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

Previous: 4. BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Next: 6. RUNNING WITH THE BIRD DOGS

5.

A BRUTAL AWAKENING

A jeep roared along the road leading toward the village of Brzezinka, swerving to avoid shell holes and scatters of rubble. Its passengers clung on, bracing themselves against being flung out. Every fifty yards or so, the Russian driver had to slam on the brakes and lurch off the road to allow vehicles to pass the other way. The road was busy with traffic going both ways—artillery, supply trucks, ambulances, and troops going to and from the front line, creating a series of stop-go jams that went on for mile after mile.

During each pause, Robert Trimble, sitting in the backseat of the jeep, noticed that the sounds of gunfire had grown a little louder. Almost immediately after he had disembarked from the plane at Kraków, the faint rumble had been perceptible. It had grown gradually to an intermittent thunder that sounded like it was coming from just over the next hill. Now, as the jeep halted on the edge of the village, it was just possible to make out the burr of machine guns in between the booms of Russian artillery and the thunder of German shells exploding. The sweeping Soviet advance that had begun a month ago had slowed to a halt a few miles from here, and the Red Army was fighting for every foot of ground.

Robert looked about him. The jeep had halted to let through a column of Red Army troops, all dressed in their long greatcoats, some with white winter smocks. Most carried the distinctive submachine guns with round magazines that they called Papasha—“Daddy.” A column of roaring, squealing tanks rolled by with squads of soldiers riding on them. Robert was astonished to realize that some of the tank commanders, standing up in their turret hatches, were women.

The jeep squeezed through the village streets. Despite the damage done by the battle that had passed through here a couple of weeks ago, it looked like a pretty place, with winding streets and tall, quaint, timber-framed houses.

It was his first day in Poland, and Robert had been diverted from his main mission. He had been brought to this place because there was something here that his superior officers at Eastern Command wanted him to look at and report on. Unusually, the Soviets were keen that an American come here to see it. Therefore, Colonel Hampton had regarded it as the perfect opportunity to get his agent rapidly into Poland, without the usual delays and stalling. Accompanied by a Russian escort and interpreter, Robert had set off from Poltava. He was in a daze, having had no chance yet to digest the intensive briefings or get his bearings.

His interpreter, sitting beside him in the jeep, was a young woman in Red Army uniform, with a second lieutenant’s star on her shoulders. Her name was Maiya, and like many of the female interpreters the Soviets provided for Eastern Command, she was rather pretty. She had large, doe-like eyes, accentuated by Slavonic cheekbones and a plump underlip. Her hair was blond and glossy, worn in a neat, militarized Betty Grable style. Robert had been warned to regard Maiya with suspicion. The Soviets used pretty women as interpreters for the simple reason that they were liable to tempt unwary, sex-starved American personnel into being malleable and indiscreet. The interpreters—and the male officers provided as guides—were all, despite their Red Army ranks and uniforms, attached to the NKVD, the political police, the Soviet equivalent to the German Gestapo.

It had been founded under Lenin, in the turmoil that followed the 1917 Revolution. The Cheka, as the internal security police force was originally called, instantly became a byword for terror. Under Stalin’s rule the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or NKVD) acquired all the roles of a police and emergency service, and became the most powerful instrument of repression in the Soviet Union, responsible for purges and mass murder.

The NKVD policed every boundary—physical and ideological—between the Soviet Union and the outside world. It was Stalin’s guard dog, and along with the Foreign Office it controlled every aspect of American experience in Soviet territory.

Women were a favorite conduit for the NKVD’s spies. Around Poltava, the organization used local women in attempts to seduce information out of American servicemen. It was such a prevalent practice, the GIs joked that NKVD stood for “no ketch venereal disease.” The Red Army translators and officer escorts were a more subtle means of spying. The Americans at Eastern Command called them “bird dogs.” They followed you everywhere and were adept at trailing. Maiya seemed pleasant enough and struck Robert as entirely genuine. She had a coquettish little smile, which was very charming, and Robert was rather susceptible.

