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|The following statement comes
from Maj. Richard L. Felman, USAF, retired,
who in a speech before the Serb National Federation [SNF], on July 17,
1987, summarized the feelings of the surviving American airmen. The speech
is a part of:
Washington, D.C., Thursday, November 19, 1987.
President Stone, Reverend Clergy, Distinguished quests, members of the SNF, and fellow Chetniks:
Moja braco i sestre, ("my brothers and sisters" in Serbian language)
May I first express my deep appreciation to President Stone and all members of the Serb National Federation for inviting me to your 3 Day Serbian Day Weekend. I know it is a most important event and I am delighted you have asked me to share it with you.
Before getting into my speech I would like to acknowledge how appreciated it is that today (July 17th) is the very day in 1946 that General Mihailovich lost his life to a Communist Firing Squad. I say it is appropriate because were it not for Draza Mihailovich and the Grace of God, I would not be shading here before you today. I have said it before and will say it again: I owe my very life to General Mihailovich, the Chetniks and the Serbian people and because of this whenever I get together with the Serbian people it is like a family reunion and fill me with much emotion. If I may state it as simply as possible: "OO MOM SERTZU YA SAM SERBEEN." (This is the pronunciation script of "U mom srcu ja sam Srbin" - in Serbian or "In my heart I am a Serb" - in English.)
My feelings, however, go far deeper then just gratitude for saving my life. I say that because when I was shot down in Yugoslavia, I had the opportunity to know first hand what truly remarkable people the Serbians are ... and the bond of brotherhood that we formed during the war continues to this day. In every Serb I met I always found a sense of honor and sense of freedom that is second to none ... and in this day and age I feel privileged to know people who still maintain these values and have such a strong commitment to their God, their family and their heritage.
I was in England a while ago to celebrate the European Chetnik Congress and Karageorgevich Day. Needless to say the Serbian Hospitality and food were out of this world. But the outstanding part of my visit was meeting with the Serbian Youth and seeing how intense they were about carrying on their priceless heritage... Their parents told them about the American Airmen that Mihailovich had rescued but I was the first one they met and their questions were endless. I spent a great deal of time with them and came away inspired by their enthusiasm.
I am reminded of them as I see the young people in the audience today. If I may I would like to say to them: "Thank God you were blessed with such a proud heritage. I saw with my own eyes the blood shed by your parents and grandparents just so it could be passed on to you .. Be proud of this priceless treasure you have and preserve it the rest of your days... So many of today's youth are troubled and searching for answers in many strange ways. You have all the answers you need right here in your own church and your own heritage."
So much for the Sunday Sermon, and now I would like to tell you of my first introduction to the Serbian people an how I won my Ravna Gora Badge as an honorary Chetnik. The one good thing the Germans did during WWII was shoot me down, giving me a chance to meet the Serbian people. During World War II, I was returning from an air raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Roumania when my B-24 Bomber was attacked by German ME-109s over Yugoslavia. We managed to shoot down two of them before my pane caught fire and we were forced to bail out from 20,000 feet.
As soon as I landed I was immediately surrounded by about 20 Chetniks all shouting "Amerikanski"... Before I knew it they each took turns hugging and kissing me (only the men mind you, not the women). As my leg was bleeding, they carried me to a nearby kucha (house in Serbian) for treatment. They had no medical supplies, but they did have a bottle of slivovitza [Serbian plum brandy] and used it to clean my wound... Once that was done, we all sat around and drank what was left in the bottle.
Shortly after that, an elderly man about ninety motioned for me to follow him. I had no idea what he wanted but limped after him until we came to a small wooden chapel. He then got down on his knees, clasped his hand in prayer and motioned for me to kneel down beside him. It was a most unforgettable sight! Here we were: strangers from 2 different countries, we spoke two different languages and practiced two different religions. But in those few moments we were united as brothers kneeling to give thanks for my rescue to the one God we all worship: It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
It would be impossible for me to relate all the many wonderful things the Chetniks and the Serbian people did for me and my fellow American fliers. As our numbers increased, each man would tell of his own personal experiences. They told how the people went hungry in order to give them what little food they had. How many of them slept on the floor so that the Airmen could have the comfort of their beds. How they risked their lives to protect us from the German patrols. Not once did I hear anything but the highest praise from the 500 Americans rescued by General Mihailovich.
