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




Ruth Trimble stood by the parlor window, her little granddaughter clutched in her arms. Together they peered up and down the length of Hummel Avenue, looking out for the paperboy. It wasn’t something they did every day, but today was a bit special.

Here he came, pedaling his bicycle along the sidewalk under the trees, head down against the sleety drizzle. As he flashed past, the folded Evening News sailed across the small front yard and landed with a thud on the porch. Ruth stepped out, scooped it up, and hurried back into the warmth.

Setting Carol Ann down, Ruth shook the slightly soggy paper open and started eagerly scanning the columns. On page 4 she found what she was looking for, and sat back with a contented sigh.

LEMOYNE, Feb. 22. Mrs. Robert Trimble, 815 Hummel Avenue, has received word that her husband, Captain Trimble, has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Previously, he was awarded the Air Medal and two Oak Leaf clusters. He was stationed in England and is now in the Far Eastern War Theater. . . .

Ruth frowned at that last sentence. Eleanor had clearly told the reporter that it was “Eastern,” not “Far Eastern.” But maybe the Harrisburg Evening News wasn’t aware that there were Americans in Russia. Everyone was obsessed with the Far East and Germany; the news was all about Iwo Jima and the push to the Rhine, and nobody paid any attention to obscure little corners of Eastern Europe.

Eleanor had been so startled when the letter came; it looked so official, and she thought for a terrifying minute that it portended something awful. It was just over a year since her brother Howard had been killed in combat, and Eleanor was jittery over every communication.

The citation said that the medal was awarded to Robert because he had “distinguished himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” It was a belated recognition of his service as a pilot with the 493rd Bomb Group.

Heroism . . . extraordinary achievement . . . Ruth recalled the distraught boy he had once been, his heart breaking when his father abandoned them. It hadn’t been so many years ago. He’d been forced to grow up fast, and just look at him now! As with so many other young boys who’d been transformed into men, it was a wonder what he was able to bear, and how much he was expected to give for his country.

Ruth wondered where her boy was this minute: whether he was as safe as she and Eleanor hoped, whether he was warm and comfortable, and what he was thinking about.

Scooping the snow out from a deep drift at the base of a tree, Robert fashioned a burrow about three feet deep and five feet long. Wrapping his bedroll around him, he fastened it at his middle, pulled up the fur-lined hood of his parka, and crawled into the burrow, curling into the confined space and pulling his pack after him to close off the hole.

At last he was out of the savage wind that was whipping across the frozen fields. His stiffened limbs began to relax, and the warmth he had built up in his core by trekking into the forest and digging the burrow spread to his extremities.

Clicking his pocket flashlight on, he rummaged in his pockets for the D-ration candy bars he had stashed there. With his head cradled on the wall of his cave, he unwrapped an almond Hershey bar and munched it down. Cheeks still bulging with chocolate, he unwrapped another. With the cold and the exertion, his body craved calories, and it was hard to stop once he started. Restraint had to be exercised. There were others who needed the nourishment more than he did. His heavy pack was stuffed with K- and D-rations, but he guessed from experience that it wouldn’t be enough.

Getting out of Kraków hadn’t been difficult. He was short on time because of the diversion to Staszów, so he hadn’t even bothered checking into the hotel; he’d simply paid for a ride out of town. This time he’d created a diversion by making conspicuous arrangements for transportation to pick him up from the front of the hotel. Meanwhile he slipped out of a side entrance. The bird dog who’d been with him since Rzeszów didn’t even know he’d left the building. At this stage in his mission, the NKVD still had no suspicion that Captain Trimble was doing anything other than authorized aircrew recovery operations. However, the more frequently he disappeared, the more likely they were to guess he was up to something. This was a mission that was going to get harder as it went along.

Finishing off his second candy bar, Robert put his mittens back on and settled down to try and get some sleep.

