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

Previous: 9. NIGHT OF THE COSSACKS
Next: 11. SUFFER THE LOST PRISONERS

10.

RUSSIAN ROULETTE

Memorable as it had been, the night of the Cossacks was best left out of the report. Skipping discreetly over it, Robert inserted a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter and continued his sanitized version of the narrative:

The next day quarters were arranged at another Polish house, and the remaining nights were spent there.

This time they ensured that the Russians didn’t know about the arrangement.

By the time Maiya and the Russian crew returned from Staszów—having walked all the way—it was one o’clock in the afternoon, and the Americans’ hangovers had faded. This turned out to be the pattern every day (the late arrival of the Russians, not the hangovers). Robert suggested they get up earlier in the morning. They were supposed to be helping with the salvage operation, but couldn’t be much use if they only put in half a day’s work each day. But nothing changed, and in customary Soviet fashion they contributed more in the way of obstruction and irritation than practical aid.

Meanwhile, Robert and his crew got on with the task of making the B-17 airworthy. They walked over to the field, and there she was, the nameless “687,” right where Tillman had left her, with her wheels in a ditch and her Plexiglas nose among the trees. An inspection showed that work needed to be done on the engines, props, and landing gear, all of which had suffered damage either in combat or in the forced landing. Three engines were dead, and the fuselage was peppered with flak holes, some as big as baseballs.

With limited tools, no lifting gear, no transportation or power, it was going to be a hard slog. And the weather was deteriorating too. The sky, which had been bright for a couple of days, was growing sullen with snow.

As pilot, Robert’s second concern was how he was going to get this bird off the ground once it was patched up. The field it was in was no good at all: far too short. He searched around and found a neighboring field that might be just about big enough—if they were lucky. In order to get there the Fort would have to be taxied, which would burn up precious fuel. Also, between this field and the other was a ditch, which would have to be crossed somehow. Robert assigned the Russians the task of building a small bridge across it. And a path would need to be cut through the trees.

There was also the C-47 to be repaired, thanks to Roklikov. The flaps could be fixed in situ, but the elevators couldn’t. New ones would have to be flown in from Poltava. Maiya said they could be fixed at the Soviet air base at Rzeszów, but unfortunately the bridges between here and there had been blown. And they had no transportation anyway. Maiya asked Sergeant Picarelli, Robert’s crew chief, if he could give the Russians some oil from the C-47 so that they could fix up a truck they knew about in Staszów, which they could use to make their daily journey in reasonable time.

Robert overheard the suggestion, and intervened. Not a chance. Every drop of oil was going to be needed for the planes. He had learned (from the Polish farmer with whom they were staying, although he kept that quiet) that Russian soldiers had been coming at night and stealing oil and gasoline from the stranded bomber. The Americans actually caught them at it one night; the soldiers were threatened with arrest and stayed away. But oil would need to be drained from the C-47 to replenish the B-17. There wasn’t any to spare for trucks.

“How much oil?” Maiya asked at the prompting of the Russian mechanic.

“Forty gallons,” Robert said. “Ten gallons per engine.”

“That is too much,” said Maiya, translating the mechanic’s reply. “You do not need that much.”

“I have considerable experience with B-17s and Wright engines,” Robert said firmly, “and so does my crew chief. You do not.”

Over the course of the following week, poor Maiya was the mouthpiece for a regular stream of interference and objections from the Russian crew. She even disputed the field that Captain Trimble had chosen for takeoff, insisting that it was impossible to take off from there. Although he had grave doubts of his own, Robert assured her that it would be fine.

He had walked it several times, pacing out the distance. It was about a thousand feet long, down a slope, leveling off in the last hundred feet, at the end of which was a frozen stream with a bank about two feet high. Robert had flown off short runs before, on turf and soft surfaces, but nothing as short as this. What the hell have I taken on here? he asked himself. I’m an idiot. One thousand feet. A B-17 Flying Fortress, fully laden with crew, guns, ammunition, fuel, and bombs, weighed in at sixty-five thousand pounds, and needed thirty-five hundred feet of good runway to get airborne. Even unladen, a Fortress was a monster, and would have trouble taking off in under twelve hundred feet—on turf it would need more. And on a surface like this one, with eight inches of snow . . . it was anybody’s guess.

