Like a lot of folks, I’m nuts about movies. For decades I’ve spent lots of leisure time sitting in the dark, staring at a screen and believing that no matter how big a problem is, it can be introduced, muddled over and solved within two hours, two and a half, if a war is involved. And while I often hate what a film adaption does to a book’s story, (don’t get me started on The Prince of Tides) some adaptations work well and some stories are downright cinematic and need to be retold. Last month I was looking for a book on World War II that my husband hasn’t yet read (not an easy task!) when I ran across The Forgotten 500. Not only did it make a great gift; it would make a brilliant movie and the film industry wouldn’t have to stretch the truth. This story writes itself.
It’s 1944 and the USAFF is flying combat missions with other allied crews from Italy into Germany every day. Part of their flight path took them over what was then Yugoslavia and the planes were often hit by German troups. The crew of a crashing plane could bail out but their survival depended on who found them because the area was occupied by the Germans and the area was not really united. Serbian citizens found, cared for and sheltered hundreds of American airman, often risking and losing their own lives in the process, but as long as the Nazis continued to search the area, the Americans were on dangerous ground. How could they safely get home?
Getting word back to the U. S. was an adventure in itself but Intelligence about the downed fliers finally reached the Yugoslavian embassy in the U. S. An employee there wrote her husband, an OSS officer, about the Americans. He organized Operation Halyard, the plan to airlift the fliers back to safety. For this to work, the cooperating Serbians would have build an airstrip big enough for Cargo planes out in the woods out of sight of the encamped Germans. Regular communication would have to be established with the missing Americans to let them know of the plans and some night cargo planes would fly in, land safely on the darkened air strip and pick them up, still without alerting the Germans. Believe it or not, the story gets more dramatic after that but I won’t tell you more except to leave you with an image. Imagine a Cargo plane filling rapidly with allied soldiers that have run from the woods to the fuselage. Outside are the villagers who have kept them alive. When the soldiers sit down, they start unlacing their boots. Their boots are thrown out the door to the villagers, whose feet are covered in felt. It’s the best way the soldiers have to say “Thank You.”
Yugoslavia has long since broken up and the Serbian General who helped with Operation Halyard is either (depending on who you listen to) a martyred hero or a slick opportunist whose execution was the result of a lost political fight. But more than four hundred allied service men (most of them American) lived because of the efforts of that general and the Serbian villagers who risked everything to protect strangers. It’s an incredible tale and one that deserves to be told and retold again and again. When human history is this good, why bother making stuff up? The Forgotten 500 is a wonderful book. It would make a brilliant movie.