As so often in this environment—as so often for all the scattered people in the world—his thoughts drifted homeward, and he wondered what the women in his life would be doing this minute. Eleanor would be finishing work, riding the bus across the Market Street Bridge, the endless line of lanterns flicking hypnotically past the windows. In the house on Hummel Avenue, lamps would be alight in the windows, casting a warm glow onto the street, and his mother would be lighting the stove and starting the dinner, and . . . and he almost saw his father sitting at the kitchen table, his tie loosened, leafing through the evening paper. But he wasn’t in the picture anymore. That was an image from a long-dead era. Instead there was the figure that Robert couldn’t quite see—the tiny shape of the child.

What did she look like? What was this life that had come from him but that he had never seen? It was no good—he couldn’t see her, couldn’t conjure the feelings that he imagined ought to be there when he thought of her. All he had was a kind of longing that he could do nothing with.

But he could picture the house, and picture Eleanor going up the steps to the lighted porch. The lights—the lanterns on the bridge and the glowing windows of the houses along the street—evoked the very essence of home. In blacked-out England there were no lamps in the street, there was no welcoming glow in the windows. In Poland, you rarely saw a town at night; it was too dangerous to be out after dark.

. . . And so he thought of home. And in the comfort of those thoughts, he found sleep at last.

He awoke a little after dawn to discover that there had been a fresh fall of snow during the night, and the clouds had cleared. Pushing his pack ahead of him, Robert emerged from his burrow into a brightening world. Light was growing among the trees, and the sky was a pale blue-gray. The forest was filled with a close, hugging silence, in which the creaking of snow was like the grinding of boulders.

It was amazing how well you could sleep in a snow hole if you were tired enough. Rubbing his eyes and loosening his limbs, Robert packed up his bedroll, hoisted his pack, and set off through the forest. He had a map, a compass, a grid reference, and a goal. That was all he needed. So long as there was something to aim at, something good to do today, he felt he could win through this war, and find his way home.

He hadn’t been walking long when he saw movement among the trees ahead. Two men, wearing the familiar ragged, bulked-out clothing of refugees, were standing in a clearing, faces turned toward the sky, apparently taking a moment to enjoy this rare interlude of morning sunshine.

Robert approached, thinking they must be from the POW group he was looking for, despite the fact he was still some way from the rendezvous. But as he came closer, he noticed that one of the men had on blue-striped trousers beneath his overcoat—the same kind of stuff he recalled seeing on the inmates in the camp at Birkenau. The Auschwitz complex was only a few miles from here.

Suddenly the men noticed him, and began to back away nervously. Robert called out, “I’m American! It’s okay!” They didn’t seem to understand. Robert guessed that all they were seeing was the military clothing and the Red Army fur hat. “American,” he said again, pointing to himself and then spreading his hands to indicate his peaceful intentions.

The men stopped and let him catch up with them. One of them spoke a little English, and Robert managed to make them understand that he wasn’t a Russian, and that he was looking for prisoners of war. A light of recognition dawned, and they broke out smiling. Shaking him eagerly by the hand, they indicated that he should follow them.

Neither of the men was in good health—one was a little unsteady on his feet and had a racking cough—so it was a slow trek through the woods. Robert reckoned they had gone a quarter mile or so when they came to a scatter of abandoned farm buildings. The two men called out a greeting, and Robert watched in astonishment as, in ones and twos, timid, ghostly figures emerged from the broken-down doorways of the sheds. There must have been dozens of them, some wearing the distinctive striped Auschwitz clothing, most dressed in the usual mess of salvaged coats and filthy-looking blankets.

It gave Robert a shiver when one of the men stepped forward and spoke in English, with an American accent. It never ceased to seem alien, hearing the voices of New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, issuing from the mouths of emaciated, peasant-clad ghosts in some out-of-the-way corner of Poland.

