star
Congressmember Joseph Crowley (D-Queens, The Bronx) presented World War II veteran and Jackson Heights resident George Vujnovich with the Bronze Star, one of the military’s highest honors. Vujnovich received the medal for his efforts during Operation Halyard, a once-classified mission that resulted in the successful rescue of over 500 Allied airmen. Vujnovich served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, during the war.
“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,” Crowley said. “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 hundreds of missions over Europe with the aim of disrupting the Ploesti oil complex, Adolf Hitler’s most important oil pipeline. During the treacherous journey from Italian air bases to the Romanian oil complex, many brave men were shot down over Yugoslavia. 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. Under Vujnovich’s 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 mission was classified for decades by the U.S. government because of political sensitivities surrounding its support for Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia and political rival of Mihailovich. The operation was eventually declassified and earlier this year, Congressmember Crowley supported the effort to secure the overdue medal for Vujnovich, a resident of his congressional district.
“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.”