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




The atmosphere inside the little stone-built barn was one of aching cold infused with the sour smell of damp, filthy clothing and unwashed bodies, almost strong enough to override the animal odors of the livestock. For the two-dozen men who had taken up residence in it, the barn was better than being outdoors in this cruel weather, where the wind could cut to the bone; and if the rumors were true, it was better than being under the care of the Russians.

Some of the men lay sleeping uneasily on the straw; others sat huddled against the walls, wrapped tight in their greatcoats, swaddled in rough blankets, with mufflers and hoods made from woollen rags, anything that could provide a layer of protection against the subzero temperature. There was warmth as well as a feeling of security in numbers, and men who had been utter strangers until a week ago bonded like old friends. The instinct for comradeship that had kept each of them going in combat now held them together in adversity.

The men, mostly Americans, had come from Stalags III-C in eastern Germany and XX-A in the north of Poland, both liberated by the Red Army at the end of January. Of the thousands of prisoners set loose, with hardly any aid from their liberators, and nowhere else to go, many had hidden out in the local countryside for a while and then returned to the camps, desperate for shelter. Hundreds of others, without food or transport, were force-marched by the Russians to towns and villages away from the front line, then abandoned there. They were told to make their own way to Warsaw, where they would be collected for repatriation. Warsaw was more than two hundred miles away.

The bolder spirits struck out right away. A tiny handful made it out of Poland all the way to Moscow, or to the American outpost at Poltava. Hundreds were diverted from town to town, trying to get aid from the Soviet authorities and find some way home. Eventually they ended up in camps that the Russians had set up in cities such as Lublin, Lwów, and Rembertów, where they were kept under guard in unspeakable squalor, worse than the prison camps they had come from, without heating or sanitation and on starvation rations. In some cases they were subjected to prolonged interrogation by Soviet NKVD officers.

As small groups and pairs of ex-POWs drifted through Poland, news and rumors spread among them. Already, many were wary of venturing into the towns or coming into contact with Russian troops. They took refuge in small villages and farms, where they found Polish citizens willing to give them shelter and what little food they could spare.

Twenty-three of them had gathered in this small barn. They were a burden on the farmer, who attempted to feed them but couldn’t provide more than a fraction of what they needed. They were also a potential danger to him. If the NKVD found out that Poles had sheltered foreigners, who could potentially be spies, they could face serious trouble.

Day followed day, and the men in the barn grew colder and weaker. A few had fallen sick. Sooner or later they would have to make the decision to give themselves up to the Russians. Each time it was discussed, they decided to wait a little longer. Perhaps some miracle would happen. Surely the American or British authorities must come for them soon, to take them out of this purgatory? The men hunkered down, huddled together, and waited.

Robert was woken by a gunshot. He lurched upright, gasping for breath, the loud bang echoing through his skull.

For a second he couldn’t think where he was, or why, but then it came back to him. The pleasant dark tones of the Victorian furniture, aglow with polish, the ornate wallpaper, and the soft bed under him. He was in his room at the Hotel George in the Polish city of Lwów. Arriving late in the evening, dog-tired, he’d fallen asleep across the bed, half-undressed.

He looked blearily at his watch. Eleven o’clock. The gunshot was still reverberating in his head. He must have dreamt it, though he couldn’t recall any dream. He stood up to finish undressing, and was startled out of his skin by another bang—as loud as if it were in the room with him. This time it was unmistakable—the sharp report of a rifle, echoing in the street outside. It was followed by raised voices, and laughter.

Edging back the curtain, he peeked out. At first he couldn’t see anything alarming, just a couple of Russian soldiers loitering near some trash cans on the sidewalk below. One of them was holding his rifle in the crook of his arm, and both men were looking at the trash cans and laughing. By the dim glow of a nearby window, Robert could see something in one of the cans: something that seemed to be moving. With a cold, creeping horror, he realized that the thing was a person. A woman.

She had been forced into the trash can, with her upper body and lower legs sticking out the top. The soldiers were taking turns to swig from a bottle, and chatted idly, occasionally directing a taunt at the woman. She struggled weakly and moaned, but all she got in return was more abuse. She appeared to be naked from the waist down, and there were wounds visible where she’d been hit by rifle shots.

