The Spy Next Door Was Ours

Spotlight Finds Ex-operative After 66 Years

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    NEWSLETTERS

    99-year-old WW II veteran who rescued Americans while working for the OSS -- an early version of the CIA -- is finally recognized for his secret service. (Published Thursday, Oct 21, 2010)

    He may be the shrewdest spy master you've never heard of.

    But after 66 years living anonymously as a salesman in a blue collar section of Jackson Heights, Queens, George Vujnovich is being outed. The U.S. Army, which for six decades had kept Vujnovich's daring rescue of 512 American airmen during World War II a secret, is awarding him a Bronze Star.

    It's the military's third highest honor.

    "I'll be thankful to those that were in there with me," said the now-95 year-old Vujnovich (pronounced VOIN-ovich). He worked at the headquarters of OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, an early version of the CIA. He remains sharp, if humble, still fully possessed of the temperament that made him an effective trainer and dispatcher of field agents.

    The airmen he created the plan to rescue had parachuted out of planes that were shot down by the Nazis over Yugoslavia in 1944. Fortunately for those fliers, they came down in an area controlled by rebel Chetniks led by Draza Mihailovic. Unfortunately, political breezes were blowing toward Josip Broz Tito, a communist partisan leader and rival of Mihailovic's. So the United States government was reluctant to appear to be involved with a plan of any kind that included Mihailovic's forces.

    What Vujnovich realized was that Mihailovic was the only reason those 500 airmen were spared capture by the Germans and that the passage of time might change that. He rushed to organize a rescue.

    "It's espionage. It's cloak and dagger. It's just an amazing, amazing story," said U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of Queens, who pushed the Army starting in July to give Vujnovich belated official recognition.

    The plan relied on the airmen themselves working with Serbian peasant farmers to convert an old pasture to an airstrip. "They also had to come up with a way for enough cargo planes to fly in and pick up 500 airmen," said Gregory Freeman, whose book "The Forgotten 500" tells the story of Vujnovich's plan and its successful result.

    Ever since leaving government service in 1947 after the war, Vujnovich has lived more or less anonymously, selling aircraft parts while declining to discuss his past even with close neighbors. "They have no idea what I did or was," he said to a reporter in his living room as a longtime native Yugoslavian friend looked on.

    Vujnovich says he's the last surviving member of the rescue team. However, when Congressman Crowley pins the Bronze Star on his chest at a Serbian Cathedral in Manhattan Sunday, it's expected that Anthony Orsini -- one of those rescued airmen--will be present. 

    "It will be nice to get our picture in the newspapers, said the nonagenarian retired spy. "I just wish some of the others who pulled it off could be there too."