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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7.

FIGHTING BASTARD OF THE UKRAINE

U.S. PLANES RAP TARGETS DOZEN MILES AHEAD OF REDS ADVANCING ON DRESDEN

CLOSEST DIRECT AIR RAID SO FAR. Cottbus lies only 12 miles west of Red Army Spearheads. . . . American Flying Fortresses and Liberators more than 1,180 strong smashed today at targets only a dozen miles ahead of the advancing Red Army. . . . The heavy bombers had an escort of more than 430 Mustang fighters, bringing the total air force hurled at Germany today to 1,530 planes. . . .

Dresden has been under almost continuous assault by British and American air forces for two days and nights. This vital hub of German rail and supply connections which is only about 43 miles distant from the most advanced Red Army column has had one of the heaviest plasterings of the war.

Cottbus, 53 miles southeast of Berlin, is a target of almost equal importance. It is a big rail junction point from which highways radiate in all directions. The American assault followed a double blow by 717 RAF four-engined bombers at Chemnitz . . .

The News-Herald (Franklin, Pennsylvania), February 15, 1945

Engines screaming, losing altitude, a B-17 Flying Fortress burst through the cloud base at four hundred feet, struggled to level out, then flew on southeast, heading into a gathering snowstorm. Two engines dead, her silver body peppered with holes, bleeding oil and gasoline, she raced on above the treetops. Laborers in the fields and travelers in the country lanes looked up in alarm as the wounded beast roared overhead.

In the cockpit, Lieutenant Arnold A. Tillman worked to keep the Fortress airborne and level. At the same time, he and his copilot, Lieutenant Stan Neese, scanned the ground below for a place to land. She had no name, this Fort; she was just B-17G 43-37687, call-sign BX/Y. And yet to Lieutenant Tillman and his crew, “687” was home, a little piece of America. At this moment she was a rather fragile, broken piece of America that looked likely to get spread across half a mile of Polish countryside.

The Fort had been part of a huge force sent to bomb the marshaling yards at Cottbus, Germany. The flak barrage was intense, fragments slapping and zinging through 687’s skin. She lost an engine while they were still over the target, and flew on with the prop feathered. During the turn off the target to head for home, a second engine died, and 687 began losing altitude. They weren’t going to make it. The only option was to turn back east and make for Poland. Losing power and altitude, the crew began jettisoning everything that wasn’t bolted down: machine guns, ammunition, flak jackets. But still 687 kept losing height.

They had been struggling on for nearly an hour when they came out of the clouds and began looking for a place to crash-land. As Tillman and Neese scanned the landscape, a third engine was stuttering. If they didn’t find a spot to put this crate down immediately, they were finished. They were in a broad, shallow valley with great tracts of woodland everywhere, and the fields were all small, separated by hedgerows. While the pilots searched and fought to keep the plane in the air, the rest of the crew gathered in the radio operator’s compartment, hunkered down in crash positions; some of them began to say the Lord’s Prayer. At last, Tillman spotted what looked like a suitable field, just below a line of trees on a gentle rise. He made a snap decision to put down there.

Neese flipped the switch for the landing gear, and there was a tense few seconds—the gear was almost certainly damaged, and if it was shot, they’d have to do a belly landing. Miraculously, the light came on indicating that the wheels were down and locked.

With the snowy field racing up to meet them, Tillman leveled the Fort out and dropped her down, drawing back the throttles on the two remaining engines to let the wheels hit the ground. It was instantly clear that the field wasn’t going to be long enough. The tree line was racing toward them. Tillman rammed the throttle levers forward and pulled back on the control column. One of the engines, already running rough, gave a final stutter and died. With her last dregs of speed and power, dragging herself by her one surviving engine, the Fort bounced upward, brushed through the treetops, and sank down on the far side. There was an instant’s glimpse of another small field, then she hit the snow, skidded, and eventually slewed to a stop, straddling the boundary between the field and another copse, wheels in a ditch and her nose among the trees.

The last engine rumbled on for a while, whipping up a little blizzard across the ground. Then it too was shut down, and silence settled over the field.

It was broken by the squeak of the escape hatch opening. One by one, the officers dropped out onto the snow. The gunners emerged from the fuselage door. Together they milled around the bomber, looking at the holes in the skin, the ruined engines, gazing back toward the trees, wondering how in the world they had survived.

Lieutenant Tillman quickly organized the destruction of all the classified materials on board—the navigator’s maps, the bombardier’s data charts, target list, pilot’s notes, and finally the Norden bombsight, which they pulverized with pistol fire. They had barely finished when they saw a squad of Russian soldiers heading across the field toward them, rifles at the ready.

“Amerikanski!” the crew shouted. “Amerikanski!” To the men’s astonishment, as the soldiers drew near it became apparent that they were all women. They looked the Americans over, glanced at the stranded plane, then turned about and walked back to the road.

“Guess none of us took their fancy,” said Sergeant Echola, the tail gunner.

There wasn’t a soul in sight. The Americans, alone in the snowy landscape, wondered what they were going to do now.