Trembling—either with horror or fear, he couldn’t tell which—Robert reached for the washstand, where he’d left his belt; he unclipped the holster and drew out his Colt. Glancing out the window, he saw that the two soldiers had been joined by a third, who shared in their little party. Robert looked up and down the street. There was nobody about. There was a curfew, and citizens weren’t allowed out after seven in the evening. Did he dare to intervene? It was unthinkable. Even if he survived—one pistol against three rifles—what would the consequences be for his mission, for all the souls depending on him? Not to mention all the organization and secrecy that had brought him here. The sights he had seen at Auschwitz flashed into his head (they were hovering on the edge of his thoughts constantly). Would he have raised a hand to stop that happening, if he’d had the chance? He gripped the Colt, his finger trembling on the guard, and tried to force himself to act. He had to do something, didn’t he, no matter what?

The decision was taken from him. One of the soldiers raised his submachine gun and fired a short burst. The woman jerked, and then was still. The soldiers went back to their liquor bottle.

Robert stepped back from the window, shaking from head to foot, and sat down heavily on the bed. After a moment, he realized that he was still gripping the Colt. He laid it aside.

Again he found himself wondering what the hell kind of world he had come to. The boy in Rostov, the horrors of the Nazi camp, and now this.

He wouldn’t be sleeping any more that night, so he sat for a while, regaining control of himself. Then he went back to what he’d been doing before dozing off. Laid on the nightstand were some slips of paper on which he’d noted down the messages he’d already begun receiving from the OSS agents out in the field. He picked them up. Forcing himself to concentrate in spite of the scene he’d just witnessed, which kept replaying itself in front of his eyes, he read through the messages again, separating out the originals from the decoded versions he’d been working on.

The system was simple enough. With no way to maintain direct contact, the agents communicated their intelligence bulletins to him via Moscow. Robert had been given a phone number which put him through to an office at the US Embassy. Once he had checked in and confirmed his identity, the voice (he had no idea who the person was, or what position they occupied) dictated the information. He then had to decode the message, which was designed to appear routine or trivial. It wasn’t an ideal way to communicate, but it was all they had.

He was under observation most of the time. The George, like most hotels in Soviet territory, was owned by the Intourist organization, the USSR’s state travel agency, which was run from Moscow by the NKVD. He had been advised to use it as his headquarters. It was commonly used by Americans on salvage missions, so he could be reached easily there, and the Russians were comfortable with the arrangement.

The seemingly uninteresting, apparently routine communiqués from Moscow contained vital information on POW numbers, locations, and rendezvous points. Armed with the information, it was up to Robert to do the rest.

To help him, he’d been supplied with money. A lot of money. It was stashed in a special vest worn under his jacket, an uncomfortable garment with multiple pockets that he would grow to loathe as his mission progressed. It had given him a shock earlier that evening when he’d shut himself in his room (the first time he’d been alone since leaving Poltava) and taken the vest off. Opening one of the pockets, he found a wad of bills, so fresh they had to be peeled apart. Opening a couple more pockets and adding it all up, he figured the vest contained about ten thousand dollars’ worth. A disturbingly large sum to carry around in a violent, seemingly lawless place like this.

He recalled being told the amount when he’d been issued with it, but it hadn’t really sunk in at the time. His head was still reeling from the briefings he’d been subjected to. The final stage of Robert’s preparation at Poltava had been his designation as a class B agent officer. It was a far more mundane position than its name implied. In this context, an “agent” was simply an officer authorized by the War Department to spend US Army money. An agent officer could pay soldiers’ wages, settle their expenses, and purchase supplies. There were two grades: class A were usually the finance officers of army units; class B agents were appointed by them to act on their behalf. (Eastern Command had an agent officer who visited Poland periodically to pay the expenses of rescued aircrews.) Robert was made an agent subordinate to Eastern Command’s finance officer, who would issue him with whatever cash he needed.

Some of the money was in US dollars, some in rubles. There was a thriving black market in Poland, where dollars could be exchanged for rubles at very profitable rates. The Russians took exception to this and had insisted that American personnel be stopped from taking US dollars into Poland. The dollars Robert had brought with him were for distribution to POWs; as nonexistent entities in the eyes of the Soviet authorities, they could exchange them if they wanted and get enough back in rubles to take good care of themselves. If necessary, Robert could do the same, but it was strictly inadvisable. Anything that might irritate the Russians was to be avoided.

At some point in the night, fatigue caught up with him, and Robert dozed off. Next morning he went down to the lobby—a rather grand affair with marble tiles and elegant pillars—and reported the previous night’s incident to the assistant manager. She was a large, very friendly lady who went out of her way to befriend her American guests. He asked for another room, on the other side of the hotel.

He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that the atrocity he’d witnessed had somehow been intended to intimidate him. It was an absurd thought, but it nagged at him. He learned later that the trash-can torture was often meted out to civilians caught on the streets after curfew, a combination of punishment and intimidation for the citizens and entertainment for the soldiers who perpetrated it.