As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, there were limits to how good a repair job could be done. They fixed two of the damaged engines and replaced some propeller blades, but Sergeant Picarelli had discovered that one of the prop shafts was a little bent. There was nothing they could do about that. “She’ll run,” he said, “but she’ll vibrate like hell. Might need to shut her down once you’re airborne.”

So the Fort was going to be underpowered. One thousand feet. It was going to take some skillful piloting. And this Fort was going to have to lose a little weight.

While work on the B-17 was slowly proceeding, an order came through from Poltava—a report of another downed plane that might need retrieving. This one was a little outside Robert Trimble’s experience: a P-51 Mustang fighter. But it was nearby, and needed checking quickly before the Soviets could get a team to it.

Red Army Air Force intelligence was keen to get its hands on all American aircraft types, and had formed top secret test squadrons to evaluate stolen examples. Some aircraft were more prized than others. In general, the US government was liberal about giving aviation technology to the Soviet Union: several aircraft types were supplied to the USSR under Lend-Lease, and the USAAF was generous with technical data on others. But there were exceptions. None of America’s cutting-edge technology (such as the Norden computing bombsight) was made available, and the AAF’s core combat aircraft were likewise off-limits. That included B-17 and B-24 bombers. It also included the new, ultra-secret B-29 Superfortress, which at that time was taking the war to Japan in the Pacific. The Russians would do almost anything to get their hands on a B-29, and by 1945 their spies had already accumulated a lot of data on the type. They were equally determined to capture examples of America’s state-of-the-art fighter, the P-51 Mustang.

The Mustang was a wonder of Anglo-American cooperation. Designed by North American Aviation company, to a British specification, named “Mustang” by the British, and powered by the same Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that drove the Spitfire, the P-51 had become the USAAF’s most successful escort fighter, the only one with the speed and range to take on the Luftwaffe in the farthest reaches of the Reich. Aside from the revolutionary new jet fighters that the British and the Germans were now bringing into service, the Mustang was the most advanced frontline fighter in the world. Whenever one was forced down intact in Soviet territory, there was a race to get to it.

Although the distance from Staszów to the reported landing site wasn’t great, it was much too far to walk. Robert managed to secure transport, and set off with First Sergeant John Matles as interpreter. Maiya and her comrades were left behind, under the watchful eye of Lieutenant Jessee and the repair crew.

In the deteriorating weather, it was a slow journey to the area where the Mustang had supposedly come down. They hadn’t been given precise coordinates, just a local area. After some hours of searching the fields, Captain Trimble and Sergeant Matles hadn’t found any trace of the fighter. Robert wasn’t altogether surprised. Reports of crash-landed aircraft came in all the time from local Soviet units, and were routed to Eastern Command via Moscow. The reports weren’t always reliable, and often salvage teams would go to the landing site and find nothing there. But it was annoying.

By this time, it was too late to travel back. Robert spotted a farmhouse and decided to ask if they could bivouac in the barn. It was a small, poor homestead, just a shabby little house and some outbuildings clustered around a dirt yard with a horse trough. But the farmer was friendly. Waving aside the request to sleep in the barn, he invited the two Americans into the house and gave them a bed.

They paid for his hospitality with news of the war, which he was eager to hear. He lived alone, having lost his wife during the German invasion. They sat long into the evening, talking. The kitchen was cold, with no fire, and it quickly became obvious that the farmer had no food to offer his guests. They offered him a share of the rations they had brought with them. The old man looked embarrassed. Yes, he could use a little, he confessed. He had lost his cow and his chickens recently, and his stock of beets and potatoes from the last harvest was almost gone. Still, at least he had a home, he said, which was more than a lot of Poles could say right now.

While the food was being shared out, Robert took the opportunity to ask about the American plane that was said to have come down near here. Did the farmer know anything about it? No, he didn’t, and he quickly changed the subject. A little later, Robert brought the matter up again; this time the old man pointed out that it was getting late and they should turn in. He brought them a small dish of icy water to wash in, saying apologetically that it was all he had: his well had stopped working, and all his water had to be carried from a stream half a kilometer away.

Robert felt desperately sorry for the old man. His wife gone, and his livestock, his food, his well. It seemed all he had left was his house and himself. From the way things looked to Robert, neither of those seemed likely to survive much longer.

In the morning, the two Americans bade the farmer farewell, having shared their breakfast with him and left him their surplus rations. It might keep him going for a week or two.