Robert explained that he was here to help get them out of the country. The news was received like a divine revelation. The POWs had no idea that the outside world knew about them. (The OSS agents, who couldn’t compromise their own cover, did not necessarily contact the ex-prisoners they gathered intelligence about and gave out minimal information about their purpose.) Robert asked how many of the people here were POWs. He’d been notified to expect a group about the same size as the one near Lwów, but there must be twice that number here.

Only about half of them were Allied POWs. The rest were refugees from Nazi labor camps, as well as some Jews who had escaped from the SS during the terrible death marches from Auschwitz in January. Some of the POWs were also death-march escapees, having cut loose from the march out of Stalag VIII-B at Lamsdorf, about fifty miles to the west. Aside from the American and British POWs, there were civilian ex-prisoners. Their nationalities were mixed: French, Dutch, a handful of Poles. They had attached themselves to the POWs in the hope that they might help them to salvation, not realizing that the Americans were as firmly trapped in Soviet Poland as everyone else.

They had been living on a small stock of canned food looted from a storehouse in an abandoned camp, but it was almost exhausted. Robert looked at the circle of faces—some despondent and sick, others regarding him with hope and delight—and felt a flutter of panic at the thought of sneaking this many into the city and onto a train.

But there was no time to waste on worry. It was a long way back to Kraków, and with fifty mouths to feed, Robert’s supply of rations wasn’t going to last to the end of the day. He explained that he only had a little food but could give them plenty of money to buy more. He could only take responsibility for the Allied POWs, but he was willing to put all the civilian men who wanted to leave Poland onto a train for Odessa along with them. From there, they would be on their own. He had no idea whether the Soviets, or indeed the Americans or the British, would give them passage out.

There was a short discussion among the civilians, and they agreed enthusiastically that they should go with the American. There was an outburst of jubilation, and Robert was shaken by the hand and embraced. Tears of joy were shed at the good providence that had brought them this opportunity to escape from this frozen hell.

Amid the joy, there was anxious muttering. Some asked, “What about the women?”

“Which women?” somebody asked.

“In the camp, of course,” said somebody else.

“And the little ones,” someone added.

A few voices were raised in protest, arguing that if they were to make it to Kraków they needed to get going now and not waste time with trifles. Other voices spoke angrily against them.

Bewildered, and with a rising anxiety, Robert was persuaded to go with a small group of men to meet these women. Another mysterious walk ensued, across fields and woods. He could feel the situation slipping out of his control and wondered what surprises were still in store for him—an extremely unpleasant one, it turned out.

The trek brought the little party to the edge of an industrial area and a road that led to a concentration camp. It looked just like the one at Birkenau, with layers of barbwire fencing surrounding rows of barracks blocks, but much smaller, just a fraction of the size. The place had been abandoned; there wasn’t a soul about. The men led Robert in through the broken-down gate. He had prayed that he would never have to set foot in such a place again. With a rising sense of horror, heart thumping, he walked among the barracks, some of them burned, some demolished. Unlike his visit to Birkenau, fresh falls of snow had softened the scene a little.

Passing by an open space, Robert noticed a big ditch. The men with him averted their eyes as they passed it. Robert realized that what he had taken for a snow-covered mound of earth beside the ditch was a stack of frozen corpses, sprawled and entangled, naked limbs protruding rigidly. As at the main camp, the work of destroying the survivors and the evidence of the murders had been left half-done by the SS. Robert looked away, feeling sick, and hurried after his guides. They led him to a barracks hut in the middle of the camp, where one of them knocked on the door, called a greeting, and entered, beckoning Robert to follow.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom inside after the glare of the sunlit snow. A long, low table ran the length of the room, and along both walls were wooden structures that looked like shelves in a freight warehouse. The place seemed deserted, but then he noticed some faces looking out from one of the shelves. Women, together with a couple of children. More female faces appeared, peering at the stranger.

“They come with us?” one of the men asked Robert.

