A colleague gave me this book as a gift during the holiday season, mainly due to his knowledge of my fondness for history. I quickly made a mental note to give it a read in the near future. When I saw the title, I was slightly puzzled at the term “The Forgotten 500”. I have read books on World War II but none mentioned any 500 forgotten soldiers. Upon closer inspection, I soon began to realize why I had not heard the story. At the time the mission occurred, it was carefully hidden by the State Department and Office of Strategic Services who did not wish to jeopardize the lives of any remaining U.S. soldiers still trapped behind enemy lines. Further, in the years that followed, the the story faded into the annals of military history regarding the second world war. Even my father, who is an ardent World War II buff, has never mentioned this story. Our next discussion will certainly be interesting.
So who exactly were the forgotten 500? Well, the story takes place in Yugoslavia, where American, British and French airmen have been provided refuge by the local men and women who are fiercely anti-Nazi after Adolf Hitler ordered the Germany Wehrmacht to occupy their country. The airmen had been sent out on bombing missions to eliminate the German fuel supply lines in Ploesti, Romania. Berlin knew the value of the supply lines and carefully mounted anti-aircraft batteries around the supply stations in anticipation of Allied attacks. American crews were typically successful in attacking the lines but suffered heavy damage to aircraft and high number of casualties. Those who abandoned ship upon orders of the pilot, typically landed in the Yugoslavian countryside and were quickly taken in by peasants and farmers. This is the story of their survival behind enemy lines 0and the incredible mission to rescue them from German occupied territory.
Today, many of the soldiers who served in World War II are deceased and they took with them to their graves, many untold stories of heroism and heartbreak during the war. Their names are only remembered by those who knew them closely and for the forgotten 500, the same story would apply if not for this book. The role of Yugoslavia in World War II is underrepresented in the larger narrative of the conflict. By 1992, it had broken apart in the wake of a bitter civil war that saw the loss of over two-hundred thousand lives. Tensions between Serbians, Croatians and other ethnic groups had reached a tipping point in 1989 and could no longer be contained. in 1995, peace was formally restored but to this day, tensions continue to simmer underneath the surface. Several decades prior, Yugoslavia was seen a prized possession by both Germany and the Soviet Union and the invasion by German forces served as an impediment to its full independence. As a result, the people came to the aid of downed airmen and protected them fiercely in spite of the looming German military.
The author introduces us in the beginning of the book to the airmen who have been assigned the task of attacking Ploesti. Each mission is doomed from the start, forcing all on board to grab their parachutes and jump to whatever fate lies ahead. Miraculously, they are each found by the locals, embraced and given shelter. However, as more Allied planes fall victim to German weaponry, it soon becomes evident that the large number of airmen will have to find a way out of the country and back to Italy, where American bases have been established. The only problem is that the area is surrounded by German troops who will surely notice a major extraction mission. Washington knows it must do something but is pressed for ideas. The Office of Strategic Services enters the picture and the story changes gears completely.
The author does a fantastic job of providing enough back story to set the stage for the eventual rescue mission. To understand the situation in Yugoslavia, he provides a thorough discussion of the struggle for power between Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and Washington over the the small Baltic nation. Inside the country, German forces are opposed by the Communist Josip Tito (1892-1980) and pro-western Draza Mihailovich (1893-1946). Tito and Mihailovich are engaged in their own power struggle but determined to defeat the Nazi menace. However, there were other events and agendas taking place outside of Yugoslavia that dictated the course of the war and came to haunt Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who later called Yugoslavia his biggest mistake of the war. The three-way dance that ensued and the deception that occurred are covered here and will undoubtedly surprise many. I found myself shaking my head at the series of mis-steps by Allied forces that seemed to be unaware of Stalin’s true and barely hidden agenda.
Those familiar with World War II history will know about the role of the Office of Strategic Services, under the direction of its first director, the legendary William Donovan (1883-1959). The agency boasted such recruits as future Central Intelligence Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and celebrity chef Julia Child (1912-2004). Today it might seem surprising that even civilians were recruited by intelligence agencies but during World War II, all bets were off. The OSS dad a job to do and as we see in the book, they were determined not to fail. Donovan’s ability to get President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) to agree to the mission is one of the best anecdotes in the book and shows how urgent it became to rescue the stranded airmen.
The approval of Donovan’s request set into a motion a series of events that brought together several different departments and two governments in an effort to pull of a rescue mission that no one had ever attempted before. The logistics are all covered in the book showing the high amount of risk that came with it. The margin for error was virtually non-existent but the people involved rose to the call of duty and this part of the book is uplifting and also high on suspense. One mistake could result in falling into German hands and an international diplomatic nightmare. But surprisingly not everyone was on the same page and the smaller battle between Washington and London is beyond surreal. It is a story you do have to read to believe.
Following the mission, the airmen return to civilian life but are dismayed to see how the international game of chess continues to be played. Tito’s rise and Mihailovich’s demise are some of the darker moments in the book. The airmen voice their disapproval with the official narrative and Freeman retraces their steps showing their never-ending commitment to honoring the legacy of their Yugoslavian hosts. At the end of the book, he provides an update on the airmen, some of whom were alive at the time the book was published in 2008. Now that twelve years have passed, I do not believe that they are still living but their memory is preserved eternally in this story that is simply unbelievable. For all of you World War II buffs, this book is a must have. Highly recommended.