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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4.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

With a crackle of breaking frost, the C-46’s door pushed open. Captain Robert M. Trimble, stiff and chilled from the long flight, stood in the doorway and looked out at Poltava Air Base.

Instantly he was hit by the wind, a cold slap in the face that made him gasp. Blowing uninterrupted across hundreds of miles of Ukrainian Steppe, it was the coldest thing he had ever experienced. It was a lazy wind—instead of taking the trouble to go around your body, it just blew straight through, taking your breath with it and leaving icicles on your rib cage. Winter in the Alleghenies had nothing on this. Maybe it explained the coldheartedness of the Russians. Robert still hadn’t got over what had happened to that boy at Rostov. (Or rather, what he believed had happened. The things he would witness firsthand over the next few months would do nothing to shake that belief.)

Catching his breath and hugging himself, he stepped down onto the frozen ground and looked around at Poltava. It didn’t look any better from here than it had from the air as they were flying in. Pale rank grass, dusted with snow, stretched to the horizon in every direction. Nearby were some bombed-out buildings, a few flimsy-looking shacks, and, in the distance, new Quonset huts and rows of wooden barracks. Underfoot, the hardstanding on which the C-46 was parked was made from pierced-steel planking—the US Army’s all-purpose emergency surfacing material. The runways were made from it too. This stuff was intended to be used as a temporary measure, but apparently nobody had got around to replacing it with concrete. Most of the paths appeared to be surfaced with nothing but frozen mud.

Poltava Air Base looked like Hell with everybody out to lunch.

Until just over a year ago, the Luftwaffe had been flying missions from here, and they hadn’t been happy about giving it up. In September 1943, with the Red Army closing in on them, the German occupiers destroyed as many of the base’s buildings as they could, and mined others with remote-control demolition charges. The runways too were wrecked. Since then, only the bare essentials had been done to get the airfield functioning again.

It wasn’t only the air base that had suffered. The whole Poltava region had seen some of the most ferocious fighting on the Eastern Front. The huge battles of Kursk and Kharkov had been fought just to the east of here in 1942 and 1943, and the battle for Poltava itself had been a savage one. War had plowed through the area twice—once in 1941, when the region was swallowed up in Operation Barbarossa and became part of the Third Reich, and again in 1943, when the Soviet Union clawed it back in the Dnieper-Carpathian Offensive. Millions had fought, and hundreds of thousands had died, in those vast battles. The USSR had lost more than a million men and women killed or wounded in the fight for this region—just a fraction of their losses in the Great Patriotic War.

In the aftermath of this conflagration, the first small group of Americans arrived at Poltava in the spring of 1944: engineers to clear the battle damage and build new facilities, preparing the way for the airmen that were to follow.

It was an ambitious plan that brought them here—to use Poltava as a stopover base for long-range bombing missions. Much of Germany’s industry was in the eastern half of the Reich, beyond the reach of British and American bombers based in England and Italy. The four-engine heavies that formed the bulk of the Allied strategic bombing force didn’t have the range to hit targets that far away and then make it back to England. They could be fitted with extra fuel tanks, but that would reduce the bomb loads they could carry. The solution was to bomb these remote targets and then fly the much shorter distance onward to bases in Soviet territory. There they could refuel, load up with more bombs, and hit another set of targets on the way back to their bases. This was “shuttle” bombing. It was a bold concept, and totally dependent on cooperation from the Soviet Union.

Despite profound unwillingness on the part of Stalin, Operation Frantic was agreed on. The Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces (based in Britain and Italy respectively) would be taking part. The base at Poltava was designated the headquarters of the newly created Eastern Command, under the overall control of the United States Strategic and Tactical Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF). Two satellite bases near Poltava were incorporated into the project. American supplies, fuel, and munitions poured in, buildings were put up and steel planking laid down, and soon Poltava was a functioning air base again. The Americans didn’t have the place all to themselves—it was under overall Soviet command and was a base for Russian fighter squadrons too—but they had all the facilities they needed. Combat operations began in June 1944.

