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Canton man Tom Connolly a big part of greatest untold story of WWII - Halyard
Canton Citizen ^ | November 11, 2010 | Jay Turner

Posted on 11/11/2010 5:49:30 PM PST by Ravnagora

If it weren’t for 95-year-old George Vujnovich receiving his long-overdue Bronze Star last month — a full 66 years after he helped launch the incredible, yet thoroughly overlooked Halyard rescue mission in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in the late summer of 1944 — then perhaps Paul Seery’s thoughts would be elsewhere this Veterans Day.

Tom Connolly and his crew celebrate on Italian soil after being rescued from Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in late December of 1944. Also pictured are OSS agents George Vujnovich and Nick Lalich.

Instead, they are fixed firmly on the memory of his old friend and former coworker at Emerson and Cuming, the late Tom Connolly, whose stories of rescue and adventure as a crew member on a B24 bomber had always fascinated Seery during their time together at the Canton-based chemical plant throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

Seery, who is now retired and living in Canton, said it had been years since he had thought of those stories when, seemingly out of nowhere, he came across this article about Vujnovich in the Boston Globe, and suddenly it dawned on him why it all sounded so familiar: Vujnovich’s mission had rescued his old pal Tom.

It wasn’t just Connolly, however. As it turns out, and as Seery soon recalled from his days at Emerson and Cuming, Operation Halyard was massive; in fact, it was arguably the greatest rescue mission of World War II, not to mention the largest air rescue of Americans behind enemy lines in any war, with more than 500 downed pilots rescued — without a single loss of life — between early August and late December of 1944.

Most of the airmen, including Connolly, had been shot down over Serbia while on bombing runs to the German-occupied Ploesti oil fields in Romania. They spent the next several months hiding out in farmhouses, aided by Serbian farm families and protected by Serbian Chetnik guerillas, who were led by General Draza Mihailovich.

Vujnovich, a Serbian American working in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, was the one who convinced American officials to carry out the rescue mission. It was an elaborate plan — one that involved dropping OSS agents into enemy territory, then building makeshift airstrips on mountainous terrain before sending in a fleet of C-47 cargo planes to pick up the stranded soldiers — and yet it was a total success.

“It’s such a fantastic story,” noted Seery, who has spent the past few weeks learning as much as he can about the mission, even searching local libraries for The Forgotten 500, a complete history of the rescue by Gregory A. Freeman.

Of course, the average American knows little, if anything at all, about Operation Halyard, because the mission was kept secret by the United States military for decades. And the reason, as Seery is quick to point out, has everything to do with the politics of the time, most notably the British and Americans’ waning support for Mihailovich and the Chetniks in favor of a rival faction, headed by the communist leader Tito.

Meanwhile, as the communists gained control over Yugoslavia, the credit for the rescue went to Tito and his forces, while Mihailovich was portrayed as a Nazi sympathizer and put on trial for war crimes in 1946. In America, many of the former airmen went to great lengths to clear Mihailovich’s name, even making a highly publicized trip to Washington, D.C. in an effort to declassify the documents detailing the rescue mission; however, on July 17 of that year, Mihailovich was executed by firing squad and buried in an unmarked grave.

Even to this day, Seery remembers the anger and resentment Connolly harbored, not only toward Tito, but also toward the U.S. government for not doing more to protect his hero.

“Tom and his crew even wanted to go back to Serbia and testify for Mihailovich, and the U.S. State Department wouldn’t let them go,” said Seery. “It’s a shame — one of the greatest rescue missions of the war, and all these years the truth had been kept under wraps.”

Seery also has more than just his memory to rely on. Besides conducting his own research, he recently reached out to one of Tom’s two sons, Ted Connolly, who has in his possession a veritable treasure chest of historical documentation on his father’s wartime experiences, including dozens of photographs and letters — and even a few weapons.

Ted, who grew up in a house on Pleasant Circle and attended Canton schools, remembers hearing the stories as a kid — of his father’s crew being shot down over Yugoslavia and the Chetniks helping them out. He was also keenly aware of the “disappointment in [his father’s] heart over Mihailovich being sold down the river.”

Tom Connolly (left), who was just 18 when this photo was taken, was an airplane mechanic at Wiggins Airways in Canton prior to joining the military.

