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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13.

RISING TIDE

Hey, Yankee!”

The raucous shout echoed across the busy street. Robert, Lieutenant Barnett, and some of the crew, out for a stroll through Lwów for fresh air and exercise, stopped in their tracks and spun around, startled.

“Yankee!” Two wild-looking men in ragged greatcoats were running across the street toward them, waving their arms. They skidded to a halt in front of the American officers, gasping for breath and blurting out that they were former prisoners of war and in Russian hands and boy were they glad to see some Americans. . . . Robert, glancing past the two men, saw a pair of Russian soldiers hurrying across the street after them, unlimbering their rifles.

The Russians caught up with their charges and tried to intervene. Robert held up a hand, flashed his passport, and ordered them to back off. His ability to deal with Soviets had come on greatly since his first arrival in Poland. They respected the voice of authority, and he was learning how to wield it. It helped that he was becoming a familiar figure around Lwów, and the ordinary Russians believed him to be a man of some importance.

Once the two fugitives had got their breath back, Robert took their names. They were Sergeant Rudolph Vergolina and Jim McNeish, a Scotsman. They had been on the move for weeks since being liberated, and were overflowing with joy at seeing Americans.

This time Robert didn’t even bother with the city commandant. Taking the two men under his wing, he ordered his walking party to about-turn, and walked them back to the hotel. The Russian soldiers tagged along behind, all but forgotten.

Entering the lobby, Vergolina and McNeish experienced the same sense of awe that Beadle and Gould had felt—the warmth and comfort, the exquisite, opulent decor, and the air of Victorian gentility were almost overwhelming. Robert arranged baths and beds for the two men, adding them to his ever-growing tab. It was wonderful to see the joy they took in such simple pleasures as being able to shave and wash with soap and water, and how strange the prospect of sleeping in a real bed seemed to them. When they were cleaned up, they were taken down for dinner, which they ate like animals, scarcely pausing for breath.

Gradually their stories came out. Vergolina did most of the talking. He was a Milwaukee man, and a lively spirit, a fellow of almost irrepressible cheerfulness who seemed to have taken his dreadful experiences in his stride. He was striking to look at, with heavy, pronounced features accentuated by the gauntness from months of near starvation. He’d been a medic in the 2nd Infantry Division, detached to a unit that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Somehow he’d survived the hellfire of the landing and was reunited with his regular platoon, which arrived on D + 1. They were immediately thrown into the ferocious fighting to hold the beachhead. After only a week on French soil, Vergolina was captured when a counterattack by an SS battalion overran his platoon’s position.

Like Beadle, he wound up in Stalag III-C. His experience of the Red Army’s violent liberation was very different from Beadle’s. Herded by the Germans to the rear of the evacuee column, he hadn’t been caught in the deluge of Russian mortar and machine-gun fire that fell on the head of the column as it marched out of the camp. He only saw the aftermath later—the dozens of POWs lying dead and wounded in the snow around the gate. Entering the camp, the Russian soldiers went methodically from building to building, shooting the handful of Germans who’d been caught there. A squad also went into a barracks block that had been set aside for the dozens of Russian POWs who had contracted tuberculosis during a recent epidemic. Bursts of submachine-gun fire came from the building, then the squad came out again. Rudy Vergolina, inclined to be positive about everything, thought perhaps it had been a mercy killing, but he had a hard time convincing himself, and the event left him badly shaken.

Lingering in the vicinity of the camp for a week or two, Vergolina and his friends saw many more instances of Russian cruelty: German prisoners executed and civilians murdered. The Red Army was on German soil now, and the bitter enmity between the two peoples caught fire. Seeking shelter in a house near the camp, Vergolina found the entire family dead, all apparently shot by the father to save them from the Russians. Only the family dog was left alive, alone and barking.

Some of the remaining prisoners decided it was time to move on. The Russians were obviously going to do nothing for them, and the front line was still dangerously close by. In groups, the POWs began to drift east, joining the thousands of other wanderers. Sergeant Vergolina eventually found himself in the region near Danzig, where there was still fierce fighting going on to pry the Germans out of the Baltic ports. Somewhere between Danzig and Warsaw, Vergolina met up with Jim McNeish, a Scottish ex-POW. They banded together and headed south, toward Warsaw.