The Frantic missions were few in number, and the results didn’t live up to the planners’ hopes. The whole of Operation Frantic quickly began to buckle under the colossal obstructiveness of the Soviet Union. By this stage in the war, Stalin had begun to believe that the USSR could win without its allies. He would take anything the Americans and British could give—such as Lend-Lease supplies—but he had little desire to reciprocate. Moreover, there was Soviet disapproval of the Western Allies’ strategy of pulverizing German industry; the Soviet way was to slaughter the people and capture the industrial facilities. Above all, Stalin did not like having foreign military forces trampling around in his front yard, going places and seeing things he didn’t want them to see and bringing their alien capitalist values with them. American personnel at Poltava were kept to a bare minimum, and were watched closely, spied on, and escorted everywhere by Soviet guards.

As the base was under overall Red Army Air Force command, they provided its defenses. The base was surrounded by anti-aircraft guns (which American personnel weren’t allowed to inspect closely). The defenses looked impressive, but when it came to the test, they proved pathetically weak. When the Luftwaffe decided to attack Poltava on the night of June 21–22, they had a clear run and easy pickings.

Squadrons of American B-17 bombers and P-51 fighters had arrived that afternoon on a shuttle mission, having bombed targets in eastern Germany. The fighters went to one of the satellite fields; the bombers were split between Poltava and the second satellite. They were parked around the half of the field allocated for American use, and spread out; but the dispersal wasn’t as good as it should have been. Regulations set by the Soviet authorities dictated that all parked aircraft must be a certain minimum distance from the runways. As a result, the dispersal space was limited and planes were too close together.

The raid began just after midnight. Luftwaffe aircraft began dropping flares, one after another, until the whole airfield was lit up like a dance floor. As the flares floated down on their little parachutes, there was an eerie pause, filled with the drone of approaching aircraft. When they hit, the impact was like a semi truck through a picket fence. Wave after wave of Junkers Ju 88s and Heinkel He 111s flowed overhead, slamming the base with a barrage of demolition bombs, then raining down thousands of incendiaries and antipersonnel bombs all across the field. “It lasted for an hour or so,” the CO of Eastern Command recalled. “They hit us with everything except the kitchen stove, and I’m not sure that I didn’t see even one of those when I looked round afterwards.” The midnight summer sky turned red with erupting fireballs and filled with mounting columns of black smoke; the fuel and bomb dumps were hit, and half a million gallons of aviation-grade gasoline and thousands of bombs went up in a cataclysm of flame.

The Russian anti-aircraft gunners blazed away with courage and ferocity and hit precisely nothing; Soviet night fighters were scrambled, but failed to shoot down a single plane.

Next morning, the Americans and Russians began to count up their losses. Only two American personnel had been killed, but the Russians had lost thirty, mostly in attempts to fight fires. The majority of the American aircraft had been lost. There had been seventy-three B-17s on the field. Most had been hit, forty-seven of them totally destroyed, reduced to scatters of melted Alclad from which the huge tail fins stood up intact, like gravestones. The airfield was out of action for two days because of unexploded bombs. One of the official historians of Eastern Command would later compare the devastating raid to the Japanese attack on Hickam Field, Pearl Harbor. The Germans were so pleased with their success, they came back again the next night and bombed the satellite base at Mirgorod; again the Soviet defenses were absolutely ineffective.

Official relations between the Americans and their Soviet counterparts deteriorated. For the American high command, the raid was a severe black mark against the viability of Operation Frantic. Only seven shuttle missions were run, and by the end of September 1944 the operation had been put on ice. Eastern Command was reduced to just two hundred men and women—the “Winter Detachment.” The only thing preventing the command being shut down altogether was the usefulness of having a foothold in the Soviet Union.