At the same time, Ted said his appreciation for the Halyard mission and his father’s role in it has grown exponentially over the years, especially as he has gotten to know various members of his dad’s crew, and in some cases, the children of crew members. He also could not say enough about Freeman’s book, The Forgotten 500, which, much to Ted’s surprise, included pictures of his father in Yugoslavia that he had never before seen.

“You’re reading the book and you flip it open, and there he is,” said Ted, adding, “The thing that amazed me is that the story we grew up hearing is exactly the story in the book, exactly the story that each one of our parents told. That I found just to be absolutely fascinating.”

Ted has also learned a great deal about his father through his own research, including the fact that he actually survived three separate plane crashes, and in one of them, his quick thinking and bravery helped save the lives of multiple crew members.

“He was a very humble man,” Ted said. “My father never thought he was a hero — you know, you did what you did because you had to do it.”

In addition, he learned that his father, who was a flight engineer and the top turret gunner on his crew, saw action not only in the Balkans, but also in France, the Rhineland, and in various parts of Italy. And he was awarded numerous citations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster, and a Purple Heart, among others.

Interestingly, although Tom was not the pilot of his crew, the young man who was had actually worked under him at E.W. Wiggins Airways, which was located at the old Canton Airport. Tom had been an airplane mechanic there from the time he was in his mid teens. Ted said his father “absolutely loved airplanes” and used to fly regularly before joining the military, often taking part in local air shows with the likes of Bobby Draper from Draper Mills.

Ted has also since learned that his father was on board the very last rescue flight of Operation Halyard before the mission was finally abandoned a few days after Christmas in 1944. He even has the photos to prove it, including one where Tom and his crew are posing in front of a Christmas tree that their Serbian caretakers had decorated for them. Instead of tinsel they used “chaff” — the thin strips of aluminum that was thrown out of airplanes during the war in order to interfere with radar signals.

Meanwhile, as the American airmen boarded the C-47 bound for Italy, many of them took off their boots, and one by one, they tossed them down to the Serbian villagers as a final gesture of their gratitude. They did so, as Seery has since learned, because it was winter, and because most of the villagers did not have boots of their own.

It was exactly the kind of story that deserved to be told, and yet for years Operation Halyard was ignored, even as men like Connolly shared their amazing tales with work buddies and members of their own families.

Now Vujnovich finally has his Bronze Star, while Mihailovich, at least in the United States, has had his reputation restored. Still, there are many people, including Ted Connolly, who cannot help but wonder if these stories will be able to survive another generation, especially with World War II veterans now dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day.

“The stories are going away, and [these men] are passing, and it’s just a shame,” said Ted.

Seery was even more blunt about it, insisting that “somebody better write these stories down because people who know this stuff are going to be dead.”

Both said they would love to see more scholarship done on the rescue mission in the long term, although both have been actively doing their part by reaching out to others and sharing Tom’s story. And despite their very real concerns over losing the remnants of this “greatest generation,” they both continue to cling to the belief that most Americans, when it comes down to it, will not let their heroes die.

And today, perhaps more than any other day of the year, seems to offer proof of that fact.


TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: connolly; halyard; mihailovich; serbs

1 posted on 11/11/2010 5:49:34 PM PST by Ravnagora
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To: joan; Smartass; zagor-te-nej; Lion in Winter; Honorary Serb; jb6; Incorrigible; DTA; vooch; ...


2 posted on 11/11/2010 5:56:57 PM PST by Ravnagora
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To: Ravnagora

Big Time Bump!!!

3 posted on 11/11/2010 5:58:36 PM PST by tubebender
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To: Interesting Times; GreyFriar; SeraphimApprentice

Veterans’ Day ping.

4 posted on 11/11/2010 6:20:49 PM PST by zot
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To: Ravnagora

Waiting for Hoplite’s protest, atheists like him can’t stand the honoring if real heroes.

5 posted on 11/11/2010 6:25:02 PM PST by montyspython
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To: Ravnagora

6 posted on 11/11/2010 6:27:23 PM PST by montyspython
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To: Ravnagora

Someone should ask the question: “Why did our government and the English support Tito the communist?

