Croatia Myth&Reality: The Croatians executed dozens of American airmen

MYTH: "THE CROATIANS EXECUTED DOZENS OF AMERICAN AIRMEN"

Myth: The Croatian government during World War II had a policy of executing downed Allied airmen and dozens of American airmen were executed by the Croatians during the War.

Reality: The Croatian government, signatory to the Geneva Conventions, had no policy of executing captured airmen of any nationality. There is no evidence that any American airman was executed by the Croatian government during World War II. There is considerable evidence that Allied prisoners of war in Croatia were very well treated in captivity.

Almost unique among myths, it is possible to actually trace the origin of this story back to its source; the Balkan Intelligence Chief.

At INS headquarters in Los Angeles, kept under lock and key and marked "secret" is the file of Andrija Artukovic...According to the testimony of one American Intelligence chief in the Balkans section during the Second World War, he also approved orders that sent dozens of American pilots to firing squads.

Reader's Digest

The preceding quotation made its international debut in the December 1973 issue of Reader's Digest magazine in a small unattributed "box" within a larger article on illegal immigration. Reader's Digest is often cited despite the fact that no author or source was given. Like most myths, it has since taken on a life of its own and more recent versions have added the "official policy of the Croatian government." When asked to name the "American Intelligence chief" or cite their sources, the editors of Reader's Digest claimed that the article had been "carefully checked by our research and legal departments and we believe they found adequate support for all the factual statements." Despite hundreds of requests from scholars, political leaders, Accuracy in Media and others, the magazine was never able to produce the name of the intelligence officer or any evidence that a single American was executed by the Croatian government during the War. By April of 1974, Reader's Digest began referring all inquires to their legal department. Finally on March 25, 1974 the editors, responding to a formal request by California State Assembly-man Doug Carter, admitted that the charges were "...claims and allegations, not necessarily fully documented facts."

The Balkan Intelligence Chief

The myth did not originate with the Reader's Digest in 1973 however. The identity of the "Balkan Intelligence Chief" can be traced back to the June 26, 1958 edition of a small California newspaper, the Palos Verdes News. On that date John J. Knezevich, the Serbian-American publisher of the paper wrote:

During the last war, I was head of the Balkin (sic) section of the United States Army and Navy Joint Intelligence Collection Agency...I know whereof I am speaking.

Knezevich went on to accuse Artukovic of no fewer than 740,000 deaths including the deaths of "dozens of American pilots." This was not Knezevich's first article on the subject. He had made the charges in his newspaper as early as May 17, 1951. Whether Mr. Knezevich held any post with the intelligence community during World War II is not known. However, it seems implausible that a Chief of Balkan intelligence would have consistently misspelled the word "Balkin" in all of his writings. What is known about Knezevich is that he was active in several Serbian organizations in southern California and was active in any number of anti-Croatian and anti-Catholic movements of the 1950s. His newspaper column "Review of Events" was a regular front-page feature often filled with anti-Tito, anti-Communist, anti-Croatian and anti-Catholic propaganda.

Knezevich is first mentioned in the extradition case of Andrija Artukovic, a wartime Croatian cabinet minister wanted by Tito for crimes against the state. On May 8, 1951 Knezevich asked to appear in camera before the Immigration and Naturalization Examiner. He presented "confidential" information that he had seen documents signed by Artukovic ordering the execution of dozens of pilots. Under examination however, Knezevich refused to state whether he had ever been anywhere in the Balkans during the War; what he had done, if anything, in the military; and generally refused to answer direct questions. The INS Examiner discounted his testimony and none of it was ever presented nor was the charge concerning American pilots ever mentioned in any future proceedings in the United States or Yugoslavia from 1951 until 1986. Obviously, the American and Yugoslav governments would not have passed up such an important witness or such a charge had they found ~he slightest shred of evidence to support his story.

Knezevich penned the final chapter of the story on July 24, 1958 when he listed all of the charges that he had made against Artukovic, including the execution of American pilots, wrote: "In as much as neither the writer or publisher are in a position to prove independently the truth or falsity of these assertions, they are all and singularly retracted. (signed) Palos Verdes News John J. Knezevich." Knezevich died in 1965.