She wasn’t smiling now, as the jeep passed the last house in the village. She looked rather apprehensive and unhappy. Maiya evidently wasn’t looking forward to seeing what they had come to see. Neither was Robert. Based on the sketchy information he’d been given, it sounded like something that nobody would want to look at.

They had almost reached their destination. The jeep rounded a bend; there was a long straight ahead, beyond which Robert could make out wire fences with guard towers and brick buildings. Beyond were rows of barracks buildings. From the road it looked vast, the fences marching on and on into the distance.

The road was converging with a railroad track which split away from the nearby main line and curved round in a great arc. Together the road and rail track headed toward a long, low building made of brick, with a tower in the center and two archways through which road and railroad passed.

In answer to Robert’s query, Maiya told him the name of the village they had just come through: Brzezinka it was called in Polish. In German they called it Birkenau. The neighboring town, which could be seen on the other side of the main railroad, was Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz.

Your area of operations will be in this triangle encompassing the cities of Lwów, Lublin, and Kraków.”

Put like that, it sounded simple. But when he began learning the details of what he was expected to do in that triangle, Robert’s already rattled nerves took another hit. In fact, it wasn’t so much the details as the vagueness of the details. It sounded like he was going to be relying on his own initiative an awful lot.

He studied the map on Colonel Hampton’s wall. It was marked with colored pins and ribbons indicating aircraft crash-landing sites, transportation hubs, and the current German/Soviet front line. Most of the positions were approximate, based on information that had come in from Soviet and Polish sources via Moscow, plus intelligence from rescued aircrews and a fair amount of guesswork.

“Major Kowal will have more accurate information,” Hampton said. “He’s our operations officer. Officially, you’ll be subordinate to him, but in practice you’re answerable to me and to Moscow.”

Robert understood that “Moscow” meant General Hill, who was CO of the Air Division, and General Deane, who was overall commander of the American Military Mission at the US Embassy.

The information on prisoners of war was even vaguer than that on downed aircrews. It was known that the recent Soviet advances had liberated some camps, but so far there had been no direct contact with any American or British POWs, and no information was forthcoming from the Russians. Nonetheless, the Military Mission in Moscow had many sources of intelligence, including agents and diplomatic channels, as well as sources in the Polish provisional government. The Polish authorities were happy to cooperate, despite being Soviet puppets (the process of Stalinization was in its early stages still). Information even came from within Germany, via the Swiss legation in Berlin, who passed on Wehrmacht reports of American POWs being left behind in the retreat.

Then a breakthrough came. Just two days ago, while Robert was still en route from Tehran through the snowstorms of the Caucasus, a message had come through to General Deane at Moscow. Relayed from Lublin in Poland, the message confirmed everybody’s fears—there were already thousands of liberated American prisoners wandering loose and uncared-for. The message originated from two officers who had escaped from a German POW camp, crossed German lines into Poland, and spent weeks there trying to find their way to freedom: paratrooper Colonel Charles Kouns and OSS Colonel Jerry Sage. It was the first definite information that the Russians were not honoring their obligations under the Yalta agreement.

But in spite of all the leads and reports coming out of Poland and Germany, there was no information from the Soviets themselves: just glib denials. All was fine, they insisted; liberated prisoners would be well cared-for in the reception centers that were being established in major towns at this very moment.

General Deane, alarmed by the message from Kouns and Sage, immediately briefed two of his senior staff officers to prepare for a trip to Lublin. On arrival, they were to inspect the Russian facilities in Lublin and any other Polish towns that were being used for receiving POWs, and arrange for their prompt evacuation by air to Poltava. Deane received assurances from the Soviet government that his two officers would have full and free movement in Poland and access to POW facilities. Orders were sent to Poltava to begin preparing to receive hundreds of POWs, who would need to be accommodated and then sent on by air to Tehran.

Deane’s two officers, Lieutenant Colonels Wilmeth and Kingsbury, accompanied by an American interpreter, traveled from Moscow to Poltava on February 15, arriving on the very same day as Captain Robert Trimble. Two very different branches of America’s plans for POW evacuation—the official and the strictly off-the-record—were now in place and ready to be put into action. General Deane, despite all he knew about the Soviet way of doing things, professed high hopes for his little inspection team, and also for the POW contact teams, which had been assembled at the recommendation of the Military Mission and were currently supposed to be en route to Poltava from London. Privately, though, he thought the plan unlikely to succeed.

