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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14.

FAR FROM HOME

The building was warm, the wards were clean, and the seven American ex–prisoners of war were comfortable in bed. The Russian medical staff gave the Americans every care they could, treating them not merely as patients but as honored guests. It was an extraordinary about-face in Soviet treatment of ex-POWs. Colonel Wilmeth was astonished by it.

Wilmeth and his medical colleague Colonel Kingsbury had been puzzled when the Soviet administrator cordially invited them to visit the hospital. And they were positively astounded to see how well the Americans were being treated. It could not have been more different from the conditions in the holding camp in the town. This was positively luxurious; this was how former prisoners of war should be treated. In fact, to be perfectly truthful, an objective observer might have thought the VIP treatment a little excessive.

By now, Colonel Wilmeth had too much experience to imagine even for a minute that this marked a change of heart among the Soviets. When he began talking to the men, he immediately discovered the reason for their exceptional treatment. These seven men were survivors of the massacre at Stalag III-C.

Wilmeth and Kingsbury already knew about the incident; these were not the first men from that particular prison camp to have passed through Lublin. Sergeant Richard Beadle and many others who had been there had reported how Soviet infantry and tanks had fired on the column of POWs as the German guards were marching them away. Dozens were killed or wounded. The official story that had come back from the Soviet front line was that the Russians had believed the camp to be a barracks, and that the marching POWs were Hungarian troops in German service. It seemed a plausible claim, but Colonel Wilmeth had grave doubts about it. He knew—and so should have the Red Army—that Hungarian troops were not used by the Germans in Poland. And the men would have been visibly unarmed and obviously not in Wehrmacht uniform.

These seven in the Red Army hospital at Lublin were the surviving wounded. They told Wilmeth their stories. As frontline veterans, they didn’t blame the Russians for the massacre; accidents happened all the time in war, they said, although this had been a particularly dumb one.

It had taken weeks for the enormity of the “accident” to be recognized by the Soviets: weeks during which the victims were subjected to the very same neglect as other ex–prisoners of war. But now word had come down from the very top of the Soviet tree that these men were to be treated with honor and every possible care.

If it was intended to be an apology, it went far beyond what was necessary—so far that Colonel Wilmeth was deeply suspicious of the motives behind it. Marshal Astakhov, deputy commander of the Red Army Air Force, had dispatched two airplanes from Moscow to Lublin to transport the seven men to Odessa. (That was nice, but no more than Eastern Command had been desperately trying to arrange for all its POWs for months now.) So as to honor the men properly, each of the two planes was to be crewed entirely by decorated Red Air Force combat veterans, and the two pilots would be holders of the Hero of the Soviet Union award—the Soviet equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

When Colonel Wilmeth was told about these plans, he accepted the gesture graciously on behalf of the United States Army and kept his cynical thoughts to himself. When the men were put aboard the planes the next day, they were loaded with presents, food, and bouquets of flowers. Wilmeth’s suspicions were confirmed: the episode had more to do with propaganda than with making amends.

This lavish treatment would be presented to the world as an example of how the Soviet Union honored and cared for her allies’ liberated prisoners. The Soviet government and its tame press would contrast this treatment sharply and unflatteringly with the abominable suffering that Russian ex-POWs were allegedly subjected to by American and British forces in Western Europe. This claim was propagated constantly by the Soviets, despite the evidence provided by Washington, the US Embassy, and SHAEF headquarters showing that it was false.

Colonel Wilmeth had had this propaganda line thrown in his face just a couple of weeks ago, during his last meeting with Colonel Vlasov. Once again the meeting had turned quickly into an indignant confrontation.

Vlasov had begun by presenting Wilmeth with a list of numbers of ex-prisoners that had been shipped to Odessa from various collecting points in Poland. Wilmeth knew the figures were incomplete and inaccurate, and asked for better ones. Only Moscow had accurate figures, he was told. Why Moscow would have more information than the authority on the ground in Poland wasn’t explained. It was impossible for Wilmeth to check the figures because he’d still been unable to contact General Deane in Moscow. He’d tried to send a message through the Polish commercial telegraph system, but was barred from using it (it had no connection to Moscow, they told him, even though he knew it did).