I feel I should also mention a few words about one of my favorite Chetniks, Corp. Miodrag Stepanovich from Chachak. Miodrag was assigned as my personal bodyguard and was to protect me at all times at the risk of his life. He said Mihailovich told him if he brought news that one hair on my head had been harmed he would be shot on the spot for that meant he had not done his duty.
Miodrag was with me at all times while I was hiding out at different farmhouses. At night we would sit around the fire and talk about our families, our homes and our dreams for the future when the war was over. No matter where we went Miodrag would brag about how he taught me to count in Serbian. Let's see if I still remember ... Yeadan, dava, tree, cetire, pet, shest, sedam, osam, devet, deset ... He also taught me to dance the kola and drink slivovitza, how to ask for thing such as: Molim, die-me voda, pelle, yaya, gebonitza and whenever we saw a pretty girl it was "Lepa devoyka" ... Dobar dan, yutro, veche.
There are many memories, pleasant and otherwise, that still live with me after all these years. But the one I am about to relate had the biggest effect on me because it contained all the values that Mihailovich and the Serbian people stand for:
A few days after the Germans had seen us bail out and counted ten parachutes, they sent an ultimatum to the Chetnik Commander in the hills to either turn over my crew of ten to them or they would wipe out an entire village of 200 women and children. As strangers in their land, I expected we would turn ourselves over to the Germans and be put in a prison camp. This we felt would be small enough price to pay for saving the lives of 200 of their own people.
But Gen. Mihailovich would hear none of it... He told us how life is just as precious to the Serb as it is to the American. But because it is so precious, the price comes high! The Serb had spent his entire history fighting off different enemies in order to protect his freedom, and that life without freedom meant nothing to them.
He said one American flyer returning to his base and dropping one bomb on our common enemy could do more for their cause of freedom then 200 of their women and children whom they dearly love. The Serbs have a saying he told me: "Bolye grob, nego rob." - "Better a grave then a slave." Their choice was as simple as that. The next day I watched as the Germans burned down the village.
I could go on for hours telling of the many other moving experiences I had, but knowing of the cruel fate that lay in store for Gen. Mihailovich would open up old wounds and make further speaking very difficult.
The highlight of my stay, needless to say, was meeting our beloved "Chica Draza." The first time I saw him he was walking up a hill surrounded by laughing children throwing flowers in his path. I couldn't believe my eyes. Here was the Commander-in-Chief of an allied army of over 300,000 doing away with all the fancy protocol of his high office and dressed like any other soldier. It was then I understood why everyone spoke of him with such love and admiration practically every Serb I spoke with told me of the time Chica Draza ate at his farmhouse, christened his baby or danced the kola with him.
On that particular day, Gen. Mihailovich had come to greet us and assure us every possible protection for our safety. After greeting each one of us personally, his troops put on a review in our honor. Mind you, this was done with the Germans just a few miles away.
After the review, the Airmen gathered around the General and we all sat on the ground under a huge tree. Speaking through an interpreter he told us how he had always admired the freedom-loving principles of America and of his dream that someday his people could enjoy these same liberties. He then went on to relate how disappointed he was that the Allies had abandoned him. But then, without any bitterness, he asked only that we take the truth back to our Homeland about the cruel lies invented about him by his Communist enemies.
Gen. Mihailovich then went on to say that with or without allied support he would continue his fight against any and all dictatorship that threatened his homeland be they the Nazis or the Communists. As I recall his actual words on that day were: "I will continue to fight this course of mankind no matter what form it comes in. If I am to die, then die I shell ... sad because I have been deserted by those who profess to believe in democracy, but gratified that I have fought bravely and honestly and refused to compromise my cause."
