George Vujnovich, a former U.S. Army major and New York City businessman, died peacefully at home in Jackson Heights, New York, on April 24, 2012. Son of Serbian immigrant parents, George was born in Pittsburgh on May 31, 1915. He graduated from high school in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and received a scholarship to study at the University of Belgrade. As a student there, he met Mirjana Lazich, a young English literature teacher. The two were married weeks after World War II hostilities broke out in Yugoslavia, and began the most adventurous phase of their lives. This involved a perilous escape from Nazi-occupied Europe into neutral Turkey, then on to Jerusalem and Cairo.
In Cairo, George fortuitously found a job with Pan American Airlines, which sent him and Mirjana to a U.S.-controlled airbase in Accra (now in Ghana). PanAm was militarized when the U.S. entered the war; George was commissioned into the U.S. Army and transferred to the airbase in Lagos, Nigeria, where he was soon was promoted to be base commander as a first lieutenant. Because of his unique combination of experience in Yugoslavia and army air service, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) located and recruited him for clandestine assistance to resistance forces in the Balkans. After training at the OSS “farm,” he was sent to Bari, Italy, where he played a major role in one of the most successful OSS operations of World War II — the Halyard Mission. The mission rescued and evacuated over 500 downed U.S. airmen being sheltered in the mountains of Nazi-occupied Serbia by the chetnik guerrillas led by General Draza Mihailovich. This achievement was finally recognized publicly only 18 months ago, when George was awarded the Army Bronze Star medal by Congressman Joseph Crowley — an event amply covered by the New York Times on October 15, 2010. The Halyard Mission is the subject of Gregory Freeman’s best-selling account, The Forgotten 500. George was also honored for his role in the mission in a Veteran’s Day Proclamation by the New York City Council on November 17, 2010.
In the postwar years, George and Mirjana settled in New York City, where he pursued a business career as an independent aircraft parts supplier. He took a likelong interest in helping people who came to the U.S. to escape from communist rule in Yugoslavia. George was one of the founding members of the Serbian Unity Congress. He was active in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and served as board president of the St. Sava Cathedral in Manhattan.
Survivors include his daughter Xenia Wilkinson and son-in-law Theodore Wilkinson, his granddaughter Julia WIlkinson, and his brother Peter Vujnovich. His wife Mirjana died in 2003. Donations in his memory may be made to the St. Sava Cathedral Restoration Fund or to the Serbian Unity Congress.