Having delivered his useless data, Colonel Vlasov delivered what he hoped was a body blow. As of the next day, March 13, Lublin was to be closed as a POW collecting point. There were no more ex-prisoners expected to arrive; all had been evacuated. Colonel Wilmeth’s work was done, and he could therefore go back to Moscow. His permit had expired.

Wilmeth wasn’t impressed. “Could you put that in writing?” he asked.

Vlasov, tight-lipped, refused. Wilmeth had learned that the way to deflect Soviet intimidation was to ask to have a claim put in writing, signed. None of them dared put anything on paper without approval from above, so even if they were telling the truth (which was rare), they ended up looking like they were lying.

“I’ve heard that our American contact teams have finally arrived at Poltava,” Wilmeth said. “Why are they not being allowed into Poland?” Vlasov said nothing. “Two weeks ago,” Wilmeth went on relentlessly, “I was promised a truckload of supplies from the local Red Army depot. Where is it?” No answer. “Can you obtain permission for American planes to fly supplies into Poland?”

Colonel Vlasov said that it could not be done.

Somebody has to bring in supplies,” Wilmeth said angrily, “since you and your comrades seem to be utterly incapable of doing anything for the POWs.”

Again he listed the ways in which the Soviet Union was failing to honor practically every principle Comrade Stalin had signed up to at Yalta; again he offered to let Colonel Vlasov have his copy of the agreement and see for himself.

Wilmeth’s imperturbable placidity finally gave way. “It’s a damn shame,” he said, “that people who parade themselves as our friends act in every way other than friendly. I’m sick of it. Sick.”

Colonel Vlasov’s temper broke as well. “I can tell you,” he hissed furiously, “that Soviet ex–prisoners of war are receiving far worse treatment from the Americans than any American prisoners are receiving from the Soviet Union. They are being abused, and your government refuses to repatriate them to the USSR.”

Wilmeth had heard this line being put out by Radio Moscow. It was a constant tune that they sang whenever Stalin wanted to score a propaganda point against the USA. Given Stalin’s stated view of Soviet soldiers who surrendered, Wilmeth very much doubted the sincerity of these concerns—even if the allegations they were based on had been true.

“Do you know how many Soviet POW contact personnel there are in the European theater right now?” he asked Vlasov. “Two hundred. And they are permitted to go anywhere they want to behind American lines, at all times. And what do we have here?” He pointed to himself. “Two officers, myself and Colonel Kingsbury, confined to Lublin.”

Not for much longer, Vlasov reminded him. His permit had expired.

Wilmeth asked him to put this in writing and send it as a message to General Deane in Moscow. Colonel Wilmeth would await General Deane’s instructions. In the meantime, he would remain in Lublin.

Feeling that he ought to try to repair the diplomatic breach he had opened up, Colonel Wilmeth invited Colonel Vlasov to dine with him that evening. To his surprise, Vlasov accepted immediately. The fact that he did so without any consultation with his superior officer—unthinkable in the regular Red Army—finally convinced Wilmeth that Vlasov was NKVD.

Indeed, as the days passed and he learned more about the ongoing Sovietization of Poland, and as he built up a picture of the experiences POWs were having in the journey from the stalags and oflags to the Soviet holding camps, Colonel Wilmeth was coming to suspect that the entire POW repatriation authority was being run by the NKVD.

The attempts to force him to leave Lublin intensified. He was told that a “big scandal” would result if he did not leave for Moscow, and he might not make it safely there if he did go. His messages to General Deane were manipulated or falsified to give the impression that all was well, and that no further help was needed for POWs in Lublin because there were none there. False orders, allegedly from Deane, instructing him to return to Moscow, were given to him. He ignored them.

