“Red Burning Sky”, a moving story of rescue and honor during World War II

Two American WWII pilots rise above their past to attempt a daring rescue behind enemy lines

Bill Bogdonavich was a bombardier in the Air Force during World War II. He fled the Germans after being shot down over Yugoslavia. Drew Carlton is a pilot. He trains C-47 pilots in Texas. He would rather be abroad. “Red Burning Sky”, a novel by Tom Young, brings the two together. It is an improbable meeting in an unusual place.

Bogdonavich was one of nearly 500 Allied airmen trapped in Yugoslavia after being shot down in 1944. They were sheltered by Chetnik guerrillas while seeking to avoid Nazis, pro-Nazi Black Chetniks, and Tito’s communist supporters. A three-way war rages between the guerrilla groups and the Nazis. Downed airmen become too numerous to hide and impossible to smuggle out by sea.

The Allied solution was to fly C-47s from Italy to improvised airfields in Yugoslavia to airlift their airmen out. It must be done in secret. Only unarmed transports are capable of landing on a rough track and carrying off a reasonable number of men. If detected, the German fighters would massacre them. Worse, the Nazis will invade the airstrip if they learn of the attempt.

Carlton is one of the pilots volunteering for the mission. He is in semi-disgrace, relegated to training duties after aborting his first three combat missions in Europe. He wants the opportunity to face his fears and redeem himself after being transferred from bombers to transports.

Bogdonavich has his own problems. He is a first-generation American, born in the United States after his Serbian father came to America. He dismissed his Yugoslav heritage as “old country” and out of touch. One of the few Serbian-speaking airmen, he was pushed into a leadership role despite his junior rank. He begins to realize that these Serbs from the old country have many virtues, a heritage he did not appreciate growing up. Like Carlton, Bogdonavich must rise above his past for the mission to succeed.

Young’s novel is based on the historic Operation Halyard. It takes some liberties with the story, but it faithfully represents the rescue that happened in 1944 in Yugoslavia. Events reach a quick and thrilling climax as Bogdonavich and Carlton work with Chetnik guerrillas to get the downed men out of Yugoslavia before the Germans find out what’s going on – or the Communists stop him. “Red Burning Sky” is an entertaining tribute to this operation.

“Red Burning Sky” by Tom Young (Kensington Books, 2022).

This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.