Eastern Command applied immediately to the Soviets for clearance for the two colonels and their interpreter to fly from Poltava to Lublin to begin their tour of inspection.

Permission was denied.

So began a pattern that recurred frequently over the coming days and weeks. While Captain Trimble entered Poland with the Russians’ assistance, clearances for Wilmeth and Kingsbury were repeatedly sought and repeatedly denied. Less than a week had passed since the signature of the Yalta agreement, and already the Soviets were failing to honor it. General Deane had consciously played soft with them on the POW issue prior to Yalta, for fear of provoking them. In the weeks that followed, he began to grow impatient and angry.

He wasn’t the only one.

Beyond General Deane, the US ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, took a keen and close interest in the welfare of POWs in Soviet hands. So did Ambassador John G. Winant in London. Ambassador Winant had a personal interest in the matter; his own son was one of the prisoners likely to be liberated at any moment by Soviet forces. The President of the United States, reflecting the feelings of all those American families with menfolk in German prison camps, also regarded the matter as profoundly important.

Fortunately for his nerves on that first day in Poltava, Captain Robert M. Trimble had little notion of how high and how far the chain of concerned parties went, or just how much hinged on his performance of the mission that was being entrusted to him. He was just meant to be a backup, an emergency sideline, but he might end up being the only way out for the POWs.

It had been made clear to him that it was a mission of extraordinary diplomatic sensitivity. He must never speak of it to anybody, even within military circles. If the Soviet government discovered that the United States was deliberately putting agents inside Soviet-occupied territory for the purpose of counteracting NKVD and Red Army procedures, it could lead to a diplomatic incident that could affect the course of the war, or even alter the geopolitical shape of postwar Europe. Even the OSS could only provide back-door support.

After his short but stunning introductory briefing by Colonel Hampton, Robert had walked out of the headquarters building an older, wiser, and significantly more worried man than he’d been when he went in. He was given no time to reflect. From headquarters he’d been herded off to the Operations Office, housed in yet another wooden shack, where he met Major Michael Kowal, the man whose assistant Robert was ostensibly going to be.

The two men hit it off immediately. Like Robert, Mike Kowal was a veteran bomber pilot. He had completed his combat tour with the 94th Bomb Group, flying B-17s out of Rougham, Suffolk, back in the dark days of 1943, when the Luftwaffe was stronger and the Eighth Air Force fighter escorts only went halfway to the target. Kowal believed in a brotherhood of bomber pilots, a breed apart from other airmen. At twenty-seven, he was a couple of years older than Robert. A native of Passaic, New Jersey, Kowal was a lively spirit; he’d been an air-show stunt pilot before the war, and was the beau ideal of an Air Force flyer: handsome and dark-eyed, with a chiseled jawline and a winning grin. His features were a little askew, as if his maker had set out to create a matinee idol but got the proportions slightly off. A good-looking fellow, though. He had Slavic ancestry, and spoke Russian, which was how he’d ended up on the staff at Poltava in the early days of Operation Frantic.

As operations officer, Kowal was responsible for coordinating aircrew rescue and plane salvage work in Poland. He had been taking part in the work himself until a few months ago, but was now grounded. The Russians disliked and distrusted Major Kowal intensely, bracketing him with Colonel Hampton as an illicit gatherer of political intelligence (back in November, he’d written a report on Soviet misconduct in Poland). Along with Hampton, the Soviets had barred Major Kowal from flying into Poland, and he was now restricted to Poltava.

Robert was given a hasty briefing on salvage and aircrew rescue. American bombers and fighters, damaged in combat and unable to limp back to their bases in Britain or Italy, often made crash landings in Poland. It was Eastern Command’s job to rescue the crews and salvage the planes, and bring both back to Poltava for transfer back to the crews’ home units.