Eastern Command acquired a new role: salvage of American aircraft that had made emergency landings in Soviet-held territory, and evacuation of their crews. Another role was envisaged too: with the Red Army pushing deeper into Poland, the Americans hoped that Poltava would be a good receiving center for the flood of liberated US prisoners of war that was bound to start sometime soon.

But as with Operation Frantic, cooperating with the Soviets would prove frustrating. The entire Soviet system, from Stalin down to the local political operatives, disliked the presence of Americans. The mechanics and pilots who made up the aircraft salvage teams had to venture far from the confines of the base and go deep into the areas behind the Russian front line. The Soviet authorities saw them as nosy, interfering, always poking about, witnessing and commenting indignantly on the Soviet way of doing things, especially in the occupied territory of liberated Poland. The Americans didn’t like what they saw in Poland, and some of them had the nerve to say so.

Russian sensitivities about Poland went back to 1939, when the country was divided up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Polish political prisoners were taken away to camps at Smolensk in Russia. They included most of the officer corps of the Polish Army, who were perceived as a source of nationalist resistance. Stalin already had a deep loathing and distrust of Poland and the Poles, rooted in the history of the two nations. The mere possibility of insurrection was more than he could tolerate. In March 1940 Stalin and the politburo authorized the NKVD (the state security and intelligence police) to exterminate the twenty thousand prisoners.

The incident might have passed unnoticed by the outside world if it hadn’t been for the German invasion in 1941. German officers stationed near Smolensk discovered that a massacre had taken place. An investigation led to the uncovering of four thousand bodies buried in the Katyn Forest, about twelve miles west of the city. Locals recalled the truckloads of Poles that were taken from the prison and driven out into the forest. The convoys and the gunfire went on for days.

In 1943, facing expulsion from Russian soil by the advancing Red Army, and guessing that they might be blamed for the massacres, the Nazi regime decided to publicize their discovery internationally. They boosted their investigations, bringing in the Red Cross and setting up an international commission. What followed was one of the greatest displays of political hypocrisy of the twentieth century, as two mass-murdering nations pointed accusing fingers at each other.

The Polish government in exile, based in London, had known about the deportations of 1939 and 1940, but the truth about the Katyn massacre came as a hideous shock. They pressed for further investigations and asked that action be taken to bring the Soviet Union to account. The Soviets responded with frigid hostility. Foreign Minister Molotov indignantly denied that the massacres had been a Soviet deed (as a member of the politburo, his signature was actually on the document authorizing the extermination). It must, the Russians insisted, have been yet another Nazi atrocity. Moreover, the Soviets claimed that the Polish government in exile was now actively collaborating with the Nazis in trying to shift the blame.

Alarmed that the “Big Three” Alliance might be jeopardized, Winston Churchill did what he could to shut the Poles up and pacify Stalin. It was no use. The Poles continued to protest. On April 25, 1943, the Soviet government formally broke off diplomatic relations with them. Western hopes of a restored, democratic Poland were ruined, and the Soviets began preparing to install a Communist-friendly government. As the Red Army pushed across Poland, the NKVD followed in its wake, enacting the plan. The puppet government was established in Lublin in 1944, and the Sovietization of the country, which had been interrupted in 1941, resumed.

It was a brutal process, and Stalin did not want his allies to witness it. He mistrusted them; the Polish government in exile still existed, and Churchill and Roosevelt continued to support it. Stalin believed that the British and the Americans might engage covertly in helping anti-Communist nationalists to resist his puppet. The USSR was busy putting in place its vision of postwar Eastern Europe, and its allies seemed to feel entitled to judge and object to Russian actions.

Naturally, the Americans and the British who witnessed those actions saw it rather differently. They believed they were fighting for a world that was free of repression and tyranny, not a Stalinist empire east of the river Elbe.

Caught up in all of this were the prisoners of war, whose liberation was getting closer and closer as the Red Army pushed across Poland. Added to the callous Soviet attitude to their plight was the problem of getting American help into Poland. Anticipating the difficulties, and the potential risk to liberated prisoners, the men at the top of the American military and diplomatic services secretly made preparations for working around the Soviets.

