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George Vujnovich, leader of WWII rescue, dies

George Vujnovich, the intelligence agent who organized a World War II mission to rescue more than 500 U.S. bomber crew members shot down over Nazi-occupied Serbia, has died at his home in New York. He was 96.

Vujnovich is credited with leading the so-called Halyard Mission in what was then Yugoslavia. It was the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines in any war.

A long retired salesman of aircraft parts, he died April 24 of natural causes at home in Queens, according to his daughter, Xenia Wilkinson.

The airmen were hidden in villages by Serbian guerrilla fighter Draza Mihailovich, leader of the Chetniks, whom Yugoslav communist officials considered to be Germany's collaborators.

"This mission would not have succeeded without the great courage of Draza Mihailovich and his brave men," Vujnovich said at a 2010 ceremony in which he was formally awarded the U.S. Bronze Star Medal.

On Aug. 2, 1944, three OSS agents strapped with radio transmitters were airdropped near Mihailovich's headquarters to set up the operation. Dozens of U.S. military cargo planes flew in over the months to pick up the airmen when they were downed.

The fliers parachuted into a mountainous region where local farmers brought them to their houses and barns. During the next 66 days, the Americans moved each night to a different location so as not to be captured by the occupying Germans.

-- AP

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