Book: Beyond The Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot's Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on theEastern Front

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3.

THE LONG WAY ROUND

A heavy, relentless droning filled the passenger compartment of the C-47 Skytrain—so loud and so constant, it was physically oppressive. It was different from the sound Robert was accustomed to. The two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines that powered the C-47 made less noise than the four Wright Cyclones that propelled the huge weight of a B-17 into the sky; but it wasn’t just the tone and volume of the engine noise that sounded different in Robert’s ears—it was the way it resonated through the airframe. He was accustomed to the sound thrumming into the cockpit, not vibrating around the hollow tube of a passenger cabin.

That was another thing—he wasn’t used to being a passenger. It didn’t seem right to be sitting out back when he should be up front, with the half wheel of the control column in his hand and eight men on the other end of the interphone, ready to follow his orders.

He shifted uncomfortably in the steel dish that passed for a seat. Some C-47s were fitted out for carrying cargo; a few were set up for VIPs and had real seats. Most were like this one: troop carriers designed for airborne infantry. The seating comprised two long benches, one down each side of the fuselage, with shallow steel hollows designed to receive steel butts; if you were unlucky and had the regular fleshy kind, you were in for a hell of a ride. Robert glanced around at the other passengers—miscellaneous servicemen on their way to who knew where. They didn’t seem to be enjoying it any more than he was. A few were trying to carry on conversations over the noise, some were staring into space, and a few were reading letters.

Robert looked through his jacket pockets and extracted a rumpled piece of paper. He looked at it a moment, puzzled, then recognized his Lucky Bastard certificate. Still where he’d put it that evening back in Debach, when the world was a more dangerous but slightly less confusing place.

In another pocket he found his brand-new passport. He flipped it open and looked idly through it. It had his planned route written in it, in the form of a list of countries it was valid for: “British Isles, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and necessary countries en route via Casablanca . . .”

. . . Casablanca. What he’d have given to go to Casablanca again! His itinerary had been changed at the last minute, rerouted via Paris. As always happened in this war, days of waiting around had turned suddenly into desperate urgency, and he had to make do with whatever flights were available. Right now he was somewhere over the middle of France, having taken off a couple of hours ago from Paris. The plane was due to land soon at Marignane on the Mediterranean coast, where he had to pick up a connection to Italy, or wherever a ride happened to be going. It was a long, roundabout journey from England to the Ukraine, avoiding the huge, lethal but ever-shrinking blot on the map known as the Third Reich.

But Casablanca was out. Robert sighed and put the passport back in his breast pocket.

His first and only visit to Casablanca had been a momentary idyll on the way to combat. It was the tail end of May 1944, and Lieutenant Robert M. Trimble was running late for the war.

He and his crew, having been put together at March Field Army Air Base in California, hadn’t yet been assigned to any unit. They were caught up in the general rush to get men and equipment to Europe in time for the D-Day invasion. They had one another and they had a brand-new Consolidated B-24 Liberator, which they were tasked with ferrying to England. They would be posted to a bomb group on arrival. While most crews flew the northern route, with stops at Labrador, Iceland, and Northern Ireland, Robert’s was sent via the southern route, from California via Arizona, Florida, Trinidad, Brazil, and North Africa. And even that, it seemed, was too straightforward for Robert M. Trimble. Flying into Fortaleza, Brazil, he was taken sick.

He’d had surgery on a wisdom tooth just before departure, and an infection set in. His jaw was on fire, his throat swelling, and he could hardly breathe. After landing at Fortaleza, he was taken directly from the plane to a hospital. The rest of the crew spent a week waiting for Robert to improve. They found diversion with the local women and in the challenge of keeping their belongings dry in the daily torrential thunderstorms. Finally their command decided that the war couldn’t wait; they were ordered to get going, healthy or not, on the next leg of their journey.

It was an overnight flight of some twelve hours over 1,946 miles of open ocean to Dakar, on the very western tip of Africa. They flew through almost continual electrical storms that played havoc with the radio. Lieutenant Walter Hvischuk, the navigator, did a superb job, bringing the ship in right over the Dakar runway at noon the next day, May 5, 1944. Copilot Warren Johnson had sole charge of the controls, while Robert formed an intimate bond with the cockpit floor, curled up in a ball in the small space behind the seats. When they landed in Dakar, he was again carried off to a hospital. This could become a way of life. His temperature was around 106 degrees, so they packed him in ice and gave him sulfa drugs (the first antibacterial drugs he’d had since the wisdom tooth operation). He was so sick, his swollen throat had to be intubated.