AIR ATTACK PLANNED AT YALTA. . . . Dresden, an important railway and industrial city, was already in flames from raids yesterday and Tuesday night, when it was the main target of an assault force totaling some 8,- (Continued on Page 6.)

Eleanor Trimble pushed away the newspaper with a sigh. It all sounded awful, even though America was winning. She could scarcely even imagine what a bombed city in flames would look like, or envisage all those thousands of airplanes, or the dangers faced by the men flying them. All she could do was thank the Good Lord that Robert wasn’t a part of it anymore. No longer would she suffer the anguish of seeing those news reports and wondering if he had been involved, and whether he was one of the dead or missing.

She shifted Carol Ann on her lap and sat back from the breakfast table. Gazing lovingly into the little face, Eleanor told her baby once more that her daddy was safe now and would soon be home. Carol Ann, with no idea what she was talking about, smiled back, gurgling happily.

Ruth, Robert’s mother, was standing by to take the baby in her arms while Eleanor got ready to go to work. It was a comfort to both of them to know that Robert was out of danger for the rest of the war, and that his daughter wouldn’t grow up without a father. It was about time somebody in this family had a father they could love and always recall with affection. It had been such a weight of worry for Robert. But it was all past now. He was safe.

He had to go back to Kraków. There was no way around it; he was needed there.

The very thought filled him with dread. Only a few days had passed since his visit to the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and his mind had had no chance at all to come to terms with what he had seen there. The thought of going back to that area, even if only to the city of Kraków, was unbearable. He had tried to draft a report on the visit for Eastern Command, but it had all been too vivid. The frozen bodies were the worst. Even more than the pathos of the barely living survivors, it was the skeletal corpses, bent and huddled in the shadowy interior of the shed and lying in the freezing slush on the ground. Especially the children. There was nothing in all of creation so pitiable, so bitter, as that. Attempting to articulate the bestiality of what he had witnessed, to convey even a fraction of that briefest of glimpses into the abyss, made him break up inside.

To the world, Captain Robert Trimble presented a placid, even cheerful, countenance, never short of a smile. But inside, the wounds were raw, not yet hardened into scar tissue. Combat had left deep marks on him. Mission after flak-torn mission had stretched his nerves and left them permanently taut. And now he was learning that the world was even worse than he had believed it to be. He had to hold it in, fight his way past it. And to do that, he had to go on with his mission, and go wherever it took him. Right now, that meant back to Kraków, where the OSS agents had identified several groups needing help.

After seeing his first batch of POWs safely off from Lwów, Robert had briefly felt heartened, and he hurried back to the hotel, packed up his kit and a big batch of rations, then headed for the airfield on the outskirts of the city. He had official, aboveboard business to attend to, which would take him a big part of the way to Kraków and enable him to make use of Russian transportation. There was a crash-landed aircrew from the 96th Bomb Group in need of evacuation at Staszów. Eastern Command had told them to hang in there while an officer was sent to pick them up. Normally it would take a lot longer—at least a week or more—to arrange an evacuation, but Captain Trimble was nearby, and he needed his cover story. Whoever they were, they were lucky guys.

With the grudging assistance of the Soviet officer who served as interpreter, NKVD escort, and watcher (still upset about Robert’s sudden disappearance from Lwów the previous day), Robert secured a place on a Soviet flight going west.

The flight from Lwów to Rzeszów—the nearest airfield to the crash-landing site—was only about eighty miles, but from there it was fifty miles more to Staszów, along winding roads in a Russian jeep, with only his escort to keep him company. It was a long journey for a man who’d had hardly any sleep.

Robert was driven to a farm about five miles outside Staszów, close to the spot where the B-17 had made its forced landing. There was a sense of déjà vu—the snow-dusted homestead just like the one near Lwów that he had trekked to in the dusk. But in every other way it was as different as it could be. For one thing, the place was full of Russians, who appeared to be there to guard the American flyers.

Lieutenant Tillman and his officers were accommodated in the house, and the enlisted men in the barn, accompanied by Russian minders. It was almost a shock to see the crew—they looked so clean and well dressed. Not quite fit to go out on a date, maybe, but fresh and healthy in their rumpled flying gear, clean-shaven and cheerful. The contrast with the ex-POWs couldn’t have been more stark. But they were still delighted to see a fellow American climb out of the jeep, and they greeted Robert as if he were their brother, shaking his hand and telling him over and over how good it was to see him. They were also pleased to see his sack of rations. The Russians had fed them, but it wasn’t much.

Robert couldn’t help feeling a bond with the nine men—a sensation he hadn’t felt since leaving Debach, of being among combat airmen, bomber boys, with all the shared experiences that implied. But they seemed so young to him now, even though there was barely any difference in age. Tillman himself was short and slightly built, and as fresh-faced and bright-eyed as a schoolboy. He had the cockiness of a born hotshot who believed he was hell on wings. Only a few months ago Robert had been much the same.

The Russians and the Polish family were sorry to see their American friends depart. They had grown close in the past few days. Again Robert witnessed the cordiality of Russians toward people they saw as comrades in arms, and marveled at the contrast with the flip side, the harsh detestation of anyone outside that group. One of the Russians, a rather lugubrious, gentle-looking captain with the Order of the Red Star pinned to his tunic (Soviet soldiers wore their medals even in combat), had given Tillman a signed photo of himself. He’d written an inscription on the back in English: “A token in remembrance for friends in fight against German Nazis.”