As they drove down the cart road from the farm, Robert happened to notice some marks in the snow in the next field: long ruts like the wheel tracks of a small aircraft. Exactly the right size for a single-engine fighter. No sign of a plane, though—just an expanse of snow between the stands of trees with the wheel tracks disappearing into the distance. He pulled up and walked to the gateway.

Following the tracks across the field, the two men came at last to an area where the snow had been trampled down. There were footprints everywhere, and tire tracks from a vehicle too—a large truck had been here. At this spot the aircraft’s wheel ruts came to an end. If this was the Mustang they were looking for, it had long gone, presumably loaded onto the truck. But you wouldn’t be able to maneuver a plane the size of a P-51 through the narrow lanes hereabouts—it would have to be dismantled. Maybe the salvagers had left evidence behind that would identify it. Robert searched the ground, and at last he found it: barely discernible among the trampling, two thin parallel lines of dots melted in the snow, about ten feet long and eight feet apart, with a metallic residue in the bottom. There was no doubting what had caused the grooves: they were the drip runs of molten metal where the wings had been cut off with an oxyacetylene torch.

What had happened to the pilot? To have brought the plane in to land—even the bouncing crash-landing that the tire marks indicated—he could not have been mortally wounded. If the Russian salvagers had taken him away, they hadn’t reported it to Moscow, despite several days having gone by. So what had they done with him? Robert felt he could guess, but without evidence, there was nothing he could do.

Robert looked across the field toward the farm; it was more than half a mile away, on the far side of a copse, but the noise that must have been made here would have been unmissable . . . Robert and Sergeant Matles exchanged a look, then set off back to the homestead.

For a moment they thought the farmer might have fled; there was no answer to their knock on the house door, and he was nowhere to be found in the outbuildings. Then he appeared, struggling along with two buckets of water.

“May we come in?” Robert asked, more formally this time. The old man seemed to sense what they were here for, and motioned for them to come in and sit down.

Once they were settled in the cold kitchen, he began to tell the story that he had withheld the previous night.

About a week ago, he had heard the noise of an airplane passing very low overhead. He hadn’t heard it land. Sometime later, he saw Soviet jeeps passing on his road, headed for the site where he learned later the plane had come down. He knew to remain invisible when the military was near (German or Russian, they were all the same), but he watched from his window as the vehicles passed by, traveling another three-quarters of a mile down the road to the field on the other side of the copse. Not twenty minutes after they had passed, he heard two gunshots.

An hour later, the jeeps came back and stopped at the farmer’s house. The officer in charge banged loudly on the door. The farmer opened it and peered out fearfully. The Russian officer wished to know if the farmer had seen or heard anything unusual recently, such as enemy activity. The farmer said no, which was true. They ransacked his house nevertheless, and of course found nothing. They eyed him sternly once more, and then ordered him not to leave his house until further notice. If he did, he would be shot. The officer got back in his jeep and the little convoy sped off up the road.

The terrified farmer obeyed; all that day and the next he stayed indoors, hardly daring to peep out the window. He had no idea what was happening, and was glad of it. In recent years he had learned the hard way that it was better to see nothing, to know nothing, and to fear the worst. One’s life might depend on it.

Early the next morning, another convoy of military vehicles passed by, heading toward the field on the other side of the copse. Whether they were the same ones or not, the farmer couldn’t tell, but there were two large flatbed trucks with them this time. By the middle of the afternoon, the noises from the field had stopped and there was a sound of motors working hard. Eventually, as the light was growing dim, the old Pole, peeking through a gap in the drapes, was astounded to see one of the large trucks passing by, with the fuselage of an airplane on its flatbed. A moment later, the second truck passed by with two long forms on it—the wings.

What kind of airplane it was, he had no idea. What did he know of airplanes? Nothing. The whole thing was a mystery—hopefully a mystery that was over now, and could be forgotten.

Unfortunately for the farmer, it was not over. A squad of Russian soldiers showed up at his door a few minutes after the trucks had passed by, demanding that he put them up for the night. They were also hungry. They quickly ate whatever meager food he had available, although they did give him some of their rations too; he hoped this was a sign they meant him no harm. After all, he had kept his promise and hadn’t left his house. He spent an uncomfortable, sleepless night huddled under a blanket in front of the kitchen fire, the two Russian officers having taken his bedroom and all his spare bedding.