Meanwhile, the argument over Wilmeth’s situation at Lublin was going to the very top. Not only did General Deane want Wilmeth to stay; he was busily trying to get permission to go to Lublin himself and see what was happening. He had off-the-record sources of intelligence and knew very well that things were bad. Consulting with Ambassador Averell Harriman, he requested that President Roosevelt take the matter up with Stalin directly.

On March 17, Roosevelt cabled Stalin. He asked why American aircraft were not being allowed to fly supplies into Poland, why they were not being permitted to evacuate sick POWs by air, and why the contact officers currently in Poland were being blocked from assisting their fellow Americans. “I have information that I consider positive and reliable,” he wrote, “that there are a very considerable number of sick and injured Americans in hospitals in Poland,” and he added that there were many ex-POWs who were still “at large in small groups.” He asked that General Deane be allowed to travel to Lublin at once. “Frankly,” the President added, “I cannot understand your reluctance to permit American officers . . . to assist their own people in this matter.”

Five days later, on March 22, Stalin replied. He stated that Roosevelt’s information was “not exact.” There were no American ex–prisoners of war in Poland now, aside from seventeen who were sick (including the seven in hospital at Lublin). These men were about to be flown to Odessa. Stalin added that he personally had no objection at all to General Deane visiting Poland, or any other American officers. But his hard-pressed army commanders would not welcome the extra burden of having to look after noncombatant foreign officers, especially when there were German agents at large who might harm or abduct American officers. (A curious echo of the warning that Captain Trimble had been given by his OSS contacts about the “German agents” ruse that the Soviets might use as a way to murder inconvenient Americans.) “Our commanders pay with their lives,” Stalin went on, “for the state of matters at the front and in the immediate rear, and I do not consider it possible to limit their rights in any degree.” He conveniently overlooked the fact that the areas of Poland in question were now dozens or even hundreds of miles from the front line. Stalin concluded by gravely reminding the US president that Russian POWs currently in American camps were subjected to “unlawful inconveniences” and even beatings. Marshal Stalin’s concern for these men, whom he’d previously decreed to be “criminal deserters” and “traitors” who ought to be shot, was remarkable.

Hearing of Stalin’s reply, US Ambassador Averell Harriman was outraged: “Stalin’s statement,” he wrote to the President, “that the Red Army command cannot be bothered with a dozen American officers in Poland to look after the welfare of our liberated prisoners is preposterous when we think of what the American people have done in supplying the Red Army with vehicles and food.” He added darkly: “When the story of the treatment accorded our liberated prisoners by the Russians leaks out I cannot help but feel that there will be great and lasting resentment on the part of the American people.”

As the month of March wore away, so did Colonel Wilmeth’s will to continue. But his resolve did not. He had built up a reliable little network of agents—some of them ex-POWs living in Polish homes, others from among the Polish underground—who passed him information. When the Russians told him that no more American or British POWs were expected to come into Lublin, he knew the truth of it: Soviet guards had been posted on the roads into town, directing POWs to go elsewhere. The same was happening in other Polish cities—Kraków, Łódz, and Warsaw. And as rumors of the way POWs were treated spread across the country, fewer and fewer were willing to try to enter the towns anyway.

In the many interviews he conducted with ex-prisoners, Wilmeth learned that there was a pattern to their experiences. With some exceptions, liberated American POWs were usually treated well, if rather offhandedly, by the frontline Soviet troops. The same was not true for captured Germans and liberated Russians. There were frequent murders. One group of American ex-POWs told of being given twenty-five German prisoners as a “gift” by their Soviet liberators, to kill as they saw fit: shoot them, hang them, chop them to bits, the Russians suggested, and they were disappointed when the Americans declined. The truly abusive treatment of liberated American and British POWs usually began, as far as Wilmeth was able to make out, when they came to the rear areas, which were controlled by the NKVD and its operatives within the Red Army. Men like Colonel Vlasov.