7 posted on 11/11/2010 7:10:40 PM PST by old curmudgeon
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To: zot

Quite a story. Thanks for the ping.

8 posted on 11/11/2010 7:53:53 PM PST by Interesting Times (
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To: old curmudgeon

Communist moles within their respective intelligence agencies, the OSS was fraught with them.

9 posted on 11/11/2010 8:58:17 PM PST by montyspython
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To: old curmudgeon
Someone should ask the question: “Why did our government and the English support Tito the communist?

The head of the Yugoslav Desk during WWII was a man named James Klugman, a well-known British communist. Klugman altered the Yugoslav reports coming in to HQ to favor Tito and disparage Mihailovic. The American pilots were witness to some battles that they knew Mihailovic had fought, but later that evening they'd hear the BBC report that it was Tito's action, not Mihailovic's. That was repeated over and over. Moreover, all attempts to get the American pilots out of Yugoslavia that tried to go through Klugman's British Yugoslav desk, kept going wrong. That's why the OSS had to go in directly rather than to rely on the British to help with the rescue.

Klugman had also been the communist recruiter at Cambridge who had recruited Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald McClean and the rest of the so-called Cambridge Spy Set, which was a huge scandal in Britain many years later.

10 posted on 11/12/2010 5:28:59 PM PST by Bokababe (Save Christian Kosovo!
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To: Bokababe

This is the granddaughter of Tom Connolly. I was doing a google search of my grandfather when I came across this article on this website. I can tell you right now not only am I ashamed at the factor that anything to do with him is on a site like this one, but so would my grandfather! I’m extremely proud of everything he ever did, and was excited when I heard about this article from my uncle. However the factor that its been posted on this right wing propaganda site scares me! The things this article doesn’t tell you is how kind, loving, and intelligent he was. Or how he would never agree with any of the articles I’ve seen on this site. People need to open a book and their minds then and only then will the world become what it is meant to be!

11 posted on 01/20/2011 9:48:18 AM PST by MnConnolly (Angered granddaughter)
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To: MnConnolly
Your Grandfather was a patriot that served his country faithfully. I think he would find commonality with many who are members of this site.

I do not know how old you are, but I think it is specious at best to assume what he would think of the content of this site. Most of what is here is opinion and people exercising their right to free speech. Most of what is truly offensive here is refuted by other members. Most of what you may find offensive, may be a personal blindness to the realities of the world.

Once again, god bless your Grandfather and many like him who helped keep this great country free.

12 posted on 01/20/2011 11:51:17 AM PST by Woodman
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To: MnConnolly
Let me make sure that I understand you correctly: As his granddaughter, you are not questioning the veracity of the article, but rather that this truth of his rescue was posted on what you've termed "a Right Wing website"?

Since when is the truth "Right" or "Left"? And just who do you think has a monopoly on it? If you think that "the Right" is really mistaken, shouldn't you want them to understand the truth of history with stories like this one?

Please try and find this article or much of anything on the Halyard Mission that saved your grandfather posted on any website espousing a more "Left" or even "Center" leaning (and presumably more comfortable to you) political orientation. Because it is extremely unlikely that you will find one.

When Clinton's NATO bombs were being dropped on the Serbs -- the very people without whose help your grandfather would have never returned and you wouldn't even be here-- Free Republic was one of the only websites that was willing to listen to the true story of the WWII Halyard Mission. At a time when an enormous propaganda machine (fully embraced by the Left & Center) was trying to portray the Serbs as all being some sort of "anti-American genetic throwbacks", Free Republic was one of the only places to allow stories like this which evidenced otherwise. If anything, I think that you ought to feel grateful to Jim Robinson and Free Republic for keeping your grandfather's legacy alive when other political forces were trying to kill and bury the story to suit their own political ends.

My father, like your grandfather, fought in the US Army during WWII, and I consider both heroes to whom we owe thanks for putting their lives on the line for the US so that we could have a future and freedom. (Freedom of speech being one of those things.) But their heroism is not ours, it's theirs. And I don't own my father's heroism anymore than you own your grandfather's.

You are confusing being the beneficiary of a history of bravery, with being the owner of that history of bravery, yourself.

13 posted on 01/20/2011 2:16:38 PM PST by Bokababe (Save Christian Kosovo!
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