Seizing his opportunity while the Russian escort officer who’d accompanied him from Poltava was still in bed, Robert left the hotel. He had arrangements to make, and places to go.

Near dusk, a car pulled up at the edge of a stretch of lonely, snowbound woodland. The solitary passenger got out, handed some money to the driver, and slammed the door. The ramshackle car drove off, rattling and smoking. As the taillights dwindled into the distance, the passenger hefted his heavy pack onto his shoulder and started walking up and down beside the road, stomping his boots in the snow as if to shake some life and warmth into them. He pulled his fur-lined hat lower on his head and tugged the collar of his parka tighter. The sky was steel-gray with stored-up snow, and the first flakes were already nipping at his face.

When the car was out of sight, he stomped up and down a couple more times, then took one huge sideways stride away from the road; one more step took him under the boughs of the pines. Drawing a knife from an inner pocket, he cut a branch and, using it like a broom, brushed snow into the prints he’d just made. Walking backward, obscuring his tracks as he went, he worked his way deeper into the wood. When he’d gone about thirty or forty feet, he turned and walked on normally, throwing the branch away. The snow would start falling soon and do the rest of the work for him.

Back before the war, when Robert first left his mother’s home in Camp Hill to join the Army, he’d dreamed of one day becoming a pilot. Without a college education, he knew it would be hard to get a transfer from the infantry to pilot training, but he’d had no trouble imagining it. What he could never have imagined in his weirdest daydreams was that he was setting out on a path that would end up with him creeping through a forest in the wilds of Poland, covering his tracks to throw off the Russian secret police.

As strange as it seemed, in some ways it was closer to his upbringing than most of what he’d been through since enlisting. Secret police were a novelty, but moving stealthily through a snowy forest was almost as familiar to him as strolling on a downtown sidewalk. The Polish countryside reminded him of his home country and the boyhood weekends spent stalking deer in the woods of the Juniata and Susquehanna Valleys above Harrisburg or fishing in their slow waters.

Robert glanced back toward the road. It would take a hell of a tracker to catch up with him. First they’d have to discover that he’d hired a ride from Lwów, then tail him to this spot, then notice that the car had stopped. With any luck, the tracker would see the pattern of footprints and assume Robert had got himself another ride or walked on down the road.

Satisfied that he’d done a good job, he strode on. Before long he had vanished into the gloom among the trees, invisible from the road. Reaching the far side of the wood, he struck out across a field. In the gathering gloom, he could make out a farmhouse about a mile away, a dark patch against the white landscape. Taking a bearing on the house in case he lost sight of it in the dusk, he set out toward it.

The faint sound of an automobile came from the road behind. It was a quarter mile away, but Robert dropped to a crouch and remained motionless. The lights of a car moved slowly east to west, disappearing beyond the screen of trees. The glow seemed to stop at about the spot where Robert had left his ride. He waited, heart thumping. The bird dogs were even better trackers than he’d feared. After an agonizing couple of minutes, there was the faint sound of an engine revving, and the glow of lights moved on, fading into the distance.

Robert breathed again. Standing up, he located the distant outline of the farm once more and carried on walking. After about twenty minutes of crossing ditches and climbing fences, he came to a dirt road which led into the farm homestead. He climbed the gate and looked around. It was almost fully dark now. There was a glow in the window of the farmhouse. Off to one side were some outbuildings and a small barn. If his information was correct, this should be the place.

Not wanting to alarm the farmer, Robert made straight for the barn. Pausing to listen, he could hear a murmur of voices. The door was barred from inside. He thumped on the timber, and the voices fell silent. “I’m American!” he called hoarsely. “American. Open the door.”

There was a sound of a bar being withdrawn, and the door opened a little, revealing a dim glow of candlelight within. A face appeared—hooded, bearded, wary.

“I’m an American. I’m here to help you,” Robert said.

There was a pause, then a clamor of surprised voices; the door opened wide, and he stepped inside. He felt himself being seized and embraced; his nostrils filled with a powerful reek of human filth. Looking around, he saw a scene from a Victorian slum—haggard, unshaven faces illuminated by a candle, bodies wrapped in frayed, shapeless coats and mufflers—everyone looking at him like he was the Second Coming. Some stared dumbly, while the rest talked simultaneously, swearing in delight, smiles breaking out on the dirty faces.