As he spoke these words, I could see there were tears in his eyes. At the time, I did not fully understand what he meant, but years later, after I got to know Serbian history, about Kosovo, the Turkish Invasion and St. Sava, only then did I understand the depth of his emotion that day.
Before getting into the concluding part of my speech, I would like to make brief mention of a matter of a personal nature which is added reason for my admiration of the Serbian people.
Besides being one of the American Airmen rescued, by the Serbian people, I am also a Jew! It is a matter of historical fact that Serbia was one of the very few countries where anti-Semitism was not permitted.
In the old kingdom of Serbia, and later in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Jews were, by law, equal members of the community and enjoyed all the rights and privileges of other citizens. This is so very remarkable when you consider the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history.
The historical goodwill between the Serbs and the Jews does not seem strange when you consider the many parallels in our history. We both suffered cruel persecution, both have been driven from our homeland and today we are both dispersed throughout the world.
One other amazing similarity is that both our peoples fought battles to the death for their belief in the freedom and dignity of man. The Jews at Masada and the Serbs in Kosovo.
In keeping with this same love of freedom, many Serbs risked their lives during World War II to save countless Jews from Nazi death camps. This is something we can never forget and for which I and The Jewish People will always be grateful.
If I may, I would like to move on now to more current matters. Last year the American airmen commemorated the 40th Anniversary of the tragic death of General Mihailovich. It was also the year we celebrated the fact that we finally fulfilled our wartime promise to him that we would bring the truth back when we returned to our homeland.
Probably the most gratifying moment in that 40th Anniversary Year was the day General Smith and I (in the name of over 500 Americans, and for the first time on American soil) dedicated a Plaque to Gen. Mihailovich and affixed it to his statue on the of the St.Sava Monastery in Libertyville.
On our Plaque is inscribed the words of gratitude from the airmen and their families and a replica of the Legion of Merit post-humously awarded to him by President Truman.
"LEGION OF MERIT - CHIEF COMMANDER: General Dragoljub Mihailovich distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in-Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by Organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia, from December 1941 to December 1944. Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies, and fighting under extreme hardships, contributed materially to the Allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory. March 29, 1948. Harry S. Truman."
We now know that from this day forward there is a symbol on American soil that established a permanent bond between Gen. Mihailovich, President Truman and 500 grateful Americans... and it is here for all the world to see!
Since the end of WWII
we have made great strides in trying to repay our debt of honor to the
man who saved our lives. Permit me to read just a partial list of
those who have joined us in support of General Mihailovic:
And this is only a partial list. Incredible as it may sound, the only ones in the entire world who have not supported and continue to oppose us are the Communist Government of Yugoslavia and our own State Department.
With all that has been accomplished there is still one more goal we would like to attain that would make our success complete. And that is why we have petitioned Congress for permission to build a Memorial as a symbol of our appreciation for the greatest rescue of American lives in our nation's history, permission to build this Memorial has already been granted us by Legislation unanimously passed by the United States Senate in 1976 and again in 1977.
Unfortunately, since then we always run into difficulty in the House because of State Department opposition and their fear of offending the present Government of Yugoslavia.
It seems strange to me that after losing 1000,000 American lives fighting Communism in Korea, Vietnam and Grenade and desperately fight Communism in Nicaragua, that our State Department would consider it proper to embrace the Communists in Yugoslavia.
On July 12, 1985. The committee of American Airmen appeared in Washington before the United States Congress at a gearing to once again appeal for permission to erect a Memorial at no government expense. Now that the full truth had been made known and we had what we felt was the support of the entire nation, we did not think we would run into any difficulty.
Unfortunately this was not to be. Once again our group of over 500 former MIAs was confronted with the opposition of a foreign totalitarian government and a handful of ole (first letter ineligible) world political leaders who insist on carrying on the Yugoslav Civil War in this country and at our expense. What is even more bizarre is that our own State Department chose to take sides against us (its own combat veterans) and side with a Communist government that openly supports and justifies international terrorism.
Bob Stone was there in the hearing room and I'm sure he can tell you more about the most incredible alliance of opponents American ever had to face in their own country. Had this been a your of law, the opposition would have been thrown out as completely irrelevant - but this was the political arena where truth takes a back seat to what is politically expedient.