At a rough count, he figured there were twenty-five of them. He already had fifty people to manage. It wouldn’t be possible. No, he couldn’t do it; it could put the whole operation in jeopardy. But how could he tell them that? He glanced around at the miserable interior of the hut, and an image of the bodies outside flashed into his head. He looked again at the faces of the women and children.

“They come with us,” he said.

Fishing the last half-dozen chocolate bars and the remaining tins of cheese and luncheon meat out of his pack, Robert handed them out to his companions, who began dividing them up into tiny portions and distributing them among the people.

Since he and the men had shepherded the women and children from the camp and met up with the others, the ragged column of refugees had covered several miles across the snowbound countryside. They could only go as fast as the children and the sick could manage. It wasn’t fast enough. The food was gone, and they still had a long way to go. Robert figured he could head to the nearest town and buy food, but time was pressing, and he couldn’t afford to attract too much attention.

He walked around restlessly, watching the gathered people as they savored their morsels of food. His attention was caught by a small knot of people gathered near a young woman sitting on the ground with a bundle of rags lying next to her. Looking closer, Robert realized that the rags were wrapped around a baby. The woman was listless, exhausted physically and emotionally. The people with her were trying to talk to her, but there was no response. The baby appeared to be asleep; the tiny face was gaunt, with a bluish tinge.

She was a girl, somebody said in answer to Robert’s query, born in the camp. Her name was Kasia. Robert picked up the bundle of thin rags. Kasia stirred and opened her eyes, then closed them again. This wasn’t a healthy infant. Even to Robert it was obvious that she was on the threshold of death. Quickly he took off his thick woollen muffler. Discarding the rank blanket she was wrapped in, he wound the muffler round the little body, and placed her inside his parka, against his chest. She seemed to revive a little, opening her eyes, and this time seemed to see him. There was a ghost of a smile.

A woman explained that Kasia’s mother had too little milk; she was sick and had lost the will to live.

It was time to move on. The weak were helped to their feet by the strong, and the trek resumed. Kasia’s mother was helped along by some of the other women, while Robert kept the baby inside his coat. Her eyes had closed, and he prayed that she could cling on to life. Maybe they could get medical help in Kraków. Eastern Command’s money would buy the best possible aid. But they had to get there first, before darkness fell.

As he walked, Robert was hard-pressed to keep his emotions in hand. Every so often he glanced down to check that Kasia was still breathing, and each time he couldn’t keep the thoughts of home out of his mind. Thousands of miles away, Eleanor would be holding their baby in her arms, chuckling and playing peekaboo. And the baby, plump and rosy-cheeked, would smile back, unaware that there were such things in the world as war, and death, and camps, and starvation, and . . . and save for an accident of birth, this could be Carol Ann here in his coat, emaciated and close to death; this could be Eleanor trudging along listlessly, unconscious that her flesh and blood was dying beside her.

All the while, Robert felt these people’s overwhelming hopelessness. He thought he’d had it bad when his father left, but he was wrong. These people still survived when there was nothing left to live for. And he wondered how they could ever feel normal again, with their families and homes all dispersed and destroyed.

There was nothing he could do but hold baby Kasia to him and keep walking with the others—and follow the plan.

An hour later, they reached the main road. There was a farm where transport had been prearranged. The farmer was known to be anti-Russian; he had been contacted by one of Robert’s agents and had agreed to put his cattle truck at their disposal. He was a little surprised to see the number of people who showed up, and that they weren’t just Americans. But he recovered and brought out his truck.

With some difficulty everyone was loaded aboard, and the truck pulled out onto the road to Kraków. It was a short distance, but a slow, laborious journey. Eventually, as darkness was falling, the truck reached the outskirts of town. It pulled over, and the people dismounted, stiff and exhausted. Robert thanked the farmer and offered him money as a reward, but of course it was refused.