Robert took off his pack and opened it up. First things first. Fending off questions about who he was and where he’d come from, he began sharing out the food he’d brought. It was mostly K rations, from a supply that had come with him from Poltava—pocket-size packs of luncheon meat, pork loaf, tinned cheese, biscuits, malted milk tablets, oatmeal, and sugar. He had brought as much as he could carry, but it wasn’t going to be enough. He counted twenty-three men, and there were only enough rations for about twenty decent-size meals. Anticipating the problem, he’d filled up space in his pack and pockets with extra D-ration chocolate bars, which he shared around.

There were ironic groans at the sight of the ration packs. As a flyer, Robert had no experience of K rations, but they were a bugbear to combat infantrymen: always the same stuff and never enough of it. There wasn’t a man there who’d thought he could ever be so deliriously glad to open up a K-ration pack.

As the men ate, Robert studied them and listened to their talk, occasionally asking a question of his own. Many of them scratched themselves intermittently; they were alive with lice. How could any honorable nation allow this suffering to happen to its allies’ people? Some had escaped from forced marches westward when their camps were evacuated, and Robert heard stories of prisoners being used by the Germans as human shields. Much good that did the Germans against an enemy like the Red Army, who just fired regardless. Those who had been freed from their camps by Soviet forces told of incidents of Russian POWs being murdered by their liberators. American and British prisoners were either ignored or marched to the rear and abandoned. Some had managed to get rides on trains or trucks, but none had any real idea where they were going, or why.

It was said that those who went to the Russian camps were as bad off as they had been in the stalags, and there were rumors that the Russians would simply keep the liberated prisoners captive forever. Asked if the rumors were true, Robert had to admit that he didn’t know. But he was here to do what he could to get them to safety. They’d soon be out of here and on their way home.

There were little packs of Camel cigarettes and matches in the ration packs, and soon the barn was filled with a fog of tobacco smoke and cheerful conversation—between them they dispelled the nauseating atmosphere of filth and despondency. One voice broke softly into song, and the others joined in. The only men who didn’t enter into the jubilant mood were the sick and injured. Robert did what little he could for them, but he was no medic, and all he had was a few first-aid supplies and a bottle of vodka.

They would need to depart before dawn. Robert settled down to spend the night in the barn, feeling like a shepherd with his flock. So far, so good. Tomorrow the real test would come. Somehow he had to get this scarecrow band into Lwów. He had a plan worked out, but it was a risky one.

In the hour before dawn, Robert rose from his bed on the straw. Accompanied by the couple of men who seemed to be the de facto leaders of the group, he went to see the farmer. Communication was difficult, but the farmer agreed readily enough to Robert’s request for a ride to the outskirts of Lwów. With a generosity that Robert would learn was common among the Poles, the farmer was only too glad to help the Americans on their way.

In the dark, he began hitching his horse to the cart, while Robert assembled the POWs. The sick were put aboard first, and the rest climbed in and settled down wherever they could. The cart, creaking under its unaccustomed weight, rolled out onto the farm track in the first glimmer of dawn.

It wasn’t many miles to Lwów, and it was still early when they approached the outskirts. Robert was anticipating that any Soviet sentries or patrols who were about would be hungover from the previous night’s drinking, and wouldn’t be inclined to question travelers. The Russians were addicted to the local liquor, a powerful brew made from beets, and he’d seen them consume large quantities of it—on duty and off.

At the edge of town, the farmer reined in, and the Americans climbed down from the cart. Robert offered the farmer money for his trouble, but the man smiled and waved it away. Then he bade his friends farewell, shook the reins, turned in the road, and trundled off the way they’d come.

Taking turns to support the weaker men, Robert and his party of fugitives walked the last quarter-mile into Lwów. It wasn’t far to the main railroad station. Robert had visited it the day before to check the times of trains, and had bought two dozen tickets for Odessa, the main port city on the Black Sea coast.

Robert had learned from Moscow that the Soviets were establishing a transient camp at the port. The intention was that all liberated POWs (subject to being properly screened in Soviet camps) must be sent there to await evacuation by sea. There were to be no exceptions.

At Poltava, optimistic preparations to receive airlifted POWs were still going on. The Americans objected to the Odessa plan. Odessa was a three-day rail journey from even the nearest Polish cities, and there was no telling what kind of facilities the Soviets would put in place, or what kind of delays and maltreatment the POWs would experience along the way. At the very least, the Americans argued, the sick must be evacuated by air via Poltava and Tehran, where they could receive proper hospital treatment. The Russians refused.