In the morning, the Russians arose and breakfasted; the officers ordered the farmer to get them water for their ablutions. He went to his well near the house and pumped enough to serve their needs, thinking to himself that they could wash all they wanted and never be clean. Before leaving, the senior officer interrogated him about what he knew or thought he knew. He confessed complete ignorance. The officer looked at him sternly; he was not convinced. Two soldiers seized him by the arms and rushed him out into the yard. On the officer’s orders, some of the other soldiers went into the barn and brought out the farmer’s solitary cow. They asked him again to tell the truth or they would kill his livestock. He again told the truth, that he knew nothing. In front of his eyes they put two bullets into the cow’s head. They wrung the necks of the chickens and left the dead animals where they dropped. They were not done.

They placed a grenade next to the water pump, pulled the pin, and took cover. The explosion broke the pump and bent the pipe beyond repair. The Russian officer told the farmer that he must not mention anything at all about the events of the last two days; if he did he would suffer the same fate as his animals. Finally, their work done, the soldiers got into their vehicles and sped off up the road.

Ever since, the farmer had lived in fear of the Russians returning to obliterate what was left of his livelihood. They might as well take his life too.

Robert listened to the story in silence as Sergeant Matles translated it. He was saddened, but not surprised. Robert had seen and heard so many heartrending things recently. The man seemed numb, unable to show emotion. It was clear that he was broken, and that all he had left was a proud refusal to lie down and die.

Robert came back to the one remaining question: did the farmer learn anything about the pilot? Without speaking, the old man stood up and motioned for the Americans to follow him. They walked down the dirt road in the direction of the crash site, until they reached the pine copse that stood between the fields. The elderly Pole led them into the woods. About forty feet from the road they came to a small clearing, where a pile of pine branches concealed a freshly dug patch of earth. Removing the branches revealed a low mound about six feet by three. The farmer had discovered it two days ago.

Was this the last resting place of the pilot? If so, was he killed in the crash or murdered? For the time being, the question would have to remain unanswered. The soil was frozen, and they had nothing to dig with. The Russians had “borrowed” the farmer’s tools and never returned them.

They had nothing: no plane, no pilot, no body, no hard evidence that anything at all had happened here. All they had was the word of this old Polish farmer, some marks in the snow, and a patch of dug earth. If the pilot survived the crash-landing, he might have left the scene before the Soviet troops arrived; the “gunshots” could have been anything.

For that matter, even if the pilot was dead, he might not have been shot by the salvagers. There had been cases of stricken American aircrew being mistakenly killed by Soviet troops. Faulty identification and Soviet paranoia were a lethal mix. It was later noted in the official history of Eastern Command that damaged US planes and their crews “were forced to run the whole gamut, including Russian fighter attacks, flak hits, attacks after bailing out, attacks after landing, being shot at or being threatened with shooting . . . mauling and beating” at the hands of Soviet troops who were suspicious of Nazi tricks. Everybody was a potential spy, and life was dirt-cheap.

All Robert could do was radio a report on the incident to Poltava. Right now he had a salvage operation to complete, and his own set of problems with Soviet interference.

Captain Trimble and Sergeant Matles returned to Staszów to find the B-17 almost ready to go.

To bring down the weight, every unnecessary piece of steel had been removed. Every seat other than the pilot’s and copilot’s had been taken out, along with the armor plating in each crew station, the bomb racks, and the navigator’s table. The heavy steel machine-gun mountings had been taken out (the guns themselves were long gone), and the ball turret under the Fort’s belly was unbolted and lowered to the ground. Everything that could be dispensed with had come out, strewing the snow with discarded components.

On the afternoon of the seventh day, the B-17 was as ready as she would ever be. The fuel had been funneled in—400 gallons sloshing pathetically in the aircraft’s vast 2,780-gallon tanks. Enough for around two hours’ flight in good conditions; it wouldn’t get them to Poltava, but there should be enough to make Lwów. On the positive side, the lack of fuel would keep the takeoff weight down. So would the minimal crew, which would be limited to Robert as pilot, Lieutenant Jessee as navigator, Sergeant Picarelli as flight engineer, and Sergeant Matles as passenger. The salvage crew would be flying out in the repaired C-47, once more placing their lives in the hands of God and Lieutenant Roklikov.

Around four o’clock on the last afternoon, with the light fading and dark clouds building, before heading back to their quarters Robert and his team made a final inspection, checking and double-checking every nut and bolt. The repairs to the engines were adequate, but far from perfect. That bent prop shaft would be a real problem.