It wouldn’t be safe to go into town now. Kraków was close to the front line still, so the town garrison would be much more alert to curfew-breaking and treat it even more violently than they did in Lwów. So the men and women all found places to huddle up, away from the road, and wait for morning. They were accustomed to it. With luck, they wouldn’t have to endure it anymore after tonight. Robert entrusted Kasia to one of the women. In the morning he would attempt to put them all aboard the Odessa-bound train.

At dawn, the people roused themselves for one more walk.

Robert went alone into the city and made his way to the railroad station. His refugees had been instructed to wait awhile and then begin following him in small groups of no more than two or three at a time, setting out at intervals. That should give them the best chance of not arousing the suspicions of Russians sentries; and if some were stopped, others might still get through. Unlike Lwów, the railroad station in Kraków was right in the heart of the city, so it might be harder to reach.

Arriving at the station, Robert bought the tickets and waited anxiously. Gradually the men, women, and children drifted in. Miraculously, none had been stopped. There were Russian soldiers at the station, but they didn’t seem to object; as long as the American officer was responsible, they didn’t care what he did with the refugees. (Had they known that there were POWs in the party, it might have been different.) Kraków’s proximity to the front line made it a more dangerous place to be at night, but it also meant that there was a constant flow of refugees—mostly Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians—passing through. And it meant that the NKVD had less of a foothold. There was a lag between the movement of the Red Army’s front line and the appearance of the full apparatus of state security. As Robert would learn, in some towns it was surprisingly easy to get Russian approval for channeling liberated prisoners to the railroad—until the NKVD moved in and leaned on the town commandants. After that the barriers would come down; there would be no more blind eyes.

For a second time, Robert went through the happy ceremony of departure, accepting the hugs and blessings and fond farewells and watching the train as it steamed out of the station, beginning the long haul to Odessa and freedom.

Over the next couple of days, he went through the ritual several more times. At least one of his contact agents was still in the area; seizing the opportunity presented by the circumstances in Kraków, the agent dispatched small groups to the edge of town, where Robert would pick them up and put them through the same routine, drifting inconspicuously through the city to the station. Most were POWs, but there were a few refugees from the death camps as well. He lost count of the numbers but figured that he must have put at least a hundred and fifty souls aboard trains during those couple of days at Kraków.

But the soul he had most wanted to bring to freedom—the ticket he had most wanted to buy—was not among them. Baby Kasia had not made it through that cold night on the outskirts of the city. Robert’s heart had come close to breaking as they laid her to rest, still wrapped in his scarf, on a secluded patch of ground near the roadside and raised a little cairn of stones over her. She had found a different kind of freedom from the pain of the world.

The little stock of rations was long gone, and his money vest was almost empty. It was time to go back to Poltava and replenish his supplies. The thousands of dollars Robert had brought had been spent in a few days; he would need to bring more next time. Altogether, the money had set almost two hundred people on the road to freedom, but there must be thousands more out there.

Robert had almost completely forgotten about the bird dog who’d accompanied him from Rzeszów and was surprised to find him still at the hotel. Like his predecessor in Lwów, the man was annoyed at being abandoned, and probably worried about his neck if his superiors found out. Robert spun him a tale about following up a report on a downed bomber which had turned into a wild goose chase, and the man seemed satisfied.

The bird dog got them places on a flight to Lwów, where they managed to pick up one of the regular Russian transports going to Poltava. Robert had a hard time believing that less than ten days had passed since he’d taken off from the base, still confused, innocent, and rather naive for a combat veteran.

When he gave his various reports to Colonel Hampton, Major Kowal, and Captain Fitchen, it was difficult to recall some details, and impossible not to fixate on others. Describing the inside of the Birkenau camp, he broke down, and had to pause and collect himself before going on. It wasn’t just what he’d experienced personally in Poland that had affected him, it was what he had learned about the world and about human nature. Something in him had altered, and would never be quite the same again.

Kowal and Hampton had seen for themselves some of the things Robert described—the atrocities committed by Russian troops against Polish citizens, in particular—and sympathized with the emotions he felt. But Auschwitz was altogether outside their experience.