The crew hung around in Dakar for ten days, watching movies, or swimming at the beach, or lying in their cots in the hot, dirty camp where everything was covered in a layer of red dust. Eventually they were sent on to Marrakech, Morocco, with a temporary substitute pilot, a Captain Van Eden, taking the controls. Robert was left behind, too sick to be moved. It was looking like they might lose their commander—Robert was likely to end up being reassigned to a different crew. He might even be facing a discharge on medical grounds.

After the boys had gone, Robert stayed in the hospital another ten days. Eventually he was well enough to lift his head from the pillow. What he saw of his surroundings wasn’t reassuring—heat and red dust, and camel dung. The dust and dung got everywhere, even into the hospital, spreading a stench into the wards.

The doctors wanted to send him back stateside to convalesce. Robert wasn’t having that, and he rebelled. He couldn’t stand the thought of losing his ship, his crew, and maybe even his chance to fight in the war. He’d trained long and hard to fly combat, and doctors’ orders weren’t going to hold him back. Still weak but running on a mixture of adrenaline and inborn stubbornness, he got himself discharged, hitched a ride on a B-25 Mitchell bound for Marrakech, and set off in pursuit of his crew.

For a brief moment, as the B-25 came in to land, he thought he’d succeeded; he recognized his Liberator parked near the runway at Marrakech. It was definitely his ship—the markings were clear. After landing, he walked over to take a look. It was his all right, but it had a sad, dilapidated look, its silvery surfaces glaring dully under a layer of dust in the blazing Moroccan sun. As Robert walked around it, he noticed that two engines were gone, cannibalized by ground crews. Nobody was going to be flying this crate anywhere. Where was his crew? And what in the world had happened to the ship? (He discovered later that the substitute pilot, Captain Van Eden, had vanished immediately after landing, and Marrakech’s ground crews began cannibalizing the plane for spare parts.)

Unable to find his friends, Robert boarded his ride again, and flew on to the next destination—the coastal city of Casablanca. On the approach to the airfield, the pilot, who obviously had a reckless streak similar to Robert’s, decided to buzz a camel caravan; a memorable experience. A B-25 Mitchell is an unusually noisy aircraft—much louder than a Fortress or a Liberator, despite having only half as many engines—and to have one come over at high speed at an altitude of fifty feet would be a pretty alarming experience. As the green monster blasted overhead, Arabs and camels scattered across the desert in a cloud of dust and panic. Robert decided that buzzing caravans in Africa was much more diverting than chasing coyotes over New Mexico.

In Casablanca Robert finally caught up with Warren, Walter, and the rest of the boys. They had taken up residence in the colonial splendor of the old Italian Consulate building. Abandoned after the defeat of the Axis in Morocco, the building had been used by the US Army as an evacuation hospital during the Tunisian campaign; now that the war had moved to Italy, it had become a hostel for American airmen. The men had good beds, real bathrooms, and excellent food cooked by the consulate’s Italian chefs, who remained in residence despite the radical change in occupancy. For most of the men who passed through, it was the greatest comfort they had experienced since leaving their own homes. For Lieutenant Robert Trimble, after the dust and dung of the Dakar hospital, it was paradise.

Casablanca itself was a marvel, full to the brim with sunlight, gleaming on the Moorish colonnades and the white stucco of the old French colonial buildings. Ingrid Bergman was nowhere to be seen, but there were plenty of high-class young French ladies with whom to while away the drowsy hours. Summer was rising, and the Moroccan coast was a hot haven of turquoise sea and white sand, where both home and the war seemed far away. The men swam and bronzed their young limbs on the beach, and drank cold beer in the long evenings.