If only the POWs could be brought to Odessa, they would be safe. Latest information was that the arrangements there were working out well. The facilities originally set up by the Russians had been typically awful, but the American contact officer, Major Hall, had worked to help improve them. There were now repatriation teams from America, Britain, France, and Belgium, all working efficiently with the Russians to process the ex-prisoners and put them aboard the British troopships that would take them to their home countries. (There was a simple and chilling reason for Russian cooperation at Odessa. The ships arrived filled with Russian ex-POWs who were handed over to the Soviets. The fate of about half of these men would be incarceration in the gulags or even death; many were executed in warehouses near the docks.)

For Colonel Wilmeth, gathering the British and American POWs and getting them from Poland to Odessa was the hard part. Toward the end of the month, unable to make progress, constantly reminded by the Soviets that his presence was unwelcome, he finally gave up. There was nothing more he could do. He made arrangements to leave Lublin and return to Poltava.

His mission was indebted to the tune of $36,000 to the Polish Red Cross. He left them his unused surplus medical supplies, worth about $500. The Red Cross reckoned that their value on the black market would easily pay off the debt.

Colonel Wilmeth and his party were flown out of Lublin on March 28. Their mission was not finished. Wilmeth knew there were still ex-POWs out there, of all nationalities, who didn’t dare come into the towns. They needed assistance, guidance, reassurance. Somebody needed to be out there, helping to bring them to safety.

Somebody was. One man was out there alone; one man whose sole purpose was to get Americans home. And not just Americans: all stray people from the free world were his concern.

What he remembered most vividly was the distant sound of the freight trains on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Side by side, father and son, they would sit under the trees on the bank of the Juniata River, or wade out off the rocks, their fishing lines running into the broad, slow water. Robert loved those fishing trips, in that golden time before his father went away and everything was poisoned and turned to darkness.

There was a sound that haunted that valley. A long series of booming reports, like distant cannon-fire, rolling up the river, echoing through the mists that hung over the forested slopes. Slow as a ticking clock . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . continuing for a minute or more. To a young boy, it was ominous, frightening. His father smiled at him and explained that it was the sound of a long freight train setting out from the Enola rail yard. As each car’s coupling locked in place with the pull of the engine, it would make that sound, which would reverberate for miles up the river valley.

The Enola Yard, a vast nexus of sidings and junctions, stood on the side of the Susquehanna River across from Harrisburg, right next-door to Camp Hill. When he was a boy, the railroad entered Robert Trimble’s soul. It was always there in the background, on those weekend trips with his father. In the winter they hunted deer and would live out in the wilds for days at a time among the snows that lay on the pines and the red spruces. It was a beautiful place, fresh as the morning of the world, the valley ridges cutting across the land as if the tines of a vast rake had been dragged through this country when it was young and hadn’t yet hardened.

And from time to time came that boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . as one of the great half-mile trains with its hundred or more cars started up the valley toward Pittsburgh, or south for Baltimore.

It echoed in his memory now, marking out the rhythm of his steps as he walked along the railroad through the wilds of Poland.

Robert had been back a few days now, having replenished his stock of cash and rations at Poltava, and caught a flight back to Lwów, ostensibly still on salvage and aircrew recovery business, but in reality slipping out of the bird dogs’ scenting range and heading deep into the country.

The agents’ messages—moving by word of mouth now through the network of POWs and informants that Wilmeth had helped link up, as well as via the embassy—still reached Robert at the hotels in Lwów or Kraków or Lublin, or even at the homesteads out in the country, or wherever the mission happened to take him.

There were more messages, more calls for help than a single man could cope with, and they came not only from American POWs but from people of other nations, all kinds of people who had been set loose from the Nazi camps and abandoned. Although Robert wasn’t conscious of it, the stress of his mission, layered on top of what he had gone through during his combat tour, was beginning to wear away at him. He was approaching that point where fractures start to appear in a person’s inner being.

