Friday, March 18, 2011

The Forgotten 500

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II
© 2007 Gregory A. Freeman
313 pages

Throughout the Second World War, Great Britain and the United States engaged in a strategic bombing campaign against Hitler's regime, hitting its industries and supplies. As the range of bombers and (more importantly) fighter escorts increased, Allied bombers began penetrating deep into the interior of Europe, striking at ball-bearing plants and oil refineries as far as Romania, determine to bring the Nazi war machine to its knees.  These far-ranging days rank as the bloodiest in the air war, as fierce resistance saw bomber after bomber drop from the skies. Many of the bombing crews assigned to the Ploesti raids bailed out over Yugoslavia, where -- rescued by sympathetic Serbian peasants -- they found shelter and open arms eager to hide them from their enemies. As their numbers increased (every abandoned bomber had a crew of at least ten), these men and their friends in the Serbian resistance contacted the Allies, who devised a daring plan: HALYARD,  in which a group of C-47 transport planes would steal into Europe, land at an improvised runway created by the grounded airmen, and take off into the night, rescuing the bomber crews under Hitler's very nose. 

This is a story worthy of being told, steeped in human interest: the compassion of the Serbians is stirring, as is the sheer audacity of the Operation of Strategic Services men who created HALYARD and the courage of the pilots who carries it out. As inspiring and dramatic as it is, though, it's not quite the story of the Forgotten 500. Their rescue, while tense, is over quickly. Instead, the tale of these airmen and their Balkgan guardians is used to frame a reappraisal of Draza Mihailovich, the leader of the loyalist Chetniks who opposed both the German occupation and the ambitions of another resistance group, Tito's Moscow-backed Partisans. Though history remembers Mihailovich as a man who eventually collaborated with the Nazis out of hatred for the Bolsheviks and engaged in ethnic cleansing,  to the airmen he is a friend, guardian, and saviour. Gregory Freeman's Mihailovich is an unassuming and noble saint, an egalitarian leader of men who refused to shed innocent blood and whose steadfast service to the Allies was ignored by history. Freeman attributes this to a Communist conspiracy within British intelligence,  the coup of a mole that was exacerbated by the "leftist, socialist" sympathies of OSS in its early years. After the war, the airmen are outraged by Mihailovich's treatment at the hands of the Allies and Tito, and protest against his trial and execution. They continue to work to redeem his reputation as the decades pass by, to little avail; their struggle is apparently adopted by Freeman, whose portrayal of the man is unabashedly charitable.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Freeman's writing bothered me, tending toward the superficial and reminding me more like sensational journalism than history.  It lacks nuance altogether, particularly in regards to politics, presenting Mihailovich as a forgotten hero. Perhaps he is. Since finishing this, I've been shifting through the evidence, trying to get a better handle on this man. The accounts of hundreds of airmen make one thing very plain: Mihailovich sheltered the grounded bomber crews and earned their affection and respect. This doesn't rule out cooperation with the Nazis in other regards: war makes strange bedfellows. People and groups who would otherwise be enemies may have slightly overlapping interests (in this case, destroying Tito) and work together to that end,  while at the same time pursuing their own private agendas. Mihailovich's kindnesses toward the Americans doesn't rule out hostility toward Croats, Bosnians, and Muslims, either -- for human beings are not storybook villains with simple, predictable characters.

Though Freeman presents a storybook hero in Mihailovich, and The Forgotten 500 seems a little amateurish because of it,  I'm glad I read it. The story of the 500 is worth knowing about, but without Freeman I don't know that I would have been exposed to the controversy surrounding Mihailovich's character. I'm still iffy about the integrity of the book itself, but it's possibly worth your while.  Caveat lector. 

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