Mr. Speaker, during the long, dark, lamentable days of World War II, Serbians and Americans forged a bond in a secret mission that remained classified for almost 60 years. What was known as Operation Halyard became the largest rescue operation of American airmen in history.
It would not have been possible without the courage of the Serbian people. In 1944, as the Allies advanced into fortress Europe, American bombers based in southern Italy began to strike Germany's vital oil supplies in Romania.
The 15th Air Force launched nearly 20,000 sorties into Eastern Europe to degrade Hitler's war machine. To do this, they had to fly over Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.
As many as 1,500 pilots and airmen were shot down during these dangerous flights. Serbians who had been resisting German forces since 1941 risked their own lives to rescue American aircrews and hide them from patrolling Nazis.
One of them was Serbian George Dudich, the father of Elaine Dudich, my chief of staff when I was a judge in Texas. For months, George Dudich and the other Serbians aided downed Americans, caring for and protecting the pilots, and then smuggling the aircrews back to Allied lines.
By August 1944, hundreds of other downed aircrews were being sheltered by the Serbian guerillas. The OSS, the predecessor to the CIA, devised a plan to evacuate the Allied pilots in a daring mission coordinated with the Serbian resistance.
On August 10, unarmed American C-47s flew numerous sorties deep into enemy territory and landed at an improvised airfield built and protected by local Serbians near the village of Pranjani. By the 18th, more than 500 Allied airmen had been secretly rescued and flown back to Italy.
Here on this poster you see the Serbian resistance, along with American aircrews that had been downed, moving them to hiding from the Nazis that were patrolling the areas. For over 60 years, this bold, unbelievable secret operation was kept classified.
Our alliance with Serbia and the Serbian people goes back even further to the First World War. One hundred years ago, Serbia stood up to the aggression from the larger Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
We should admire such defiance against overwhelming odds. Serbia's stand against tyranny also set events in motion that would lead the U.S. to take up the cause of freedom in Europe in World War I.
That common devotion to liberty and the spirit of the Halyard mission still lives today with the close ties between the United States and Serbia. As was the case in both World Wars, Serbia and the United States still face shared threats. We work together now to preserve each other security.
Serbian soldiers serve along with U.S. forces in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, and Serbia is a partner in keeping terrorism from spreading in Serbia and in Europe. However, Russian propaganda efforts in the country are particularly strong and anti-Western.
We must be vigilant to thwart the Kremlin's efforts to poison our relationship with Serbia. Fortunately, Serbia's integration into the West has continued to move in spite of Russian disinformation.
In 2006, Serbia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace and, in 2015, signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan with the alliance to strengthen cooperation. Serbia has no stronger supporter for increased integration with the EuroAtlantic community than the United States.
So for more than 100 years, we have been friends with the Serbian people. And as co-chair of the Serbian Caucus, along with the gentleman from Missouri (Mr. Cleaver), I want to welcome Serbian Ambassador Matkovic and his staff to the House Chamber today.
With our shared events in Operation Halyard, our combined history, and our fight for freedom, the American people are forever grateful for those Serbs who came to America's rescue during those bleak days of World War II.
And that is just the way it is.