Their attention was drawn by the sound of vehicles from the road that passed by the bottom of the field. A couple of jeeps pulled up, and a group of Soviet officers got out. They were led by a colonel Robert had never seen before, and accompanied by Maiya. It was clear the colonel wanted to speak to him, so Robert walked down the hill.

Evidently a man of little patience and even littler manners, the colonel was already starting up the hill toward him and began talking when Robert was still a hundred feet from him. Poor Maiya had to jog along behind him, shouting her translations.

“Captain, how is the repair work progressing?”

Robert considered his reply carefully. It might not be a good idea to let them know that the plane was ready to fly, but on the other hand, they might get hostile if they thought the Americans were prolonging their stay in Poland. He opted for the truth: the bomber would be ready to attempt takeoff the next day. He also prevaricated: “But I’m not completely sure yet.”

“You are doing good work, Captain. Are you flying it to Rzeszów first?” the colonel asked.

“No, sir,” Robert said. “The plan is to head straight for Lwów.” As you well know, he thought.

“Indeed.” The colonel nodded, then dropped his little bombshell: “You will of course need to have one of our pilots fly the airplane, as is the rule. You and your men can return with the transport. This will be best for you.”

Robert could hardly believe the gall of it. The colonel’s interpretation of “the rule” was not an officially sanctioned one for salvaged combat aircraft. “Thank you for the offer,” Robert said diplomatically, “but I have strict orders to take this aircraft to Lwów myself, then on to Poltava.”

The Russian looked put out. He wasn’t accustomed to having his orders contradicted by a mere captain. “I will have to check on this,” he said. There was a muttered consultation in Russian between the colonel, his officers, and Maiya. Robert had the distinctly uneasy feeling that he was the subject of their discussion.

Maiya approached him and smiled. “You look tired,” she said. “But happy I guess, since your work is all done.” She was all smiles, and something was different about her. Robert noticed the smell of perfume. Were Red Army women allowed to wear perfume, or just interpreters? She didn’t look half-bad to a homesick soldier. “The colonel has some good news!” she said. The colonel was smiling too. “We have a wonderful offer. As you are to fly away tomorrow, we wish you to be our honored guest for dinner in town. We will arrange for you to spend the night in a hotel. A very good hotel.” Maiya added (and Robert had the strong impression that the words came from her rather than the colonel): “I will personally assure that you are comfortable, Captain. What do you say? We must be getting on, it will be dark soon.”

Robert was mesmerized by the invitation—the thought of good food, a nice hotel, a soft bed . . . and the promise of female attention. For a young, lonely soldier—even a faithfully married one—it was more than flesh and blood could resist. He hesitated.

As he looked into Maiya’s lustrous eyes, a voice echoed in his head. Don’t go with them, it said. He couldn’t place it for a moment, then he remembered it as the voice of one of the OSS agents, that first day at Poltava. They’ll try to get you to go with them. Don’t do it. You will be traveling along, and you’ll pass some woodland. Suddenly they stop the car. “Everybody out! There are Germans there, in the trees!” There will be confusion; you’ll jump out and take cover. Meanwhile, two of their guys circle around behind you. . . . You’ll be found with a bullet in your back, from the “German ambush.” The Soviet authorities will buy it—they’re paranoid about German paratroopers and spies everywhere. And believe it or not, there are pro-German partisan groups in Poland. The Americans might not believe it, but there won’t be a damned thing they can do. . . .

Robert tore his eyes away from Maiya. He looked at the colonel, and the little knot of junior officers and enlisted men behind him. Their faces were impassive. Would they murder him to get their hands on a B-17?

“No,” he said. “Thank you for your offer, but we’ll stay here tonight.”

“Captain, it is late. Come with us now, you’ll be happy you did,” the colonel insisted.

“No thank you, sir.”

The colonel’s face darkened angrily. “I am a colonel; you are only a captain. You must do what I tell you to do. You will come with us now, and tomorrow a Soviet pilot will fly the airplane.”

He turned away for a second and gestured at his men to escort the American captain. Robert, acting on instinct, drew his sidearm; when the colonel turned back he found himself looking into the muzzle of a Colt .45.

“I’m telling you something right now,” Robert said, his voice hard. He leveled the pistol at the colonel’s gut. “I’m not going anywhere with you. But I would invite you to come up right now and talk to all of my men. They’ll say the same. They’ll tell you what we’re here for, and what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna fly this plane out in the morning.”

He stared into the colonel’s astonished, enraged eyes, but there was no reply. Satisfied, he turned his back on the Russians and walked back up the slope toward the Fortress, where his team was watching the drama unfold.

