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True Survival: Heroes Rescued During World War II

by Louis J. Wasser

There are countless stories about World War II and the brave people who fought in it. The Allies gave us many heroes, from soldiers to generals to codebreakers and more. Their combined efforts were able to win the war, save the world from tyranny and rescue thousands from torture and death. But what about the times when the Allied Troops needed to be rescued themselves? There are a few of these stories that don’t get told very often. Here are two of them.

Operation Halyard

Towards the end of 1943, the 15th Air Force was tasked with attacking targets in Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and more. One of their goals was to destroy oil and refineries in Romania, in order to curtail the resources of the Axis Powers.

Many of these planes were forced to fly at a very low altitude to accomplish their task. In the process, they sustained tremendous damage, often being shot down. When this happened, their pilots were forced to bail out behind enemy lines over Serbia and Yugoslavia. After a few months the number of lost bombers numbered in the hundreds.

Some of these were killed, but many survived to be captured and sent to POW camps. Still others managed to seek refuge with Serbian peasants, who gave the airmen shelter in barns and farmhouses and even tended those who were wounded and sick.

In 1944, a Serbian general who was sympathetic to the Allied cause managed to get a telegram to the Yugoslavian embassy in Washington D.C., alerting them to the situation. Something had to be done to rescue these downed airmen. Thus began Operation Halyard.

Allied agents went undercover, trained to act like Serbs in order to pass safely into enemy territory. Once there, they were able to carve a crude runway into a mountain, so that planes could take off and land without detection. Over the next six months, 512 allied airmen were flown to safety from that runway, and the Axis knew nothing about it. Operation Halyard was an inspiring true story of cooperation and bravery between countries—and a wonderful success.

The Borneo “Headhunters”

While that was going on in Eastern Europe, a different set of Allied airmen found themselves shot down by the Japanese. The small group of soldiers was forced to parachute into the jungles of Borneo, where they came upon a tribe of people called the Dayaks.

None of the men spoke the language. In fact, with no maps or guides, they knew nothing about the region or its inhabitants at all, except for a show some had seen at the Barnum and Bailey Circus called, “The Wild Men of Borneo.” The people in this side show had been portrayed as headhunters, and the soldiers feared this might be true of the natives they encountered.

While some of the Dayak people had been known to practice headhunting in the past, they were far more kind and civilized than the airmen had feared. Still, as foreigners traveling in this strange land without an invitation, they very careful not to offend.

Instead of behaving as soldiers, the men acted as guests, with polite civility at all times. As a result, the Dayaks took them in, hid them from the Japanese, and gave them food and shelter for seven long months. Finally, they were rescued and luckily were able to return home unscathed.

Both of these stories have gone largely overlooked over the years, until recently. Eventually, there were books published about each: The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A. Freeman, about Operation Halyard, and The Airmen and the Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann about the soldiers stranded in Borneo. Coincidentally, both books were published in 2007.

These are just two stories of the heroism that occurred during World War II. There are plenty of other soldiers who found themselves in enemy territory and had to survive until rescue. Many are—so far—overlooked by the history books, but their inspiring stories are worth pursuing.

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