The first requirement was to have covert personnel in the field in the regions where the prison camps were located. That was a problem in itself. There was no existing intelligence system in place that could be used. Throughout 1944 there had been negotiations between Washington and Moscow about cooperating on intelligence in Eastern Europe, all of which had come to nothing. In early 1944, an idea was floated for America’s OSS and Russia’s NKVD to run an exchange program, with OSS officers in Moscow and NKVD officers in Washington. The Russians were eager, but the scheme was shot down by President Roosevelt. He was entering an election year, and allowing Soviet agents into the United States would be a propaganda gift to his political opponents.

Throughout the summer, other ideas for getting OSS/NKVD cooperation in Eastern Europe had been suggested, but were all blocked by Stalin and his foreign minister, Molotov. General Pavel Fitin, the deputy director of the NKVD, was enthusiastic. Fitin was the brilliant spymaster who had tried to warn Stalin in 1941 that the Germans intended to invade. His relationship with Stalin and Molotov was uneasy. While their ideological paranoia urged them to keep foreigners out, Fitin saw the value in maximizing all sources of intelligence-gathering. He even used his discussions with General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the OSS, to chisel information out of him about OSS training, technology, and methods—information that Donovan happily (and rather naively) supplied. Fitin was willing to bypass both Molotov and Stalin, and suggested ways of infiltrating OSS officers into Eastern European countries such as Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania secretly through diplomatic channels. But in Poland, where the most important German strategic effort was focused (and where the POW crisis was likely to occur), the diplomatic channels did not exist.

As 1944 wore away, Donovan made request after request for permission to put OSS agents into Poland for intelligence-gathering purposes. The requests were denied. In fact, there were so many requests from the OSS, continuing on into 1945, that a dispassionate observer might wonder if they were deliberately designed to distract the Russians from more subtle infiltration efforts.

In November 1944, Major General Edmund W. Hill was posted to Moscow, where he joined the American Military Mission as head of its air division and overall commander of all USAAF units and activities in Russia. Hill’s previous appointment had been in Britain, as CO of the Eighth Air Force’s Composite Command. Seemingly an innocuous umbrella organization for various specialized units, Composite Command included the 492nd Bomb Group, the unit that provided airlift services for the OSS. The modified Liberator bombers of the 492nd were used for parachuting agents into occupied territories. General Hill was deeply involved in operational planning for OSS mission-drops. If the Military Mission in Moscow had wanted a man who was intimately connected with the operational structure of the OSS in Europe but was not officially an OSS officer, they could not have chosen better than General Edmund Hill.

All the elements that would be needed for a covert operation in Soviet-occupied territory were coming into place.

When Captain Robert M. Trimble stepped out of his transport onto the frozen ground of Poltava on February 15, 1945, he knew nothing about such things. But he was about to begin learning.

Soon he would find out firsthand about the Soviets, including what they thought about Americans and about a lot of other things in this war. He had already seen the bewildering contrast between the wonderful, warm hospitality the Russians could show and the callousness that was the other side of it. What he didn’t know was how deep the callousness could run, and how horrifying the effects could be. A seasoned veteran of air combat he might be, but in many respects he was still an innocent in the ways of war. The Eastern Front could teach a man about the uttermost ends of war, and how human beings could become beasts.

There were Russian sentries already on hand as Robert and the other passengers disembarked, and a jeep was waiting to take them to the American camp. The sentries had their bayonets fixed: the long, sword-like Russian type that looked particularly threatening. Robert glanced enviously at the men’s fur-lined caps; he’d have to snag one for himself as quickly as possible.

The jeep sped across the snowy field. Drawing into himself against the biting cold, Robert had little attention to give to his surroundings. There were few planes scattered about: a couple of C-47s and two or three battle-scarred B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses bearing a mixture of bomb group markings (presumably these were the salvaged planes that he was here to ferry home). Most of Poltava’s aircraft—its squadrons of Russian Yak fighters—were dispersed at the far end of the field. The only thing nearby with Soviet markings was a two-seater biplane that looked like a relic from World War I—a Polikarpov U-2 that the Soviets used for light local transport.