The Airmen and the Baroness

Learning the realities of the fate of American airmen in Croatia during World War II proved even more interesting than uncovering the source of the mythology. Between the years of 1973 and 1979, this author undertook primary and secondary research into the subject which resulted in a monograph titled Allied Prisoners of War in Croatia 1941-1945. Since there were fewer than one hundred airmen, American, British, Russian, South African, and Partisan, who were held by the Croatian government during the War, the myth that "dozens" or twenty-five percent, were executed is a significant one. As a part of the study, ten Americans who had been held prisoner-of-war in Croatia were interviewed as were guards, the American-born priest who celebrated mass and others who were present at the estate of the Baroness Nikolic which served as the POW "camp" on the outskirts of Zagreb. The findings of this study were surprising. It was learned that the "camp" at 203 Pantovcak in Zagreb had no fence. Visitors were welcome and some POWs visited a nearby tavern until German soldiers visited the same tavern. POWs had a radio and listened to U.S. Armed Forces radio. And the camp tennis champion was Frank Ryan of Sommerville, New Jersey. Essentially the Baroness Nikolic considered the airmen her guests and afforded them the best treatment and food available given the wartime conditions, including a generous wine ration. Several POWs worked in the villa's vineyards and records were kept of all such work so that the POWs could be paid after the war as provided for by Geneva Conventions. Given the chaotic state at the end of the war, the airmen were given vouchers instead of cash. One former POW, a guest of honor at a Los Angeles Croatian Day celebration in 1979, still had his voucher and promised to cash it in when Croatia became independent. Often the Croatian Red Cross provided the airmen with such luxuries as chocolate and cigarettes that were unavailable to the average Croatian soldier. While wounded or ill Croatian soldiers could expect little more than meager supplies in field first aid stations, American POWs were treated at Zagreb's finest hospital and there is photographic evidence of visits to them by Croatian Chief-of-State Pavelic and other officials.

Picture: Baroness Nikolic, Fr. Benkovic, holding an American airman's hat, the camp commander, in great coat and American, British and South African POWs at the Nikolic "camp" in Zagreb

Picture: Four Croatian guards, one visiting Croatian civilian and American POWs at the Nikolic "camp" in Zagreb

Americans Helping Croatians

In early 1945 an attempt was made to evacuate American pilots from what was soon to be a war zone. Croatian Air Force General Rubcic saw to it that twelve American pilots were trained in the use of Croatian aircraft, planes which represented the last hope for the air defense of Croatia's capital. After familiarization, fourteen Americans and one Croatian liaison officer flew to Allied Italy via Zadar where they tried to convince American forces to land on the Dalmatian coast and meet the Red Army at the Drina river. In 1943 Croatian Lt. Colonel Ivan Babic had flown a similar mission to American occupied Italy to suggest to the Americans that such an invasion would meet no resistance and that the Croatian Army would even establish a beachhead for them. The American command knew that the Dalmatian coast was Hitler's great weakness and that such an attack could split the German armies. Neither the Croatian nor American commanders knew that Yugoslavia had been designated as the Soviet sphere by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Allied forces continued to fight and die one foot at a time up the boot of Italy. Still other Americans offered their services to the Croatians in order to try to save Croatian troops from the communists. Lt. Edward J. Benkoski, pilot of the P-38 fighter "Butch," joined Englishman Rodney Woods and John Gray, a Scot, in attempting to negotiate for the Croatians in May 1945. Another American officer accompanied Croatian officials to negotiations at Bleiburg, Austria at the end of the war to keep Croatians from being returned to certain death in Yugoslavia. They failed.

The American priest Theodore Benkovic who often celebrated mass for the airmen wrote:

None of the airmen interviewed or surveyed recalled any instance of mistreatment and some provided documentary and photographic evidence of very close personal relationships with Croatian officers and female members of the Croatian Red Cross. The study failed to find the name of any Allied POW who was executed and found no "official policy" of executing airmen. Several airmen did recall that they were warned in pre-flight briefings that they would be executed if captured by the Croatians. That information was supplied by Mihailovic' s Serbian Cetniks who were paid in gold for each airman returned to the Allies. In January 1966 the Baroness Nikolic visited the United States to attend a showing of her artworks. Several of her former "prisoners" welcomed her to Cleveland. One, Gene Keck of Washta, Iowa traveled nine hundred miles by bus to see her again. "She's my second mother...I was her baby when we were on her estate in Zagreb." Often the mythology is diametrically opposite of the truth.