It was a good place to pause on the way to war. With the prospect of a premature, violent death hull-up on the horizon, it was also a good place to reflect, if you were that way inclined. Most of the men were young, and full of the youthful certainty that life was theirs for the keeping. They didn’t believe they were going to die. Robert was young too—a few months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday—but he saw further than most, and felt the oppressive menace that was in the world. Unlike many of his peers, he understood that he might die in the inferno they were heading toward. The knowledge didn’t shake his resolve or his excitement, but it did give him pause for thought. Foremost in his thoughts now was Eleanor—and fatherhood.

His last sight of her as the train pulled away—she was on board, he was on the platform, a reversal of the usual wartime farewell—was still clear in his mind, as were the words she said to him.

For some time the tension had been building. At March Field Robert’s training had reached its final stages: he had completed the transition to the B-24, been assigned a crew, and trained with them in the intricate skills of managing a heavy bomber in tight formation, dropping dummy bombs by day and night onto imaginary targets in the Mojave Desert.

He and Eleanor could both feel the war coming closer to them. She had followed him loyally from town to town as he went through his training, but now he would have to move on where she could no longer follow: overseas to the front line. He had received orders to fly up to Hamilton Army Air Base, near San Francisco, and pick up their brand-new B-24 (the very one that finished up being cannibalized in Marrakech).

Eleanor was only twenty-one years old, and she dreaded being left behind. She had nobody in the world. Just a few weeks earlier, she had received the news that her father had died (her mother had already passed on some years earlier), and within days the terrible blow that her beloved brother Howard, who had joined the Army right after Pearl Harbor, had been killed. After serving through the North African campaign, he had been badly wounded in Italy, and died shortly after. They had been intensely close, just a year apart in age, both keen basketball enthusiasts. Eleanor was knocked flat by the news. Robert was all she had now, and her only home was wherever he was.

Her forebodings had been growing ever since he was in advanced training and the war began to feel like a real, threatening presence that would soon come between them and force them apart, maybe forever. In November 1943 she had written to her best friend, Esther Burk, who was still living back in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania:

I am so afraid for Robert and for us. . . . I know the time will come too soon when he’s off to the war. I am so afraid I’ll never see him again. I want to keep a part of him with me, you know, have a baby. He doesn’t want us to have a child yet though. He says the war will be tough. No saying what could happen. He doesn’t want to have a child if it can’t know its father. I never realized how important this was to him. He won’t say, but I think his father’s running out on the family has a lot to do with it. I think it’s important to him to be there for our kids. His talk doesn’t make me feel good about what’s coming.

The feeling grew heavier and harder to bear. When the time came, Robert went with her to the train station at Riverside. She should have been waving him off, but instead she was the one leaving. There was no home for her in California now, and she was traveling back to Pennsylvania. Robert’s mother would be her companion through the rest of the war, and her life would be dominated by the routine of a drudge job.

Robert looked uneasily at the trunk and two huge suitcases that were being loaded aboard the AT&SF Super Chief that would carry Eleanor as far as Chicago, and he wondered how she would manage it all. In a few short years of itinerant married life, they seemed to have accumulated an awful lot.

The huge red-and-silver diesel locomotive stood hissing patiently on the track. Eleanor sobbed and clung to him, staring up into his face, preserving this last sight of him in her memory. Caught up in the excitement of the adventure that was ahead of him, Robert didn’t quite understand how much this moment meant to her. But he could see the tears, and the few words they exchanged stayed etched in his memory forever.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked, seriously concerned about the long journey she had ahead of her, and the delicate emotional state she was in. He hadn’t figured that her state might be delicate in more ways than one.

“Of course,” she said. “I’m strong when I need to be.” He didn’t believe a word of it. “I’m okay, really,” she said, and tried to smile. “I just want to see your face clearly enough that I won’t forget those rugged good looks.”

The conductor leaned out the door, yelling, “All aboard!”

“Come on,” Robert said, extricating himself from her arms. “I don’t want you to miss it.”

The horn blew a long, raucous blast. “Now, ma’am, quickly!” the conductor called.

She still wouldn’t move. Robert lifted her up bodily onto the car steps.

“Robert, you have to know, I’m—”

“Don’t worry about me!” he said. The conductor took her arm to steady her as the train gave a jolt and began to move. Robert smiled at her. “You take care of yourself now.”

