Mr. Speaker, since our founding, Americans have always had to fight for the liberty and freedom that we have. Throughout our history, we have had allies from other parts of the world on our side ready to help us, and we have been ready to help them stand together for freedom over tyranny.
Today, I want to commemorate one of our most important allies: the people of Serbia. For more than 130 years, we have had a close relationship with the Serbian people.
I have on my staff here in Washington a Serbian American, Blair Bjellos, who is my victim's advocate. When I was in Texas as a judge, my chief of staff, Elaine Dudich Stolte, who now runs the best children's assessment center in the world, worked for me. Both are of Serbian descent.
Our friendship with the Serbians is based on our shared belief in democracy and standing up for liberty. During both World War I and World War II, our two countries fought on the same battlefield and our people shared and shed blood together. Because of that brotherhood, we have a special relationship.
During World War I, Austria-Hungary tried to pick a fight with Serbia, through the July Ultimatum. Of course, the Ultimatum wasn't a deal at all, and it was purposely unacceptable and meant to provoke a war with the two nations. Despite being 10 times smaller than Austria-Hungary, Serbia, an independent, freedom-loving nation, refused to back down to the aggressor. Like a true David versus Goliath, the Serbian people fought valiantly with us against the central powers in World War I. In the end, 25 percent of the Serbian population was killed during that war.
Despite the toll World War I took on Serbia, when World War II started, they were allies again. There are numerous accounts of bravery that the Serbs conducted during World War II, and a lot of that was not known to the world until recently. I just want to talk about one of those.
Perhaps the most inspiring report of bravery and brotherhood was shown during the Halyard Mission, when Serbian General Draza Mihailovich and Serbian American George Vujnovich led a mission to save American pilots that had been shot down by Nazi planes behind the lines in Serbia.
In 1944, hundreds of B-17 and B-24 fighter pilots and their crews were shot down by the Nazi Luftwaffe over what we now know as Serbia. General Mihailovich immediately began finding those pilots and members of the crew and hid them in barns and farmhouses throughout Serbia, wherever he could find them shelter. He and his men and local Serbian civilians hid our troops. They risked their lives in doing so, and many of them later paid the consequences when the Nazis found out about it.
When Mihailovich radioed Washington to alert them of his actions, here in the United States, Vujnovich, an OSS agent of Serbian descent, found out and planned a daring rescue mission. Vujnovich would train Allied Forces on how to act like Serbs and sneak them into Nazi territory to save the downed pilots and their crews. Once in, they would help guide U.S. planes into the country to pick up the downed pilots.
With the help of local Serbs, the undercover U.S. soldiers and General Mihailovich built a makeshift runway in just 9 days. They had no sophisticated tools or machinery. They just used oxen, wagons, brute strength, and the tools that they could find. Over the next 6 months, Allied planes flew right under Nazi noses to land on that crude airstrip.
I was most fortunate to have known one of those brave men. Serbian George Dudich was among those who risked his life to save those American downed pilots. When Mr. Dudich and his family later came to the United States after Communist Tito took over, he took time to find many of those downed pilots and crew members to meet with them once again. In total, the Halyard Mission saved 512 U.S. airmen. Not one American was lost, although many Serbs died in those rescues. Unfortunately, the United States took the wrong side after the war and we supported Tito, a communist, rather than Mihailovich, to lead Serbia.
We did not recognize Mihailovich's deeds until recently, and now he has been awarded the Legion of Merit; and Vujnovich, at 95 years old, received a Bronze Star from the United States.
Many Americans and many American Serbs served together then, and I want to congratulate the relationship and commemorate the relationship between the United States and Serbia during the wars and the relationship the two countries have today.
And that's just the way it is.