The American and the Scotsman went through a strange odyssey together. They wandered through the ruins of Warsaw, so flattened that Vergolina reckoned you could stand on a stool and see the whole city. Dispossessed people still lingered, sitting despondently around the shells of their former homes. After dark there was still a crude, sad cabaret nightlife going in the cellars of ruined buildings, despite the Russian patrols enforcing the curfew. Even Rudy Vergolina’s buoyant spirits were crushed by it, and the two men hurried on. They stayed for a while in a village near Zamosc, as the guests of farming folk. Moving on again, they were robbed by bandits, and rode for days on the roof of a boxcar, huddled together for warmth.

Eventually rounded up by Russians and brought to Lwów, they were put in the so-called rehabilitation center. Kept in a different location than Beadle and Gould, they had a less unpleasant experience; they were fed tolerably and allowed out for exercise. But after many days of this, they began to feel that it would never end; the Russians were never going to let them go back to their own people. One day, while out for a walk, they spotted a party of Americans led by a captain. Seizing their chance, they lit out in a bid for freedom.

Robert knew what he had to do. Rudy Vergolina and Jim McNeish joined the motley band that was rapidly growing up around him.

The first stage—simply adopting them—wasn’t too difficult. The two Russian guards, less persistent in their duties than some of their comrades, had given up and left. And fortunately, the Polish lady who had been Miss Lowry’s replacement had finally given up and left the hotel after two days of being obstinately but politely snubbed by the Americans. That would make it easier to conceal the identities of the new guests, who were quietly adopted into the roster scheduled to leave for Poltava.

That brought the personnel load for the poor beat-up Fortress to seventeen. Robert hoped the damaged crate would be up to it. After more than a week at the airfield, the number three engine was still in pieces on the hangar floor. Eventually, in spite of continual Soviet inconvenience, he and Sergeant Picarelli managed to arrange the necessary repairs, and by March 16—their eleventh day stranded in Lwów—“687” was ready to fly again. The weather had cleared, and the following day was scheduled for departure.

During the last couple of days, while Robert and Sergeant Picarelli were preoccupied with readying the plane, Sergeant Matles found himself dealing with a rising tide of strays and refugees. It seemed word had got out that there were helpful Americans staying at the George. Occasionally civilians claiming to be American nationals turned up, asking for help with contacting the embassy in Moscow. Some had birth certificates and were indeed US-born. Matles did what he could to put them in touch with the embassy.

The trickle became a stream. On the evening before the scheduled departure, Sergeant Matles was in the hotel lobby when five men walked in off the street, all American ex-POWs. They were in an appalling state after three days on the road with no food at all. Matles tried to arrange for them to be given rooms and meals, but the hotel’s assistant director put her NKVD-controlled Intourist foot down. She had no rooms, she said, and no food either. Both claims were transparently absurd, and it was obvious from her manner that she was acting against her better instincts. Someone somewhere had been leaning on the hotel. Matles demanded to see the hotel director. When he appeared, Matles tore into him, threatening to call in the US Embassy if food and quarters were not provided for the Americans.

While Matles argued with the director, the assistant director took pity on the bedraggled men; she discreetly led them away and gave them a meal, and arranged accommodation for them. Informing Matles of what she had done, she begged him to make the director approve it. Of course he would; in return, he asked that she take care of any other American personnel who might show up at the hotel after he had gone. She promised she would, and he believed her.

That same evening Robert was approached by a Polish civilian, who offered a sworn statement detailing Soviet atrocities committed against citizens in Lwów. Although he had plenty of reason to believe the man’s account, there was absolutely nothing Robert could do. Like Colonel Wilmeth, who at that moment was receiving similar approaches from the Polish underground army in Lublin, he had been briefed to ignore such contacts: if the Soviets learned of the Americans having anything at all to do with anti-Soviet elements in Poland, they would shut down access to the country altogether, and helping the POWs would become impossible.

The next morning, the Poltava-bound team made ready to depart. They had managed to secure an old Model A Ford truck that looked like it had been there since the Depression and had never recovered. Robert, Picarelli, and Jessee went out to the airfield to prep the plane for takeoff, while Sergeant Matles took care of the rest of the party. There was Lieutenant Barnett and his crew, plus Sergeants Beadle and Vergolina, Private Gould, and Gunner McNeish, all disguised as aircrew.

It simply wasn’t possible to take any of the recently arrived POWs as well: aside from the B-17’s limited capacity, everybody at the hotel knew they were ex-prisoners. Robert and Sergeant Matles had done the next best thing, arranging to have them put immediately on the next train for Odessa, without having to pass through the appalling Soviet camp.