Robert was taken to the officers’ quarters—a wooden barracks hut among a cluster of identical buildings lining the edge of a dreary roadway. Looming over it all was a row of old apartment buildings, blackened by fire and bomb-damaged. He had been instructed to report to the commanding officer immediately on arrival, so he deposited his kit and set off for headquarters. Following a sign nailed to a dead-looking tree beside a muddy road, he walked past the broken façades of more burned-out buildings and found the HQ of Eastern Command, which was another wooden shack. It was even less impressive than Debach HQ, which at least had nice trees around it.

Robert went in and, having expected to be kept waiting, was admitted to the CO’s office with startling speed. Here he got his first view of the man who was about to turn his life upside down and scare the living daylights out of him.

Colonel Thomas K. Hampton was a man of indeterminate age and even more indeterminate status. His premature baldness made him look older than he probably was, and his heavy eyebrows, solemn eyes, and long jaw enhanced the effect. Robert would know him for quite a while before discovering that there was a good deal of humor and warmth in Colonel Hampton; right now, he had little enough to be humorous about.

The status of his command was uncertain. In terms of its administrative position, Eastern Command was equivalent to formations like the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, and yet it had hardly any infrastructure, no subordinate units, and its complement of aircraft was limited to a handful of transports. In scale, it was on a par with a small transport and maintenance battalion, and yet its senior officers were at the very center of relations between the war’s two most powerful combatant nations.

At a personal level, the Americans got on well with the Russians. There were frequent parties at the officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs, and gatherings at the base’s theater and Russian restaurant, to which the Russians brought their vast talent for lively celebration and a real air of hospitable warmth. But then there was the official relationship, which was policed by the NKVD and colored by two sets of values and principles which were worlds apart.

About half of Colonel Hampton’s time was devoted to diplomatic liaison with his Soviet opposite number, Major General S. K. Kovalev, overall commander of the Poltava base. Besides being an enthusiastic reveler, Kovalev was a cunning diplomat, whereas Hampton didn’t really have the temperament for it. He regarded it as his duty to put the interests of American service personnel first and had no patience with Soviet obstruction and little ability with diplomatic doublespeak.

There were one or two officers in Eastern Command who, while not exactly sympathetic to the Soviets, empathized with the Soviet viewpoint; they regarded Hampton as needlessly antagonistic. He had been barred by the Russians from flying into Poland because they believed he was gathering political intelligence (which was how they viewed reporting on Soviet misconduct). He never neglected to stick up for his men. There had been sporadic incidents in which unknown Russian soldiers had shot dogs belonging to American servicemen. Hampton informed General Kovalev that his men took “a very serious view of such cruelty to animals,” and warned that if the men ever caught a Russian soldier injuring a dog, “I refuse to take any responsibility for what might happen to the Russian.”

Robert would grow to like Colonel Hampton, and eventually learned firsthand about the stresses of his position. He greeted Robert with a sour smile. “Welcome to paradise, Captain Trimble,” he said.

Robert laughed, and murmured something about being keen to take up his duties. Hampton looked oddly at him and asked if he understood fully what his duties were.

“Why yes,” said Robert. “I’m here to ferry those salvaged aircraft back to their groups.” He guessed that the Forts would be going to England, and the Libs to Italy, and wondered if they’d all have to go via the tortuous Tehran route.

Hampton frowned sternly at him. “You’re not here to be a ferry pilot,” he said. “Didn’t they brief you in London?” He demanded to see Robert’s passport, and studied it closely while Robert felt the first prickles of cold sweat. “When the clearance request came through from Tehran saying you were down for temporary duty only, we had to query USSTAF about your appointment, to be sure we had the right man. Seems we do. Have you taken a look at this passport, Captain?” Hampton said. “This is a diplomatic passport, identifying you as a United States government official.” He handed it back. “You should’ve been briefed on this back in England.”