Behind him the colonel yelled furiously, and Maiya translated (leaving out a few ripe curses, Robert guessed): “You’ll hear about this! When you hear, it will be from Moscow! I will report your behavior. I don’t take this kind of talk!”

With his dignity sorely wounded, the colonel marched back to his jeep, his entourage flocking behind him, including Maiya, whose linguistic skills had been sorely tried by the whole episode. It hadn’t been a good day for US-Soviet relations.

Thinking back on the incident later, Robert could hardly believe his own bravado. The colonel was as good as his word; he did report it to Moscow, and the reprimand came back down the line all the way to the US Military Mission. It would do Robert no good to give his side of the story, and so he left it out of his report, along with the night of the Cossacks and the tale of the Mustang and the farmer. He merely noted that there were frequent arguments in which Maiya was caught between his decisions and the desires of the Soviets.

Having made that note, he fed a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter, and went on with his story. He wasn’t done with it yet, not by a long way.

The Americans were on-site early the next morning. After a thorough inspection to ensure that no tampering had occurred in the night, Robert and Sergeant Picarelli installed themselves in the cockpit. Picarelli was a mechanic, not a copilot, but Robert needed him to help manage the aircraft’s engine controls. With mounting apprehension, they began the routine of bringing the sleeping beast back to life. One by one, with gentle coaxing, the engines were started up, coughing and spluttering great clouds of gray smoke and settling down to an uneven grumble that Robert didn’t like the sound of at all. Once they were warm, they were run up to high revs; they showed no sign of seizing or catching fire, so Robert eased back and began the slow, extremely awkward job of taxiing 687 to her takeoff strip.

She was one sad-looking B-17, leaving behind a scatter of discarded parts in the snow. Battle-scarred, with sheets of plywood covering the holes in the fuselage where the gun turrets had been removed, and rags stuffed in the larger flak holes, she didn’t look like much of a prize for either side. They eased her over the little bridge the Russians had built across the ditch, and entered the takeoff field.

With careful use of brakes and throttles, Robert maneuvered the B-17 into position as close to the top field boundary as he could, to maximize the run-up. He swung the nose round to face down the slope, then he and Picarelli locked the brakes and walked the throttle levers up to the stops, opening everything up to maximum emergency power. It was a method used on maximum-load missions, with fuel tanks brim-full and an overload of bombs, when even three-quarters of a mile of concrete runway might be insufficient to get the bird off the floor. Here the bird was stripped to the bone, and they had one-fifth of a mile of ankle-deep snow. With the engines roaring, blowing up a hurricane of snow and whipping branches off the trees, Robert held the control column hard back against his belly, fighting to prevent the Fort pulling herself over on her nose.

“They’re coming!” yelled a voice in his headphones. He glanced out the window and saw two jeeps pulling in at the field entrance. Russian soldiers jumped out and ran toward the plane.

“Brakes off!” Robert ordered. Picarelli released the brake handle, and they both took their feet off the pedals. Anticipating the powerful surge he had experienced countless times before, Robert was startled at the way the lightened Fort leapt forward and raced down the slope. The soldiers, guns raised but not shooting, were left behind instantly. She ate up the space at an alarming rate, and the line of the frozen stream was rushing toward them, jolting and shaking, before they’d even reached minimum takeoff speed. The indicator rose past one hundred miles per hour. For an instant Robert felt they weren’t going to make it—they’d smash into the hedgerow, slide across the field beyond, and end up pancaked against the fifty-foot pines.

The wheels hit the stream bank with a violent jolt that sent the Fort leaping upward. Miraculously, she stayed airborne. Engines howling, she struggled, accelerated, and began to climb. Tucking up her wheels, she cleared the pines, the very tops just brushing her belly.

Robert’s stomach flipped over, and he felt the familiar thrill of flight more intensely than at any time since his training. Once again he marveled at the miracle of the Flying Fortress. As one of his fellow pilots from the 493rd said, recalling the group’s transition from Liberators to B-17s, “After all of the trouble we had getting the B-24s off the ground with three times as long a run, it was a real pleasure to be flying an airplane that seemed to want to fly.”

Captain Trimble kept one eye on the compass as he put the Fort into a gentle bank, turning her onto a bearing for Lwów.

The operation on which they had set out from Poltava just over a week ago was still not over, and Robert’s true mission was about to make an unexpected reappearance.

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