General Deane cabled Colonel Wilmeth, who was still stuck at Poltava awaiting clearance to enter Poland with his contact team. Deane notified him that his mission had finally been approved by the Russians in Moscow, and that he would be permitted to go to Lublin to inspect the POW facilities there. Colonel Hampton applied immediately to General Kovalev, the Soviet commander at Poltava, for clearance for Colonel Wilmeth and his team to fly to Lublin.

The request was denied.

While his superiors protested, cajoled, and argued with the Russians, Captain Robert M. Trimble walked into the suburbs of Lwów leading a ragged band of ex-prisoners. There was a guard post at the edge of town. Robert’s pulse quickened as they approached it. There was nobody about. It looked like they might get through without being challenged. Then, just as Robert’s hopes were rising, a soldier came out of a nearby house and challenged them. He was every bit as bleary-eyed as Robert had hoped, and blinked suspiciously at the crowd of men.

Without giving him a chance to speak, Robert held his passport in front of the soldier’s face and said, “Ya amerikanets,” one of the handful of Russian phrases he had memorized for just such an occasion. “I am a representative of the Embassy of the United States of America,” he added in English.

Whether he understood it or not, the Russian seemed satisfied by the sight of the passport, but he gestured threateningly with his rifle at the POWs. “Nemtsy?” he said. Robert recognized the word—he thought the men were Germans. “Yavlyayutsya li oni fritsev?” he added, looking decidedly hostile.

“No, no,” said Robert. “Amerikanskiy. Like me. Americans. They were prisoners of the Germans.”

The soldier seemed to accept this, but didn’t lower his rifle. One or two of the POWs were looking like they were bracing themselves to make a run for it. The soldier directed a stream of Russian at Robert. He didn’t understand any of the words, but knew enough by now to recognize it as a demand for identification papers. Robert tried to explain that the men had no papers—they had all been taken by the Germans.

In a last bid to overcome the guard’s resistance, he pointed to his watch and said, “Poyezd.” Train.

The soldier shook his head. Hangover or no hangover, this was one Red Army grunt who was determined to be awkward. He ordered them to stay where they were and turned, rather unsteadily, back toward the guard post. The next move would be a phone call to the city commandant’s office, followed by detention in the POW holding camp, and the end of their hopes of imminent freedom.

Casting around desperately for a way out, Robert spotted a bottle of beet liquor on a table outside the guard post. He called to the soldier, who stopped and turned back. Robert gestured to the bottle, indicating that he would like to have it. The soldier shook his head and snatched the bottle, holding it protectively against his body. Robert dug in his pocket and pulled out a wad of dollar bills. He fanned them out under the soldier’s nose.

Immediately he sensed the man wavering. Liquor might be precious, but dollars were better than bullion in this city. Robert stuffed the bills into the guard’s coat pocket and pried the bottle from his grubby fingers. Simultaneously smiling and bracing himself, he took a swig of the blue liquor. It was like methanol. Wheezing, he offered the bottle back. The soldier took a slug, and soon they were like old buddies, passing the bottle back and forth. The Russian smiled, Robert smiled, the POWs tried to smile.

At last, Robert announced, “We go now, bye-bye.” With a cheerful gesture, the guard stood aside and waved his American friends through, then went back to his post to sit down and continue sweating off his hangover.

They made it to the station without any more hindrance, and with plenty of time to spare before the Odessa train was due. Like the rest of the city, Lwów Station was a grand piece of nineteenth-century architecture, with great, echoing halls. But the POWs didn’t look as out of place as they might have expected. There were millions of displaced persons in Poland, and people were accustomed to seeing ragged strangers in their midst.

While the men waited, Robert hurried off to the shops, and returned laden with food. He shared it among them, along with handfuls of dollars. When everything was safely stowed away, he hurried the men up to the platforms and onto the train. As they boarded, they shook him by the hand, some of them seizing hold of him and hugging him; some had tears in their eyes.

As the train pulled away, Robert stayed to watch it go. With a sudden, almost painful, clarity, he recalled the last time he had waved someone away on a train journey—Eleanor, at Riverside in California, when she set off on the long journey to Chicago. It had been the very last time he had seen her, a year ago now. It felt like a lifetime. But he could still conjure up the look in her eyes and hear those last words she called out . . .

He wondered if he would ever see her again. He wondered if those twenty-three men would find their way home to the people they loved, whoever and wherever they were. Robert had done all he could to see them on their way to freedom. How many others would there be before he was done? In his pocket, his hand touched the slips of paper—each one a location, a number, a set of directions to the next group of lost.

The caboose disappeared beyond the bend, and Robert turned on his heel, walked back through the station, and out into the streets of Lwów. He had places to be, and time was short.