To Robert’s surprise, Hampton told him that he would be taking a break from his mission. Hopes were high at the Military Mission that the Soviets had had a change of heart about POWs. Colonel Wilmeth and Colonel Kingsbury, having been kept confined to Poltava for the past ten days, had been joined two days ago by a second small team from Moscow, led by a Major Paul Hall, which was intended to go to Odessa and inspect the reception facilities for POWs there. The Soviets had blocked Major Hall as well. However, word had now come through that both teams were definitely going to be allowed to proceed. A Russian plane was being provided to take Colonel Wilmeth’s party to Lublin in Poland, and Major Hall would be flown to Odessa. Both officers were busily preparing the huge quantities of equipment and supplies that would be needed.

It sounded too good to be true, but the Americans had decided to treat the Russian concession as being in good faith. Meanwhile, Captain Trimble was going back into Poland with a team of his own—a salvage team. Lieutenant Tillman’s B-17 was still on the ground at Staszów. Robert knew the location, was familiar with the general area, and had been commended by his former commanding officer as a pilot who was skilled at getting bombers into the air from tight spots.

Robert didn’t know what to think. He suspected that the Russians wouldn’t play nice for long, and his heart went out to all those people who would remain stranded while he was tinkering with broken bombers.

There was a little piece of consolation. Having lagged behind him all the way from USSTAF headquarters via the War Department and England, the news finally caught up with him—he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. A token of appreciation for thirty-five combat missions’ worth of outstanding service.

Robert’s spirits couldn’t be kept low for too long; he was cheered to discover that Lieutenant Tillman and his crew were still at Poltava, as large as life and full of beans. They were still waiting for the transport that would take them on the circuitous route back to England. They greeted Robert even more like an old friend than they had at Staszów. Tillman had a camera, and was making a record of his adventure. He snapped Robert’s picture on the step outside the Operations Office. Robert, enjoying the atmosphere of bonhomie, gave the camera a big smile, but the weariness in his eyes couldn’t be disguised.

A dollar bill was produced—possibly one of the ones Robert had given them—and made into a short snorter, passing from hand to hand for everyone to put their signatures on. The tradition had begun back in the 1920s but had caught on in a big way in World War II. A traditional short snorter was meant to commemorate a journey by air; everyone on board would sign the bill, and the owner would preserve it. During the war, servicemen had begun using them as autograph books, picking up the signatures of people they met on their travels, scrawled any which way, all over the back and front of the bill.

Tillman signed the front “Lt A. A. Tillman, Air Corps,” and copilot Stan Neese added his name beside it. Next came navigator Cornelius F. Daly, squeezed into the gap along the top edge. Robert inscribed “R. M. Trimble, Capt. A.C.” on the back, and in the margin, in commemoration of the rescue from Staszów, he added “Fighting Bastard of the Ukraine—25 Feb 45.”

Only the officers signed the snorter. (There were social barriers even among combat airmen.) Robert didn’t notice who had produced the bill, and didn’t see who kept it. The snorter went on its way, gathering more signatures, and eventually vanished and was forgotten, along with the other human minutiae of the war.

That day in 1945, Robert was again conscious of the gap that separated him from these other young men. Horsing around, posing for pictures, they seemed so carefree. Physically they were hardly more than boys, with the innocence of childhood still in them; but they were also men of war. Their bombs had inflicted death and devastation. They had seen friends die; they had faced death themselves and withstood it, and would go on to face it again and again before this war was done, and maybe succumb. And yet they were still youths at heart, each man believing himself the immortal center of his own universe.

It was only when you saw the suffering and the aftermath up close, lived among it, and knew that your own world and everything in it was just as vulnerable to the inferno—only then did you discover your place and your purpose. Robert Trimble had been to the abyss, and looked over the edge, and could never see anything the same way again.