A message had reached him the previous day: a rendezvous with a band of POWs, concentrated in an area northwest of Lublin. It was close to a railroad route, so getting them to a station and aboard a train shouldn’t be too difficult. He could even follow the tracks to the meeting point. And so he set out on what now seemed almost like a routine mission. What he saw that day would haunt him the rest of his life. He didn’t like to think about it; didn’t even like to acknowledge that it was there in his memory. Only with patient persuasion could he be drawn to talk about it.

It was a beautiful day, bright and clear, seeming to promise the first approach of spring. Out here, away from the towns and roads, there was peace. And there was a familiarity too—the slopes covered in bare birches and green pines dusted with snow, casting long winter shadows across the crackling ice floes that dotted the slow-moving Vistula River. It could almost be the Susquehanna, and this railroad could almost be the line that snaked up the Juniata valley toward Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

But there were differences. It was eighty years since war had last visited Pennsylvania. In the valley of the Vistula, although there was peace this minute, war had been here very recently. This very spot had been on the front line as little as two months ago, the Vistula forming the boundary between the opposing forces of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. That changed with the beginning of the Soviets’ Vistula-Oder Offensive in January. The traces were still to be seen: pieces of broken gear and weapons poking through snowy hummocks; wrecked buildings, an occasional burned-out vehicle, and trees splintered by shellfire.

In this area there were at least three abandoned Nazi concentration camps, satellites of the main death camp of Majdanek in Lublin. And this river, farther upstream, passed by an even more notorious camp: it was into the waters of the Vistula that the SS had dumped the ashes from the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But to Robert, lost in his own thoughts, that was all far away.

He paced steadily, walking between the rails, where the snow was thinnest, the ties firm and familiar under his boots. Robert Trimble was far from home, but at times like this, alone in the wilds, he could almost imagine he was back there. The smell of the winter pines was in his nostrils, and the mournful squalling of crows in the far distance. His mind was in the past, in the head of the adolescent boy he’d been, when he still had a father and his closest pals were his fellow Boy Scouts.

Camping out in the woods was a favorite pastime, but there were jaunts farther afield. In 1933, the Scout troop bought a dilapidated old Bell Telephone truck, and their scoutmaster drove them up to Chicago to visit the World’s Fair (“A Century of Progress!”). For Robert, the best part was sleeping under the stars at Niagara Falls on the way home. But the favorite times were with his dad: fishing, learning to hunt deer. His father was devoted to young Robert—until one day, with no explanation, he left and never came back. It was like having a limb blown off by a sudden bomb blast. The scarring ran deep into Robert’s soul, leaving a place that was hardened, closed off.

But he still loved to hunt and fish, still loved the wild country.

It took a war to bring him happiness again. In the fall of 1943, he was posted to Fort Worth Army Airfield in Texas, to begin transition training on the B-24 Liberator bomber. He’d become a skilled pilot, and this was his introduction to the shoulder-winged, twin-tailed behemoths he would eventually fly in combat. They were built nearby at the Consolidated Vultee factory, and during the course of the war, Fort Worth was the training base for thousands of pilots. When Second Lieutenant Robert M. Trimble arrived, he and his buddies were given accommodations by a local oilman who had a huge ranch near the airfield.

The men’s wives came to live with them. For Robert and Eleanor it was their perfect honeymoon—a Shangri-La for two kids from blue-collar Camp Hill. Robert taught her to fish on the ranch’s lake and hunt in the woods. One evening they walked down by the lake. “I could imagine us staying here forever,” Eleanor said. “Couldn’t you?”

“Well, I’d like to,” Robert said. “Everything I want is here. Hunting, fishing . . .” He corrected himself: “You, hunting, fishing . . .”

She scolded him, and they laughed. He could still see in her the teenage schoolgirl, radiant from basketball practice, coming into the shop where he’d worked Saturdays as a soda jerk. “Cat got your tongue?” she taunted him as he bashfully served ice-cream sodas to her and her best friend. She was pretty, but there was more than just a teenage fancy in their attraction; they were drawn to each other, two children scarred by their fathers.