The wheels were turning, and the distance between them began to grow. “Robert, I love you!” she called out. “And I’m pregnant!”

If she’d leaned out and punched him in the jaw, she could hardly have stunned him more thoroughly. He stood watching the glittering silver train snaking its way into the distance, trailing its wake of diesel vapor and noise, Eleanor’s last words thumping over and over in his head in time with the clatter of the locomotive wheels. I’m pregnant—I’m pregnant—Her face shrank to a dot, then vanished; the train accelerated, and soon it was just a sliver on the horizon.

Weeks later, he could still hear the echoes, sitting in the cool quiet of the empty dining hall in the old consular building in Casablanca. He’d come a long way since that parting—much of it sick and barely conscious. All the way, Eleanor’s confession had troubled him. She knew him well, and had guessed his feelings. When they flew up to Hamilton to collect their Liberator, Robert had been unable to concentrate, and had to ask Warren to take over the landing.

At first he had felt anger—an unreasoning annoyance, as if she had deliberately got herself pregnant for her own selfish reasons. They had talked about parenthood, and he knew that part of her desire for a baby was so that she would have a piece of him while he was gone. At the same time, he was aware of how selfish he was being. The toxic influence of his own father was at work, messing up his feelings in ways that he didn’t understand, and wouldn’t begin to understand for a good while yet. By the time they flew past the Golden Gate and touched down at Hamilton, his feelings had changed: his heart ached to the point of almost breaking at the knowledge of Eleanor’s love for him. But he still didn’t feel that it was right to bring a baby into this world—a baby that, like him, might have to grow up without a father.

Recovered from his illness, and enjoying the pleasures of Casablanca, Robert was consumed by guilt, and finally put pen to paper. He wrote Eleanor a long letter describing his eventful journey—the first communication from him since that parting by the railroad track.

It wasn’t received in the spirit it was intended. By this time, Eleanor had built up a head of anger of her own. She wasn’t enjoying pregnancy one bit, and her anxiety about Robert was exacerbating the effects of chronic morning sickness. The letter might have been the first she’d heard from him, but not the first she’d heard of him. Not long before, she had received a letter from a nurse at the hospital at Dakar, who happened to be a Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, girl herself and had taken Robert under her wing. “My name is Loretta,” she wrote, “and I am a nurse taking good care of your husband. He is recuperating here in Dakar, and will probably be well enough to continue his mission in a few days.” The fact that Robert made no mention of Loretta in his own missive caused Eleanor all manner of suspicion.

She’d had a hard time since they parted. Feeling insecure and alone, she had lugged her suitcases between trains in Chicago, and finally several blocks home to Hummel Avenue. No one offered to help her. No one had been at the station to greet her either; her father, mother, and brother were all dead.

As far as Eleanor could tell, Robert was being pampered by beautiful nurses and had forgotten all about her. She didn’t know where he was going, so she couldn’t write him yet. She felt she was losing him in every possible way, believing that the next she would hear of him would be the dreaded War Department telegram. She prayed extra hard, night and morning, between bouts of throwing up. She would fall asleep by the radio, humming “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” or “Till Then.”

Robert, meanwhile, was living out the lyrics to both, crossing oceans to foreign shores—but so far he hadn’t held any girls on his knee or given out with those lips of his. And as he sat and wrote his letter in Casablanca, the last trace of his illness was fading away, replaced by a renewed sense of that mingled trepidation and excitement about the adventure waiting for him when he eventually made it to England. Like a million other young Americans heading toward their first taste of combat in that early summer of 1944, he had little conception of what it would really be like, or just how profoundly it would affect him.

A sudden change in the note of the engines, and a simultaneous stomach-lurching drop in altitude, told Robert that the C-47 was beginning its descent, stirring him out of his memories. They were approaching their destination—Marseilles-Marignane Airport, near Marseilles. Peering out the little square window, Robert saw the white-flecked blue of the Mediterranean angling up toward him as the plane banked and turned.

He shifted in his metal seat. The Army really knew how to punish a soldier’s rear—he was glad he hadn’t been a paratrooper. Maybe the purpose of the design was to make you happy to jump out of the plane into gunfire at the end of your trip. God knew how many more hours of it he’d have to endure before he reached the Ukraine.