The Soviets were happy enough to help with aircrew evacuation, because they had no reason to be suspicious of the crewmen: they were in uniform, carried identification, and their landings had usually been observed by troops. A few crews had been subjected to interrogation, and Russian care was often rough and simple, but they were mostly treated as fellow warriors against the common enemy. The American rescue workers had little trouble getting them out of Poland, so long as they could get to wherever they were being quartered.

Aircraft were a little trickier. The War Department and USSTAF wanted them picked up and returned without delay. Not only were they very expensive, they were also classified technology which the Soviets were eager to acquire. Preaching what he hadn’t managed to practice himself, Major Kowal briefed Robert on the importance of being diplomatic with the Russians, but at the same time ensuring that they didn’t steal or wreck American aircraft. (Either was possible, depending on whether Air Force intelligence personnel or drunken soldiers got there first.) The practice was to send out a salvage team comprising an American flight crew and mechanics, plus Russian helpers and an interpreter. The Russians were supposed to help, but were likely to look for opportunities to seize the aircraft once it had been repaired.

Kowal’s briefing was supplemented by a talk from the intelligence officer, Captain William Fitchen, a tall, serious fellow with blunt features and a vaguely cheerful demeanor. Another pilot turned staff officer, Fitchen knew more about the current situation on the ground in Poland than anyone. His job was to interrogate rescued aircrews, and he had helped furnish Hampton and Kowal with a detailed picture of how Soviet-American-Polish relations were working out and how the Russians were treating Polish citizens (badly). As a result of his role, Captain Fitchen was another man whom the Soviet authorities in Poltava regarded with deep suspicion.

As he took in these briefings, Robert began to understand why the decision had been made to use this work as a cover for aiding POWs. It gave the officers involved a fairly free run of the country, albeit in company with bird dogs, and an excuse to travel to remote areas. It also allowed for intelligence-gathering, since the information about landing sites that came through from the Red Army was vague, and inquiries had to be made to find the exact locations of planes and crews. Under cover of this activity, Robert’s mission was to contact and exfiltrate wandering prisoners.

That, of course, was the real trick, and he had no idea how he was supposed to achieve it.

He began learning the answer to that question in the last of his series of whirlwind briefings. Taking on an even graver air than he had shown so far, Colonel Hampton took Robert aside and escorted him to an office in the headquarters building. “I told you you’re not going to be dropped into Berlin,” he said. “Well, I have two men in this room who were trained for exactly that.”

Robert was warned that the imperative for secrecy applied doubly from this moment on. The men he was about to meet were at Poltava unofficially, clandestinely, without the knowledge of either Russian or American personnel. They were the OSS agents he would be working with, and if their presence became known, a catastrophic diplomatic incident might ensue. Hampton opened the door, and with a sense of trepidation, Robert followed him into the office.

There were two men seated there, and after the dramatic buildup, they looked about the most unimpressive pair you could imagine. They were nondescript; their clothing was civilian, utilitarian, neither expensive nor cheap, smart nor shabby. They could have passed for tradesmen, shop workers, or laborers. Their faces were unremarkable, not particularly memorable. You wouldn’t glance twice at them.

But of course, that was their aim. Their dull jackets and coats, worn-looking pants, and slightly frayed shirt collars had been painstakingly fabricated to German or Polish patterns at the OSS clothing depot in Brook Street, London, where they had the resources and skills to fake anything from a laborer’s overalls to a German army uniform or a Gestapo suit, using materials brought in from the OSS office in Stockholm, where German-made articles of clothing, luggage, and personal effects could be purchased.

How these two men had got to Poltava past the NKVD, Robert had no idea. He was told nothing about the men other than Colonel Hampton’s allusion to parachuting into Berlin. Possibly they had been seconded from the Eagle project. Eagle had been set up to train Polish soldiers as behind-the-lines agents to infiltrate German industry in the guise of workmen. More likely the two men had been drawn from the pool of Joes who formed the more highly developed Operation Tissue, also trained to infiltrate Germany. They were tasked for intelligence-gathering rather than sabotage, and their training was in communications, cryptography, espionage, forgery, lock-picking, and surveillance; their specialist combat training was limited to self-defense, which they received on top of core agent training in close combat and weapons. The agents were fed into the country from the OSS Westfield Mission in Stockholm, from where they went via sea routes into Denmark and on into Germany. Agents from the Tissue project were infiltrating enemy territory at this very moment.

