Nick A. Lalich, 85, leader of OSS team that rescued downed air crews in WWII

May 15, 2001|By Greg Garland and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Greg Garland and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Nick A. Lalich, a retired U.S. Department of Commerce trade specialist who served with the Office of Strategic Services in Yugoslavia during World War II helping to rescue and evacuate downed Allied fliers, died Friday of esophageal cancer at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 85.

The former longtime Mount Washington resident had recently lived in the Orchards in North Baltimore.

He retired in 1984 from the Department of Commerce.

The son of Serbian immigrants, Mr. Lalich was born in Lorain, Ohio, and raised in Cleveland. He earned a bachelor's degree in industrial arts from Ohio State University in 1938 and a master's degree from Columbia University in New York. He was an industrial arts teacher in Cleveland shortly before America entered World War II.

He entered the Army as a Signal Corps officer, but his knowledge of the Serbian language attracted the attention of the OSS, the predecessor agency to the CIA, which recruited him.

Mr. Lalich's daughter, Stephanie L. Adams of North Baltimore, said her father led a colorful life that included "lots of secret missions" for the United States in the Balkans during World War II.

A 1988 article, "Heroes of the O.S.S.: Nick Lalich," in the magazine Serb World USA recounted his exploits.

While serving at OSS headquarters in Bari, Italy, Mr. Lalich was a key figure in one of the war's greatest rescue efforts.

Allied bombers based in Italy destroyed the vital oilfields at Ploiesti, Romania, which supplied Nazi Germany with 7 million tons of oil a year. About 350 bombers were lost in the raids, which began in 1943 and ended in 1944.

Many of the planes were shot down as they crossed Yugoslavia, and their crews were rescued by the Yuogslavs. When the Air Crew Rescue Unit plan, code named "Halyard Operation," was formed in 1944, Mr. Lalich was put in charge of the mission. In four months, about 550 airmen, mainly Americans of the 15th Air Force, had been rescued by the unit.

Mr. Lalich and crews aboard C-47 airplanes flew perilous night missions, landing in farm fields and at other landing strips to pick up the airmen.

"Not one plane, not one life was lost. It was superb," said George Vujnovich, fellow OSS officer and friend for nearly 60 years. Vujnovich was the OSS control officer in Bari."[Mr. Lalich] was absolutely fearless and very courageous," said Mr. Vujnovich of Jackson Heights, N.Y.

While working for the OSS, Mr. Lalich became close to Gen. Drazha Mihailovich, the Chetnik leader who headed a rival resistance group to Marshall Tito's guerrillas.

After the war, Mr. Lalich fought unsuccessfully to save General Mihailovich from execution by the Yugoslav government, which had charged him with treason and collaboration with the Nazis.

Former U.S. Rep. Helen D. Bentley, a Maryland Republican and a childhood friend of Lalich's late wife, said Lalich was proud of his heritage and of the role Serbs played during the war.

"He was a very proud Serb who found the [1999] U.S., bombing of Serbia heart-breaking," she said. "He did deplore the actions of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and others of that ilk. And he always talked about how the Serbs had tied up 30 Nazi divisions, which saved the Allies during World War II. Later, he spent many years touring the U.S., telling the story of the exploits of Serbian-Americans during the war."

After the war, Mr. Lalich was discharged as a captain and later worked for the CIA in Greece from 1952 to 1957. He then was an account executive for Kenyon & Eckhardt, a major advertising agency in New York.

After moving to Baltimore in the early 1960s, he joined the Department of Commerce.

In 1952, he married Mira Vukcevich, who died in 1993.

Services for Mr. Lalich will be held at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, Maryland Avenue and Preston Street, where he was a communicant.

He also is survived by a brother, Peter Lalich of Spring Hill, Fla.; two sisters, Millicent Radlick of Green Spring Valley and Neda Sekulich of Randallstown; and a granddaughter.

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