Everyone was loaded up on the truck. Matles was about to climb aboard when he saw a large group of ragged-looking men walking into the hotel. He jumped down again and followed them inside. As he’d guessed, they were all Americans, all ex-POWs, all in dreadful, filthy, emaciated condition. Seven were officers, the rest enlisted men. With word getting out to the bands of strays that help could be found here, the Hotel George was becoming a magnet for lost prisoners. Matles got tea and beer for them, and arranged for them to go immediately to the railroad station and board the Odessa train. Whether they ever got there he had no way of knowing. Meanwhile he had a plane to catch, and he was running late.

At the airfield, the B-17 was warming up, running smoothly, and ready to make one last effort to get the hell out of this country.

It seemed that fate was determined to throw every possible obstacle in their way—as the engines were being run up, it began snowing again. As if that weren’t enough of a worry, Robert and Picarelli had noticed that the plane, which had supposedly been under guard the whole time, was missing various little bits and pieces. A fire extinguisher had been removed, along with a headset from the radio compartment, and a discarded hacksaw was found on the floor. They could only hope that nothing vital had been removed or damaged.

Her flak wounds stuffed with rags, her holes patched up with plywood, and overloaded as she was with passengers, B-17 687, the Fort with no name, taxied out into the snow, revved up, and roared down the runway. She lifted off and soared away in a long, slow turn above the snow-swept city, carrying her cargo of Americans and Britons eastward to Poltava and safety.

She’d had a long and strange journey since taking off from Snetterton Heath a month ago, with Lieutenant Tillman at the controls, and there was a long way still to go—but 687 was back firmly in American hands.

That night, Captain Trimble, in consultation with Sergeant Matles and Lieutenant Jessee, sat down to write a report of the salvage mission. So much had happened, it was difficult to recall it all, and hard to judge what to leave out. The Cossacks in the night, the furious Russian colonel glaring over the barrel of the Colt, the takeoff from the tiny sloping field, the blizzard whiting out the windshield . . . and the ragged, pitiful prisoners, desperate for help.

There would be flak to take over the decision to bring the four POWs to Poltava. Their aircrew disguise, which had been sufficient to get them out of Lwów, wouldn’t fool the Soviets at Poltava. They were bound to learn of it, and they would be furious.

They did indeed find out, and it was said by one observer that “their consternation knew no bounds.” What upset the Russians most was the presence of British POWs among the exfiltrated men. The Soviets were even more suspicious of the British than they were of the Americans. There was a long history, going back more than a century, of competitive espionage between the British and Russian Empires in the battle to control Asia. More recently, in the early days of the Russian Revolution, the British had hatched a plot to assassinate Lenin and overthrow the Bolsheviks. The British were also much more secretive, less willing to share intelligence than the Americans were. Consequently, British personnel were regarded by the Soviets as enemy agents until proven otherwise. The arrival of Ronald Gould and Jim McNeish enraged them. As a result, the diplomatic position of Eastern Command shifted one step closer to a crisis.

Officially, the American authorities sternly disapproved of Captain Trimble’s actions, but privately they thought he had done the right thing.

On the morning after their arrival at Poltava, before the Soviets had a chance to react to what had happened, Sergeants Beadle and Vergolina were put aboard a transport flying out to Tehran. Meanwhile, Gould and McNeish were dispatched to the British Embassy in Moscow for clearance. The parting between Rudy Vergolina and Jim McNeish was a sad one; they had endured so much hardship together, and helped each other through. At last they were within reach of the one thing they all yearned for—home.

The next day, a cable was received by Eastern Command from General Booth, commanding officer of Persian Gulf Command. It stated:

Ex–prisoners of war arrived Teheran 1730 hours, 18 March 45 plan to depart 1330 hours, 19 March 45. T/4 Rudolph Vergolina, 36210949 and T/4 Richard J. Beadle, 34077320. Both are liberated.

Just a few days after leaving snowbound Lwów, Richard Beadle and Rudy Vergolina were in Cairo, experiencing in reverse the journey that Robert Trimble had made more than a month earlier.

While they were blinking in the bright Egyptian sunlight and thinking thoughts of home, Captain Robert M. Trimble was heading back out to the snows of Poland. So long as there were prisoners wandering helpless, his business was not finished. He was about to face his toughest emotional trial yet, as well as his greatest triumph.

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Next: 14. FAR FROM HOME