Immersed in his memories, he had almost forgotten where he was. Had Casablanca really been only eight months ago? He was a different man now—a father, a combat veteran, and a Lucky Bastard. His feelings about most of those things had changed since the last time he looked down on the blue Mediterranean. Eight months, thirty-five combat missions, and one very perplexing visit to London. The mature, toughened twenty-five-year-old he’d become looked back in wonder at the innocent twenty-four-year-old he had been; the boy looking forward to adventure.

He had survived by luck, and now he was safe, and one day soon he would come marching home, into the arms of Eleanor. That was all he yearned for now—hearth and home. Captain Robert M. Trimble was done with adventure.

Unfortunately, adventure wasn’t done with him.

Robert’s itinerary ran like a whistle-stop tour of cities recently liberated from the Germans. He’d seen Paris, now Marseilles; from Marignane, the next flight took him to Naples, Italy, and then on to Athens, Greece. In both places his schedule allowed him a little time to gaze in wonder at the sights before being whisked away on another butt-walloping flight. He passed through Cairo, Egypt, and then on to his last stop before entering the Soviet Union: Tehran.

He was held up in Tehran for more than a week. His entry to the USSR was being stonewalled by the Soviet authorities. Pathologically suspicious of any outsiders, they were determined to ensure that every single “i” was dotted, every “t” crossed on Captain Trimble’s paperwork before they would allow him within their borders.

Alone in a foreign country, with no friends and nothing to do, Robert spent afternoons idly walking the streets, looking in shop windows and taking in the sights and sounds and smells of the city. He became aware of an unsettling atmosphere of hostility. He wasn’t mobbed by beggars and street sellers the way he had been in Cairo, but the groups of turbaned, bearded men who loafed outside the cafés, smoking their bubbling ghalyans and drinking coffee, would pause in their conversations and stare at him in a way that made his flesh prickle—a cold, flinty gaze that radiated profound dislike.

Why the Iranians would regard an American officer in this way was a mystery to him. He wasn’t aware that he was treading on occupied territory. Iran, after centuries of resisting colonization by the British and Russian empires, had finally succumbed in 1941 to a joint military invasion by the forces of both those countries. The purpose was dual: first, to secure Iranian oil fields from capture by the Germans (who at the time were driving irresistibly into Soviet territory); and second, to establish a transit route—the Persian Corridor—through which Allied supplies could be ferried into the Soviet Union. The old ruler, Reza Shah, who had resisted Western demands before the invasion, was deposed, and his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was given the throne. The Persian Corridor had become a busy route, buzzing with military and diplomatic traffic. The café-dwellers of Tehran saw the foreign uniforms on their streets and were not pleased by the sight.

A more hospitable atmosphere was to be found in the American diplomatic compound. But even that wasn’t free from strange experiences. Weird encounters in embassy buildings were starting to become a feature of Robert’s life. It occurred on the Friday evening after his arrival, when he was dining alone in the sumptuous restaurant. The lieutenant in charge of the restaurant approached his table.

“Excuse me, Captain,” he murmured. “The shah is dining here tonight, and would like to meet you.”

“The who?” said Robert, not sure he’d heard right.

“The shah, sir. The Shah of Iran . . . the king . . . ?” Seeing the light of understanding dawn on Robert’s face, the lieutenant explained: “The shah and the queen are dining at that table over there, and wish to be introduced to you.”

Robert, dazed, stood up and followed the lieutenant across to a table where a smart-looking couple were seated. They were very young—no older than Robert himself. The man was handsome, with a long fleshy nose, slick black hair, and small, bright eyes—his sharp suit and penetrating gaze gave him the appearance of a Sicilian gangster. The woman was dressed and made up like a movie star. She was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman Robert had ever met—the kind who could stun a fellow dumb just by looking him in the eye. These two exquisite fashion plates were the first couple of Iran—the shah and his consort, Queen Fawzia.

It was the shah’s habit to dine here on Fridays (the Islamic day of rest), as part of his efforts to maintain cordial relations with the Western Allies. Or so Robert was told. What he was not told was why the shah would take an interest in him, a lowly American captain. Only later did he realize that it might have had something to do with the diplomatic status that had been conferred on him. It was also possible that the shah, who was meticulous in gathering information about everything that passed in his nation’s diplomatic circles, had picked up whispers about Captain Robert M. Trimble; that he was passing through on some mysterious purpose that was of interest to the highest and most powerful US authorities. (If so, he knew more than Robert himself did at this point.)

