The Forgotten 500 Book Summary - The Forgotten 500 Book explained in key points
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The Forgotten 500 summary

Gregory A. Freeman

The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II

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    The Forgotten 500
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    In Limbo

    The year is 1944. For the past three years, Allied bombers have been conducting sorties over Romania. The goal? To destroy the country’s oil fields. Romania has been occupied by Nazi Germany since 1940, and its oil is playing a key role in the war effort against the Allies. The Nazi war machine knows that to win the war, it’ll need a continuous supply of oil to power its tanks, planes, and ships.

    Most Allied planes that take off from Italy to participate in the bombing raids return to base. But some don’t. Shot down over enemy territory, the airmen only have one option – to parachute down and hope for the best. But they’ve been warned – if they end up landing in Yugoslavia, Romania’s neighbor, avoid the Chetniks. This Serbian nationalist guerrilla force is suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. If caught by the Chetniks, the allied airmen might get handed over to the Germans. And if this is the case, execution by firing squad is a real possibility.

    One such airman that found himself in Yugoslavia was Lieutenant Robert Wilson. He was the navigator on a B-17 bomber that went down in July 1944. To his surprise, upon reaching a Serbian village, he was welcomed with open arms. Even more surprising was when he learned that other Allied airmen were being hidden by the villagers from the occupying German troops.

    Most Americans who survived the parachute down were treated like family members, fed, and provided with a place to sleep. All the while, it turned out the Chetniks weren’t turning over Allied airmen to the Germans. On the contrary, they were helping to escort Americans away from German-occupied areas to remote mountain villages. 

    Eventually, hundreds of airmen were gathered with the Chetniks in the remote village of Pranjani. The village also served as the headquarters of the Chetniks’ leader, Draža Mihailović. The Americans who had the chance to meet Mihailović describe him as a quiet man of principle. He ate the same food as his men and joined in with doing difficult tasks. What’s more, is that he was risking the lives of many Serbians in order to shelter the downed Allied airmen.

    This begs the question: why was Mihailović doing so much to help the Allies? And why had the airmen been recommended to avoid his Chetniks in the first place?

    To understand his reasoning, let’s take a brief look at the politics on the ground in Yugoslavia at the time. The two most powerful anti-Nazi resistance groups in the region were Mihailović’s Chetniks and Marshal Tito’s communist Partisans. These two groups hated each other even more than they hated the Nazis. They had opposing war goals, with the Chetniks embracing the return of the prewar monarchy. In contrast, the Partisans envisioned a new communist state under Tito.

    In addition to their political differences, the two groups had differing strategies on how to counter the Nazi occupation. The Partisans were very proactive in resisting the Nazis and weren’t afraid to sacrifice civilian lives to do so. The Chetniks, on the other hand, were mostly biding their time until the Allies launched a successful invasion. This meant that the Allies’ position was to back the Partisans and, at the same time, to remain suspicious of the Chetniks. This position was strengthened by intelligence reports indicating that Mihailović was collaborating with the Nazi occupiers.

    In aiding the Allied airmen, Mihailović wanted to demonstrate his allegiance to the Allied cause. In doing so, he hoped to receive their support in forming a government after the war was over.

    But when intelligence sources in Yugoslavia got word out that Mihailović was gathering downed Allied airmen with the hope of returning them to the West, the reports were met with deaf ears. They assumed that Mihailović was attempting to trick them.

    The situation for the hundreds of stranded Allied airmen seemed dire. With no help coming, surely the Germans would eventually find them. All the while, their mothers and wives back home had been informed that their sons were missing. This, of course, usually meant they were dead.

    They needed a miracle. Luckily, the stars were about to align for the downed airmen.

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    What is The Forgotten 500 about?

    The Forgotten 500 (2007) tells the story of Allied airmen who were trapped behind enemy lines in World War II and the courageous citizens of Yugoslavia who risked everything to help them get home. For political reasons, the story remained classified for decades until the 1980s. But now, the events leading to the largest rescue operation of the war are available to us all.

    Who should read The Forgotten 500?

    • Any and all who are interested in the Balkans or World War II history
    • Serbians and Americans looking to learn more about their nations’ past
    • Everyone who enjoys a riveting story about people overcoming overwhelming odds

    About the Author

    Gregory A. Freeman is a best-selling American author. He’s a leading writer in the field of narrative nonfiction. His other titles include The Gathering Wind, Sailors to the End, and The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys.

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