If even the slightest semblance of doubt existed as to what the truth was, it was exploded beyond all recognition when the Encyclopedia Britannica published its revised account of Gen. Mihailovich and the CIA released (under the Freedom of Information Act) the previously unpublished top secret intelligence file on the activities of all parties in Yugoslavia during WWII. Here was the on-the-scene American intelligence reports to the President of the United States exposing all the propaganda lies that have stood in our way since 1944. If ever there was a smoking gun, this was it. And those who still insist on the propaganda fairy tale about Mihailovich's collaboration, I suggest they join hands with those who believe in the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and the flat earth theory.
Now that we have the top secret CIA Intelligence File an the same opposition continues to stand in our way, the American Airmen are publicly offering to pay the sum of $100,000 to the United States Government if the State Department or any of Mihailovich's political opponents can prove in an American court of law the treacherous lies they continue to make against him in opposing our petition before Congress.
What's more, if they have any respect for the service to the United States of America, the American Veteran represents, I suggests they should speak up now or forever hold their peace. We do not have another 40 years. You can bet your life we are justifiably outraged and fighting mad. Quite frankly, even if our offer were for ten times that amount, we have no fear it will ever be accepted. Under the close scrutiny of an American Court, the facts contained in the CIA file would prove to be an embarrassment and even humiliation to all those parties who continue to oppose us.
The philosopher Santayana once said: "There is nothing as powerful as idea whose time has come." Now that the truth has become known the American airmen are hopeful we will finally be permitted to realize our ultimate goal.
Are we mad? You can bet your sweet life we're mad, madder then hell and we are not going to take it anymore. We did not risk our lives, or watch our buddies' arms, legs and heads blown off so that some foreign nation could dictate what we could or could not do in our own country.
I would like to make one thing abundantly clear abut our petition before Congress for the Mihailovich memorial - we do not ask for handout, social benefit or come to make any political statement. Outside of a fierce love for our country and the responsibility that goes with it there is absolutely no personal gain involved for us.
All we seek and have sought for over 40 years is a few feet of American soil to repay or debt of honor. Certainly one American life is worth 6 inches of American soil. Multiply that by 500 American lives and we will have enough for a grateful nation to join us in saying: "Thank you Gen. Mihailovich for saving over 500 of our boys while they fought to preserve our sacred heritage. No one else in our entire history has ever done that and we as a nation and as a people are mighty grateful."
There is not a single American worthy of the name that could object to that if ever one person personified the proud Serbian freedom-fighting tradition of "Bolye grob, nego rob" ["Better a grave - than a slave"] it was Draza Mihailovich. And his name in Serbian history will forever more rank alongside such giant names as Kosovo, St. Sava and Tsar Lazar.
In conclusion, I would like to note our thanks to God for allowing us to make the truth known and clear his name. I am reminded that back in 1946 when Gen. Mihailovich was standing trial in a Communist court on false charges, your beloved Bishop, Vladika Nikolai, invited me to his St. Sava Church in New York and told me how much he and his people appreciated the Airmen's offer to travel to Belgrade at their own expanse to testify in his behalf. As much as Mihailovich was loved by his people, Bishop Nikolai told me whether Mihailovich lived or died was not as important as clearing his name. This I believe is what we have finally done.
I would like to end on one final note which I hold to be of great importance.
After the war, Draza's enemies lined him up before a firing squad and on false charges pumped his tortured body fool of bullet holes. After it was done, it was reported they cut out his heart and threw his body in and unmarked grave. But no matter how hard they tried, the one thing they could not do was destroy his sacred memory.
And sure as there is a God Above us, the glorious name of Gen. Mihailovic will live forever. Not only in the hearts of the Serbian people but with freedom-loving people throughout the world.
Slava Chicha Draza. Thank you and God bless you all.
(Richard L. Felman is president of the National Committee of American Airmen Rescued by General Mihailovich).
The truth belongs to us all.
Feel free to download, copy and redistribute. Last revised: December 3, 1997