The introductions done, the shah, charmingly genial, shook hands and waved Robert to a seat. What followed was the most extraordinary interrogation. From the start, it was obvious that there was a coldness between the shah and his consort, and Robert found himself caught between them, fielding two completely different lines of questioning. The shah had recently been taking flying lessons and was fascinated by pilots; he wanted to know about aircraft, and about Captain Trimble’s experiences in combat (he’d clearly been briefed; he seemed to know rather a lot about Robert’s record).

“Were you ever in danger?” he asked. “Did you lose men up there? What kind of planes did you fly?”

“We lost many men, sir. Good friends of mine. We had fires, blown engines, and wings torn apart by flak, but we managed to make it back every time.”

While he talked, Robert was conscious of Queen Fawzia’s eyes on him, and tried to avoid returning her gaze too ardently. It was difficult.

“Captain, are you married?” she asked suddenly.

“Why yes, I am, ma’am. I mean, Your Highness.”

“What kind of fashions does your wife wear? Shoes—are they flat or high heels? What does she wear to formal events?”

The shah tried to interrupt, but she talked over him, asking pointedly about the lives of women in America: How were they treated by their husbands? How did they bring up their babies? Where did they shop? How—

“Will you please be quiet!” the shah cut in. “I have questions I would like to ask.”

“I have questions to ask too,” she said.

“I have important questions,” the shah hissed angrily. “This is not any business of yours.”

The atmosphere between the two of them went suddenly from cool to icy. By contrast, Robert felt awfully hot. Glancing nervously at the bodyguards at the next table, and trying to keep his eyes respectfully on the shah, he answered the probing technical questions as best he could. He explained that he was really a ferry pilot now—no more combat for him.

Eventually, the uncomfortable meeting concluded with the shah inviting Robert to visit his home. Foolishly, Robert asked for the address. The shah chuckled and said he would send a note with the details.

And so, a few days later, Robert M. Trimble, the boy from Camp Hill, rolled up at the Niavaran Palace—the spectacular sprawl of formal gardens and parkland on the outskirts of the city that contained both the Niavaran Palace and the Sahebqraniyeh Palace, as well as grand pavilions and lodges. He was greeted at the door by a majordomo—an exquisite Iranian version of an English butler. To Robert’s disappointment, neither the shah himself nor Queen Fawzia were present. (Oh well, Robert figured, I guess he already got all the information he wanted out of me. It didn’t occur to him that the shah might have failed to get the kind of information he wanted.) The majordomo gave him a guided tour of the palace. In a state of awed wonder Robert passed through halls and chambers filled with light from arched stained-glass windows, walled and floored with glittering tiles, and hung with crystal. It was like walking around inside a cabinet of crown jewels.

When he finally found himself back outside, and the palace doors had closed behind him, Robert felt a sense of relief. Although he’d been a little disappointed, he was glad to have been spared the ordeal of a formal dinner. He’d been haunted by an image of himself at one end of a vast dining table, not knowing which fork to use, while the shah and the queen fired questions at him from the far end. (It would come as little surprise when, just a few months later, Fawzia left the shah and went back to her family in Egypt. Robert couldn’t believe that the shah could have the poor taste to treat such a woman that way. “A lovely girl,” he recalled wistfully.)

Mopping his brow, he put his cap back on, and began to march down the long driveway to the palace gates.

This time the airplane was a Curtiss C-46 Commando rather than a C-47, but otherwise everything was the same: another flight, more long hours of discomfort. Robert was getting his first introduction to a Russian winter. The temperature had got milder between England and Cairo, cooled a little in Tehran, and now plunged below all reasonable limits.

The Soviet authorities had finally run out of reasons to keep him waiting and had cleared Captain Trimble to enter the USSR. Along with three other American personnel en route to Poltava, he was taken aboard a Russian-piloted C-46, and left Tehran behind.