All Robert knew about the two men was that they were OSS, and that they had been diverted from their original mission to be his contacts. Their purpose was to go deep into Soviet-occupied Poland, making contact with locals and gathering intelligence on liberated Allied prisoners of war: their condition, health, the locations where they had concentrated, and what, if anything, the Russians were doing to help them.

The two agents gave Robert an intensive, efficient briefing. Completely free of the camaraderie and military etiquette of his previous briefings, it was nothing but business: straight and concise. There wasn’t the time, nor were there the facilities, for any kind of practical training, so their advice had to be sufficient. They instructed him on contact procedures and codes, providing him with a basic system of communications protocols, which he had to memorize there and then. They advised him on outdoor survival and gave him tips on fieldcraft. He believed that his upbringing ought to equip him for the job—all those winter weekends spent deer-hunting in the Pennsylvania hills had given him an understanding of outdoor living. What was entirely new to him was the instructions on avoiding pursuit, throwing off a tail, and most crucially of all, how not to get yourself killed.

Above all, he was told, the most important thing was not to antagonize the Soviets, especially not the NKVD. And if he sensed that he had antagonized them, he should on no account accept any kind of hospitality or transportation from them. There were all kinds of hazards in an occupied zone that had recently been a combat area, and it was only too easy to explain away a sudden death as an accident or the work of German agents. Robert’s passport made him immune to arrest, but all the more vulnerable therefore to murder.

Robert didn’t sleep well when he eventually hit his bunk that night. His mind kept going back to his talk with Colonel Helton at Debach, and the scale of the lie they’d both been told. So much for being “safely out of the combat zone.” He wondered if there was any way out of it, any reason or excuse he could give that would make it clear that he couldn’t possibly undertake this mission, that they’d got the wrong man. But everything that made him unsuitable—the fact that he was a pilot, not a spy, his lack of familiarity with the country and its politics—made him precisely the man they needed.

His course was set.

In front of the brick gatehouse, the road crossed over the railroad just before the track ran in under the larger of the two archways. The jeep bumped over the sunken rails and followed the road through the smaller arch, waved past by the Russian sentries standing by.

What Robert saw inside that place would stay with him for the rest of his life.

He knew what the camps here had been used for. Everyone knew about Majdanek, and this appeared to be more of the same. And yet Auschwitz had attracted little attention in the Western press since its liberation—it was just “another Majdanek,” and was overshadowed in the news by coverage of the Yalta Conference. Few people had seen it with their own eyes. What was unprecedented about this place was its sheer scale. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was vast. Beyond the gatehouse, the road and the rail tracks ran on and on, straight as a die, the tracks dividing to straddle a long station platform. On either side, behind more layers of barbwire fencing, stood rank upon rank of barracks buildings. A few appeared to have burned down, but most were standing, hundreds of them in rows that stretched out to the left and right and marched away into the far distance.

There had been a thaw here lately; the snow was thin on the ground and turning to slush, adding to the air of grim, gray misery that pervaded the place. The jeep drove slowly on. It was hard to believe that this camp was just one part of a complex of dozens of camps that had sprouted in this corner of Poland like a malignant infection.

For Robert, Auschwitz-Birkenau remained in his memory as a collection of disjointed images. The shed where bodies, thin to their bones, naked, frozen stiff, were piled up, spilling out of the broken door—prisoners who had died of starvation, whose corpses the SS hadn’t had time to destroy in their retreat. In another building Robert saw stacks of cans with bright red-and-yellow labels. The initial impression that this was a store of canned food was dispelled by the skull-and-crossbones symbol on the labels.

Robert picked one up. “Giftgas!” the label said, and “Zyklon.” He asked Maiya to translate the label. “Giftgas means poison gas,” she said. “This here is saying, ‘To be only opened and used by experienced persons.’” There was a manufacturer’s logo on the other side, beneath which was a warning that the product was authorized for use only in regions of the Reich east of the Elbe River, in Poland, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, and Sudetenland. The Nazis who had been captured and interrogated were claiming that the gas was used for disinfecting the inmates’ clothing. But as Maiya told Robert, its true purpose was the extermination of human beings. They went to look at the place where it had been done.