Some of the American sergeants weren’t quite so fond of the Russians, claiming that their soft cotton underwear had been filched by soldiers while they were bathing in the cedar tub in the yard. There was also some tension with the Russians because of the way they regarded the Poles. Tillman and his men had been warned not to mix with the locals; they ignored the advice, and found that most of the Poles detested and feared the Russians, and dreamed of escape to America or England.

Of all the farewells, the most heartfelt was from the Polish farmer’s family. Their son Tadeusz was an airman too, far away in England, and they had lost touch with him during the German occupation. Tadeusz Kratke had been a fighter pilot in the Polish Air Force and had fought in the defense of Warsaw in 1939. Escaping the country after the German and Soviet conquest, he had made his way to France, and eventually to Britain, where he joined the RAF. The family believed that Tadeusz was based somewhere near London, but they were hazy about English geography and they’d had no word of him for three years.

Seizing her opportunity, the farmer’s young daughter had written a letter to her beloved brother, and she pressed it into Lieutenant Tillman’s hands, imploring him to deliver it. Your colleagues in trade from America are our guests, she wrote. They are going to London in a few days, maybe my letter will reach you. Beloved Tadzik, thanks to the Highest God we are glad of peace and good health, still living on the old place. We are uneasy about you. . . . Embracing with love, your sister, parents, and Hela.

In order that the Americans should recognize him if they found him, she gave them a photograph of Tadeusz: dashing in Polish flying gear, he was a fine-looking, boyish young man with a huge sunshine grin; just the sort who would be idolized by his kid sister.

Pocketing their missives and mementoes, Lieutenant Tillman and his crew took their leave of their Polish hosts. To Robert’s eyes the departure from the homestead was about as different as could be from the last one he had witnessed. A happy parting of friends. The number of men was similar, though; now that their custodial duty was over, the Russian soldiers were going back to their barracks at Staszów, and they piled aboard the transports along with the ten Americans.

The vehicles rumbled off down the icy farm track, the family standing at the gate to wave them off. The young girl was breathless with joy at the prospect of being in touch with her brother again.

Unfortunately, the Kratke family had been right to be concerned about Tadeusz. The letter never found him. It remained in the possession of Lieutenant Arnold Tillman for the rest of his life, along with the photograph of the smiling young Polish pilot. In March 1942, almost three years earlier, while his family was still living under Nazi occupation, Tadeusz’s Spitfire squadron had been sent on an escort mission to France. Forced to turn back due to bad weather, and with hardly any fuel left, they found the southwest of England blanketed in thick fog. It was impossible to locate their airfield; the pilots couldn’t even see the ground. One flew right over the airfield at low altitude without knowing it was there. Ten of the twelve Spitfires crash-landed; the squadron commander hit a cliff and was killed. Flying Officer Tadeusz Kratke crashed badly and was pulled from the wreckage injured and almost blinded. It was said that his face was so cut up, it lived up to his name (kratke means “grille” or “checkered pattern”). By the end of 1944, his squadron had been posted to Belgium, and he was no longer a part of it.

Whether he ever returned home to the farm near Staszów, whether his sister and parents ever saw him again, is not known. Most Polish veterans did not go back to Poland. By the end of the war, the country was no longer the same homeland they had left behind, and expatriates who had served with the Western Allies were regarded with suspicion by the Communist authorities, as a potential source of nationalist resistance. This was not the country the Polish veterans had fought for, that they had been driven from in 1939, and to which they had yearned to return in triumph. Most of them turned their backs on it in bitterness and regret, feeling that they had been betrayed by the Allies with whom they had served, who had signed away their independence at Yalta.

When the convoy of vehicles reached the town of Staszów, Robert parted from his new friends and went on with the Russians. He still had his onward journey to make and would have to bunk at a Red Army barracks that night. He gave Lieutenant Tillman and his men a per diem and a share of the rations he’d brought, and told them to take his ride back to Rzeszów. There would be a C-47 there to take them on to Lwów. Robert gave them directions to the Hotel George, where an officer from Eastern Command would collect them and arrange a flight to Poltava.

In exchange for their rescue, Tillman’s crew bestowed a new nickname on Robert Trimble. In their conversation during the journey from the farm, Robert had mentioned that the people of Eastern Command, aware that they were way off the map of public consciousness, called themselves the “Forgotten Bastards of the Ukraine.” Somebody—Robert couldn’t recall who—suggested that it didn’t suit him; he was more like the Fighting Bastard of the Ukraine.

It was the kind of thing men say when they’re young and flushed with optimism, and whoever said it had no idea that they were talking to the one member of Eastern Command who really was on the front line, with a battle to fight. Captain Trimble hoped he could live up to the nickname. He believed in that minute that there was no length he wouldn’t go to to save the vulnerable and defy Soviet interference. As long as they didn’t kill him, he would go on until everyone was free.

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Next: 8. KASIA