Robert had a dizzying sense of déjà vu; suddenly he was back in that office in the US Embassy in London, objecting stridently while they tried to hustle him into being a spy.

“You’re not here to be a ferry pilot,” Hampton repeated. “I have enough pilots for the work we do here. That was just a ruse to get you out here. Your appointment comes from the Military Mission in Moscow. You’ll be working with the OSS, Captain Trimble; you’re going to be our agent in Poland.”

When Robert bunked down that night, his head was spinning. He was exhausted; it seemed like days had passed since setting out from Rostov that morning. Whole days of bewilderment, briefing, and suppressed indignation. He’d been lied to, right from the start. He could excuse his old commander, Colonel Helton—he’d almost certainly been just as dumb about this as Robert himself. But somebody somewhere, in the shadowy upper reaches of the chain of command, had cooked up a lie and made him eat it.

His course was set, and there was nothing he could do about it. They’d caught, plucked, and basted him without him even realizing it. How could he have been so stupid? The thought that he had traded the opportunity to go home to Eleanor—even if it was just a couple of weeks—for this . . . this nightmarish mission that sounded like a one-way ticket to a garrote or a firing squad, it was enough to make a man weep.

Robert’s first impulse when Colonel Hampton delivered his dry-gulching was to rebel, to refuse as he had in London when they’d tried to make a spy of him (as he thought). But he suppressed the urge; it wouldn’t do here, in this back-of-beyond place, with this dark-eyed nemesis staring at him. So he bit back his indignation and asked what kind of “agent” he was meant to be, what his task was, and what the OSS had to do with it.

“Don’t worry,” said Hampton, “we’re not going to parachute you into Berlin or anything like that.”

Robert was glad to hear it. But when he heard what was going to be done with him, he almost choked. He listened dumbly as Colonel Hampton gave him his first unsettling glimpse behind the curtain.

Eastern Command, the Military Mission, and the United States government were facing a humanitarian crisis. All across the disintegrating territories of the Third Reich, millions of prison camp inmates were being turned loose. Rumors were coming through that they were being abused, enslaved, and massacred. How true these stories were, nobody could tell.

First had come the death camps, many of which were in the east of the Reich. In July 1944, the Soviets had liberated the death camp at Majdanek in eastern Poland, and even they were shocked by what they found there. In this instance they took their human responsibilities seriously, giving aid to the survivors and beginning trials of captured Nazis. By the end of 1944, they had even established a small museum at Majdanek memorializing what had been done there. Journalists from around the world were brought there to witness it. Behold the nature of fascism, the Soviets declared.

Other kinds of camps were less horrifying, and Soviet sympathies were not moved at all. When Red Army units began encountering the dozens, then hundreds, of satellite camps and forced labor camps, they wanted no responsibility for them. The Poles and the Ukrainians could at least try to get home. The inmates from other nations had no hope at all.

On January 12, 1945, the Red Army, having halted on the Vistula River to build up their strength, launched the massive Vistula-Oder Offensive, pushing deep toward Germany. The Soviet Union’s Western Allies watched anxiously as the Russian front line drew closer to the prisoner of war camps that were clustered around the German-Polish border. The stalags and oflags were filled with thousands upon thousands of American and British prisoners, as well as French, Dutch, Polish, Canadian, Australian, and every combatant nationality.

Russia’s own people were also imprisoned, some in POW camps, many more in concentration camps, where they had been murdered in their thousands along with the other victims of the Holocaust.