With the Texas sundown coloring the waters of the lake, he took her in his arms. “The war could change our lives forever,” he said. He let the words hang in the air; the unspoken question was whether it would change their lives for better or worse. So far, it had brought them this idyll, but it could so easily bring them unthinkable grief. . . .

Robert was so deep in his memories, he wasn’t sure at first what it was that yanked him back to the present. The cawing of crows, the cold air burning his cheeks, the thump of his boots on the railroad ties . . . everything was the same. Everything except the peculiar whatever-it-was that was scattered along by the tracks about a quarter mile ahead. From a distance it looked like a knocked-over cordwood stack. Not an uncommon sight: most of the Polish locomotives burned wood, which was why they were so underpowered and slow. But it didn’t look right: the billets were much too long for firewood—about the length of a man.

As Robert drew closer, his steps slowed. The crows he’d been hearing for the past mile or so were fluttering and circling overhead, and he understood what the objects were. For a moment, preposterously, he thought they might be railroad workers on a nap break.

There were dozens of bodies, scores of them, maybe a couple of hundred, lying heaped or in rows next to the tracks. As he approached, his feet carrying him onward in spite of the feeling of foreboding settling on his heart, he noticed that some were actually lying on the tracks. Not just on them, he realized—tied to them. They had been mutilated, decapitated or cut in half by the wheels of a train.

Moving carefully, and fighting down the urge to vomit, Robert stepped among the corpses. The crows hopped away or went flapping up into the air, squawking. Other than the ones tied to the track, the bodies were mostly laid in rows, as if they’d been lined up and shot in batches. How long ago it had happened, he couldn’t say. The bodies were frozen. They could have lain here for days. Not much longer than that, or they’d have been covered in snow. Their faces were edged with frost, but seemed almost alive, spared the bloating and discoloring of decomposition. They looked disconcertingly as if they might wake if they were disturbed.

Most of them were in German uniform; others were in tattered remnants of what appeared to be Red Army clothing. The latter were in an emaciated state and were obviously Russian prisoners of war. What had occurred here was a mystery, but some possibilities suggested themselves. Most likely a consignment of captured Germans and liberated Russian POWs had come down from the front line all herded together, probably by train. American ex-prisoners had reported this kind of mixing of captured enemy soldiers and liberated prisoners. If that was the case, then up to this point the Russian POWs had been lucky; at this stage in the war, the Red Army was so desperate for troops, the standard procedure was to march liberated Russians straight to marshaling centers, regardless of what state of emaciation and sickness they were in, kit them out, and ship them straight to the front line.

As for what had triggered this massacre, that was slightly more of a mystery. Soviet troops on the Eastern Front were no strangers to atrocities. And there were known incidents of them murdering their countrymen who had been POWs. The culture inspired by Stalin’s decrees was long-lasting. Even POWs who had escaped the camps and fought with partisans against the Germans weren’t immune to suspicion and retribution from the Red Army.

But there was a ritualism about this—a profoundly cruel deliberation—that was different. The train carrying these men must have reached this point, and something occurred—some dispute, some incident that triggered the kind of emotional chain reaction that prefaces an atrocity. One of the former Nazi death camps was nearby—the railroad was a branch line that went right past it—so perhaps that had something to do with it. Maybe there was alcohol involved. Something had fueled the hate that these people felt for one another. Robert studied their frozen faces. Could these Germans actually be Russians in Nazi uniform? It was possible. It would explain the extremity of the murders.

Robert sank down on his haunches, weak with grief and disgust. What kind of a world was this? He thought of the sights he’d seen at Auschwitz, and of the Soviets’ callous neglect and abuse of their allies’ liberated prisoners, and the woman outside the hotel in Lwów at the mercy of the jeering soldiers, and of baby Kasia, dead under a mound of rocks on the roadside. How could this be a world worth fighting for? How could it be a world that men and women could bring new life into? How could a man ever go back to his home taking sights like this with him? How could there ever be a home again?