It was an uneasy journey, and he paid less attention to the discomforts and the cold. The first part of the flight was okay, soaring up above the Caspian Sea and turning northwest for Russia. Ahead lay the Caucasus Mountains, which marched across the gap between the Caspian and the Black Seas. As the crew began the long, slow climb to pass over the mountains, it began to snow.

Rapidly a full-scale whiteout developed. The Russian crew couldn’t navigate their way through it. They weren’t fazed, though; having surveyed what they could see of the landscape, they prepared to put the plane down on a small airfield they knew, at the little Armenian town of Armavir, near the southern skirts of the mountains. As the plane approached the field, the pilot couldn’t even see where the runway was. Robert, who didn’t think it was possible to do such a landing, was beginning to learn about the techniques of flying in a Russian winter, and about the recklessness of Russian pilots. One day soon he would have to learn how to fly like this.

The landing was tense but miraculously successful. The crew and passengers spent the night at the airfield, where the Soviet commander treated them to a supper of local dishes, including one made with fish eyes (Robert discreetly disposed of his).

Next morning, they pushed on again. Not long after takeoff, the vast range of the Caucasus Mountains loomed up ahead—a great jagged fortress of rock and snow extending from one end of the horizon to the other. The plane began climbing to pass over it. Gradually it pulled up past twelve thousand feet—well above oxygen altitude, which transport planes rarely had to do. Robert watched spellbound as the spectacular barren peaks passed slowly beneath. He’d flown over the Rockies back home, but the spectacle of a great mountain range seen from the air was something you could never tire of—especially from this low altitude, where the peaks were so close you could almost have stepped out onto their snowy caps.

Almost as soon as the plane began its long descent on the far side, it ran into a bank of cloud, dropped down through it, and came out in another snowstorm. It wasn’t as dense as the previous day’s, so the Russians flew on, heading for the Red Army Air Force base at Rostov, an industrial city sprawling across the marshes where the River Don opened into the Sea of Azov. Like most Russian cities that had been under German occupation, Rostov had seen some fierce fighting, and was in a bad state.

At the air base, Robert got his first insight into the Russian temperament—convivial warmth at one extreme and brutal callousness at the other.

The four Americans were treated as honored guests by their Soviet military hosts. The commanding officer loaded them with as much vodka as they could drink, with the result that the Americans were all half-steamed before they’d even got past the reception. There was a play being performed that night in the base’s theater, and the CO took them along as his personal guests. Robert and his compatriots were led in and found rank upon rank of Soviet personnel standing, waiting for the guests of honor to be seated (in the front row, naturally). As soon as their rears touched their seats, without a word of command, the Russians all sat down too.

Robert enjoyed the performance, despite not understanding a word of it (it had wolves in the title, he recalled, but there were none in the play), and passed an altogether pleasant, vodka-hazed evening. The next morning, accompanied by the commanding officer and his staff, Robert, the other Americans, and the flight crew headed out to their plane. A concerned-looking sentry reported that he and his comrades had heard noises coming from the aircraft during the night, and he demanded to be allowed to inspect it. The pilot opened up the cargo compartment and peered inside. There, lurking in the shadows and frozen almost to death, was a teenage boy—he looked to be about fifteen.

The Russian officers interrogated the poor kid fiercely. As far as Robert could make out from the interpreter’s commentary, the boy had hopes of being a soldier; too young to enlist, he had stowed away in the belief that the plane was going to the front line and that he would be drafted into the Army as a punishment, in spite of his age. Whether he was a local or had been in the plane since the emergency stopover at Armavir, Robert couldn’t tell. It was a brave but foolish act—having spent the night in the plane, the boy was half-dead with hypothermia.

Simmering with suppressed anger at having such an embarrassing scene take place in front of foreigners, the Russian CO proceeded to give the Americans a grand diplomatic farewell. Meanwhile, the boy was dragged away, and the last Robert saw of him he was being taken behind a hangar. “Oh, he’ll get his wish,” the interpreter said darkly, but whether he meant punishment or a place in the Army, or both, wasn’t clear. A few minutes later, against the noise of the C-46’s engines starting up, Robert believed he heard a single gunshot from the direction of the hangar.

Feeling a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold, he wondered what the hell kind of a country he had come to.

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