The Soviet attitude toward soldiers who had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner was well known. It had been articulated in Marshal Stalin’s infamous Decree of the Stavka of the Red Army Supreme High Command, Number 270, of August 1941, which declared that Red Army officers and commissars who became prisoners were “criminal deserters” who had “breached their oath and betrayed their Homeland.” They should be shot by their commanders if possible, and their families would be arrested. The order, together with Stalin’s preamble to it, which equated all acts of surrender with cowardice and desertion—colored the attitude of Russian soldiers toward POWs for the rest of the war, and beyond. So did Stalin’s declaration, when asked to comment on the order, that “there are no prisoners of war, only traitors.” A further order, No. 0391, reiterated that deserters and traitors must be put to death. These decrees were made in the climate of shock and fear that came with the German invasion of the Soviet Union and were designed to encourage Red Army troops to fight to the death. The views they embodied took root.

Would this attitude be limited to the treatment of liberated Russian POWs, or would it also lead to mistreatment of Americans, British, and others? In military and diplomatic circles in Washington and London, and in the British and American Military Missions in Moscow, they suspected that it would. They began to lay plans, and Poltava—that fragile little island of America in the vast Communist bloc—was their focus.

Officially they professed to believe that the Soviet regime would do right. Accordingly they prepared transport, supplies, and contact teams for transfer to Poltava and on into Poland. As soon as the camps started being liberated, contact teams would round up American and British POWs and transfer them to holding centers where they could be given emergency care. Then they would be flown promptly to Poltava, where a hospital and accommodations would be established. From there, they could be transferred as quickly as possible via the Persian Corridor or the Black Sea ports, and shipped home.

Such a plan had worked before. The first mass liberation of POWs in Eastern Europe had occurred with the fall of Romania in August 1944. Their evacuation was arranged quickly by the American and Romanian governments, before Soviet forces took control of the country. There would be no such opportunity in Poland. The Soviets were eating it up in swathes, and already installing their Communist-friendly government.

So things stood in mid-February 1945, when Colonel Hampton sketched out the situation to a bewildered Captain Trimble in his office at Poltava. Robert couldn’t imagine what all these vast political matters had to do with him. What could he possibly be expected to do about all those thousands of prisoners? It sounded like either there would be a massive airlift evacuation of POWs or a huge diplomatic fight between the Allies. Other than maybe flying a plane as part of the airlift, there didn’t seem to be anything he could contribute.

He wondered when Hampton would get around to explaining his hair-raising allusions to Robert being some kind of agent, working with the OSS, and not being parachuted into Berlin.

The official plans and preparations depended on Soviet cooperation. Theoretically, there ought to be no problem. Only four days ago, the latest “Big Three” conference had ended at Yalta in the Crimea. (Poltava had experienced a brief resurgence of activity, with Eastern Command providing air transport services for the British and American delegations attending the conference.) Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin had signed their names to an agreement which included provisions on the treatment of liberated prisoners of war. They must be kept separate from enemy prisoners; they must be fully cared for, sheltered, fed, and clothed; and full access must be given at all times for repatriation officers representing the POWs’ home nations to inspect the camps and evacuate their people.

Stalin had signed the agreement, but it was doubtful whether he would even give permission for the Americans to conduct their own evacuation and welfare program, let alone cooperate actively with it. Hence the covert American preparations for an alternative way to get their men out. Whistling innocently, the Americans smiled benignly at the Soviet Union, while behind the Soviets’ backs the Military Mission and its contacts in the OSS arranged to bring in an unsuspecting outsider to do their work.

“You’re being appointed assistant operations officer,” Hampton told Robert. “Officially your role will be aircraft salvage and aircrew rescue. But that’s just your cover. What you’ll really be doing is penetrating into Poland to make contact with POWs. It’s your job to gather ’em up and get ’em to safety.”

Robert was assured that the Soviets would tail him relentlessly and do whatever they could to track and restrict his movements. But they couldn’t touch him. His diplomatic passport, plus his status as an authorized US officer on sanctioned aircraft salvage business, should give him immunity from arrest and detention. That was the theory. As he would learn later that day, when his briefing got down to details and he met the two men who were going to be his contacts out in the field, his diplomatic status would actually put him in greater danger.

He would just have to ensure that the Russians didn’t discover what he was doing, and watch them even more carefully than they watched him.

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