As his gaze roamed over the dead faces, he noticed that one of the Russians was no more than a boy. Seventeen at most. About the same age as Robert, the innocent Eagle Scout from Camp Hill, had been when his heart and life were broken by his father’s departure. For this poor boy, life had ended violently, in unspeakably terrifying circumstances. Where was his home? Had he left it willingly, like Robert, eager to fight for his country? Or had he yearned to go back there, back to his mother? Robert felt a connection to him. He couldn’t bear to leave him where he lay, where his murderers had discarded him, among the bodies of their enemies.

Acting on an impulse that he could hardly explain, Robert dropped to his knees and started to move the rigid corpse. He would bury the body, let the boy have some dignity in death.

He carried the remains away from the tracks, to a spot where a patch of sunlight came through the bare trees. It was a dreadful task; the Russian boy was one of those who’d been tied to the track and cut in two. Robert tried to dig a shallow grave, but the ground was frozen solid; all he could do was scrape a trench in the snow. Covering the boy’s face with a spare shirt, he piled snow and rocks over the remains. It was the best he could do. He mumbled a halting prayer. Drained, bowed over beside the wretched grave, he fell into a kind of swooning sleep.

A slamming door, a shout, and Robert was jerked awake, listening anxiously to the silent house.

Nothing. Not even the sound of his mother crying. Not anymore. Her grief had hardened into a grim resolve, and she went about life as if it were a battle. Now that there was no man in the house, she had ordered Robert to start bringing in a wage by working after school and on weekends.

Robert himself had gone through the same emotional journey. His father’s betrayal had been inexplicable, a sudden total severance from the man who had taught him, loved him. Robert had adored and idolized his dad. But Fred Trimble had wanted a better life for himself. On the tails of the Great Depression, he hitched up with the secretary he’d been having an affair with and headed for California. He never looked back, never called.

At first Robert had cried like a boy bereaved. But he was a boy on the verge of manhood, and soon the crying had to stop. The anger remained, though, the anger and the soul-deep scars that he would keep for the rest of his life.

He went to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad. The freight trains that had been the background to his existence in Camp Hill, their boom and rumble echoing through his hunting and fishing trips, became his daily life. Underneath he nurtured a longing to fly. He became fascinated by airplanes and yearned to be able to go up in one. Maybe there was an unconscious urge to escape the bonds of hurt and responsibility that confined him. With war on the horizon, he got his chance: in July 1941, after a failed attempt to volunteer for the Royal Canadian Air Force, he joined the US Army and began working his way toward the Air Corps. At first they wouldn’t take him for pilot training, because he wasn’t college-educated, but the desire was strong in him, and he gradually wore them down.

But through it all, it was the railroads that ran in his veins. He could never escape their pull, and whenever he fished on the Juniata, still there would come the distant boom . . . boom . . . boom . . .

He woke with a start, and found himself slumped in the snow beside the makeshift grave. How long had he slept? He glanced around groggily. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. The patch of sunlight had barely moved.

Robert looked at the dark rows of corpses beside the railroad tracks. Having offered a prayer for the boy, he whispered another for all of the dead, for all the suffering people everywhere.

. . . And in the silence of contemplation, he realized what it was that had woken him: the familiar sound of a train in the distance, coming closer. He listened intently.

It might be just a civilian train. More likely, it would be a military transport or supply train. It might even be carrying prisoners of war from the front. Robert could guess what his fate might be if the Soviets knew that he had witnessed the aftermath of this atrocity.

He jumped to his feet, grabbed the pack containing his supply of rations and medical kit, and took off at a run up the slope, heading deep into the trees.

Once he was well out of sight of the railroad, he veered back toward his original direction. He had a rendezvous to make. People needed him—people stranded far from home. Robert Trimble was the only hope they had now. He wasn’t about to let them down, no matter what the journey cost him. His own way home lay alongside theirs.

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