Screened by birch groves at the far end of the camp stood the remains of the “crematoria,” the death houses where victims had been gassed, hundreds at a time, and their corpses burned. The SS had tried to destroy the evidence; the “Krema” buildings had been half-demolished and set on fire. Reduced to slabs of broken concrete and brick, the gas chambers lay open to the sky and the sleet. Scattered about were more of the yellow-and-red-labeled canisters, open and empty.

It was almost unbelievable that there were still people living in the camp, nearly three weeks after its liberation. Thousands of inmates had chosen to stay behind when the others were force-marched westward by the Nazis, and the SS squads had only had time to murder about six hundred before fleeing the approaching Russians.

Just a few hundred people now remained in the barracks blocks, those too sick or scared to be moved. After liberating the camp, the Soviets had done all they could to alleviate the suffering of the thousands of survivors. Red Army medical teams, together with the Polish Red Cross, had set up a hospital in the main labor camp, in the town of Auschwitz itself, where the buildings were larger and more suitable for the purpose. Even now, a convoy of horse-drawn carts was taking weakened inmates, living skeletons bundled up in blankets, down the main road through the Birkenau camp, heading for the hospital.

The Russian doctors and the Red Cross had saved many, but others were beyond help. There had been 7,650 survivors in the Auschwitz complex when the Red Army arrived on January 27. By February 6, only 4,880 were still alive. Many left of their own accord, hoping to get home. Hundreds died, mostly of exhaustion. Some were killed by kindness; Russian troops in the front line sent gifts of food to the camps, on which the starving survivors gorged themselves, and died. Conditions were almost indescribable; shortly after the liberation, a thaw set in, and the thousands of frozen bodies began to rot.

By the time Robert viewed Auschwitz-Birkenau, the cold had resumed, and the worst was past, but it left him with images that would live in his nightmares for decades to come.

In all his guided tour, Robert heard little mention of the Jews. As with Majdanek, the Soviets affected not to recognize that the mass murder had been focused primarily on the destruction of the Jewish race. The Communist view was that the camps represented the ultimate obscenity of fascism and capitalism: an industrial system which incarcerated and murdered its workers.

But it could not be denied that the Soviet authorities had reacted promptly, efficiently, and humanely to the plight of the thousands of prisoners. Was it possible that American fears for their liberated POWs were misplaced? Might the Russians actually honor their obligations?

Robert didn’t know. But when he got back aboard the jeep for the return journey to Kraków, he felt a grim resolve that had been absent since his briefing at Poltava. His lingering feeling that this mission wasn’t for him, that they had chosen the wrong man, had dissipated. Whatever happened, he would do whatever he could to save his fellow men from suffering, and to bring them to safety and freedom.

On the same day that Captain Trimble visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, three American ex–prisoners of war arrived at the US Embassy in Moscow, having made an extraordinary journey on foot and by train across Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia. The three officers told their story to an amazed General Deane.

They had been in Oflag 64, a camp for officers at Szubin in western Poland, liberated on January 21. With no help from the Red Army, the three officers had traveled by themselves, and encountered hundreds of fellow Americans, all wandering, all wary of going to the camp that the Soviets were said to have established at Rembertów. Dodging the NKVD, the three officers headed for Moscow. They were the first ex-POWs to tell their stories in full to the American authorities. From them came the first detailed eyewitness testimony of the Russian failure to honor their obligations to Allied prisoners of war.

Soon, more and more stories began to filter through: stories of neglect, stories of abuse. Liberated prisoners had been fired on by Russian troops, robbed, herded with captured Germans; sick POWs had been force-marched along with their comrades, and hundreds were abandoned in the wilds of Poland or incarcerated in squalid camps.

It seemed that in the Soviet mind, the victims of fascist capitalism formed one category; soldiers who had surrendered to the enemy were still firmly in an entirely different one, a category for which no human sympathy was reserved.

Previous: 4. BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Next: 6. RUNNING WITH THE BIRD DOGS