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

Previous: 15. ISABELLE



Isabelle walked out of Lwów in higher spirits than when she had entered it.

Earlier that morning, while the Hotel George was shaking itself awake, Robert had gone downstairs and scared up some breakfast. While they ate, he explained his plan. If he couldn’t bring the women to the train, he reasoned, he would have to bring the train to the women. All they needed to do was be in the right place at the right time. It was simple enough in concept, but might be hell’s own job to put into action. It was going to take some days to set up.

After she had eaten her fill and understood the plan, Isabelle crept down the back stairs, slipped out through a side entrance, and headed back the way she had come the previous day. In her pocket was some cash Robert had given her to buy some better clothes, so she’d look less like a refugee. She would have to return to Lwów before all this was over, and couldn’t take the risk of being detained by the Russians.

Out beyond the city, Isabelle turned off the main road and began the long walk back to the shelter she shared with her friends. Would they be willing to trust this friendly American? Isabelle believed they could. But whether they could rely on him to get them to freedom was another matter. There were many hazards and pitfalls along the way.

The train station was almost deserted when Robert arrived. It was still early morning, and not many passenger trains came and went from Lwów. His footsteps echoed in the cavernous ticket hall; like the Hotel George and many other buildings in Lwów, the station was a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the city was called Lemberg and was capital of the kingdom of Galicia. It was built with palatial pretensions: all domes and stucco outside, all pillars and molded plasterwork inside.

Robert had become a familiar sight to the ticket sellers. The man behind the glass screen this morning was Józef. “Dzien dobry, kapitanie,” he called as Robert approached.

“Good morning to you too.” Robert was glad it was Józef today; he spoke decent English. They chatted awhile, and Robert bought a ticket, in case there were any NKVD people watching; under cover of paying, he slipped some extra bills under the glass, and murmured: “We need to talk. Meet me at noon in the Pokój Wegierski. There’ll be a good lunch and a bottle of the best.”

The Pokój Wegierski—Hungarian Room—was a restaurant near the Hotel George: decent, but not fancy. Józef hesitated in surprise, but then nodded and palmed the bills.

As Robert left the station, he glanced about; there were a few soldiers around who watched incuriously as he passed, but nobody who looked like they might be trailing him. It was hard to tell; the NKVD’s official bird dogs were army officers, and as easy to spot as a whore in church. But you could never be sure about informers infiltrated among the local population. They could be anyone, from nice middle-class ladies like Esa Lowry to folks who looked like refugees. But although he’d only been in the game a short while, Robert had learned to sense when he was being watched. Either that or he’d simply caught the Russian disease of paranoia. Either way, he wasn’t feeling under scrutiny this minute.

By noon, when he sat down to wait for Józef in the Hungarian Room, his confidence was ebbing. Every other patron seemed like a potential spy, and his worry that Józef would be followed, or just wouldn’t show up, grew and grew. What if the Russians apprehended the ticket seller, interrogated him? Worse—what if they made an informer of him? It wasn’t at all beyond the NKVD to threaten people’s families, and Poles were found dead on the streets regularly.

When he saw the familiar face at the restaurant door, Robert’s anxieties subsided a little. Józef came in, sat at the table, and gratefully accepted the meal and bottle of wine that Robert had ordered for him.

The next part was going to be tricky. Tentatively, without going into too much detail, Robert began to outline the situation he was in. He needed transportation to Odessa for four hundred people, and he had an idea in his head about how it might be achieved.

Józef listened to the proposition in silence, with a deepening frown. When Robert was done, the ticket seller shook his head. He couldn’t do it by himself. He would need to involve his superiors, and some other railroad employees—engineers and brakemen. Robert understood; he explained that he’d worked as a railroad brakeman before the war, back in America. He knew how the system worked and understood how the stunt could be pulled. Józef promised to speak to his superiors and to his friends who worked on the trains. They were all Poles like him; local men who had been living here the last time the NKVD ran the city. They had no love for the Soviets.

It would take a few days to organize, Józef said. That was fine, Robert told him; it would take a few days for his Frenchwomen to get themselves together. And in the meantime he had other business to deal with, other strays needing his help.

Next morning, Robert stopped by the rail station. He needed tickets for some men he was channeling to Odessa, so he took the opportunity to check in with Józef. He felt uneasy—the sensation of being watched—but couldn’t spot anyone tailing him. It must be simple paranoia.

The ticket seller had consulted his bosses, and they were willing to help. But they insisted that the American pay the money for the tickets up front, before they would allow the necessary arrangements to be made.

That was fine with Robert. But he couldn’t just extract the cash and hand it over in public view. He would have to come back. After a further brief consultation with Józef, he walked away. As he crossed the station concourse, heading for the men’s room, he still had that eerie sensation of being watched, but although he had noticed several people scattered about the concourse and the rooms adjoining it, he didn’t register the one pair of eyes that followed him carefully.

In the men’s room, Robert locked himself in a stall and began unbuttoning his layers of clothing, burrowing down to his special undergarment—the much-loathed, incommodious money vest. It had become slightly less uncomfortable lately, as his stock of cash was depleted. He extracted a block of dollar bills and began counting them out. The bills were brand-new, and each one had to be peeled away from the block. When he’d counted out a good number, he stuffed them in his pants pocket. From another compartment in the vest he drew out his stock of Russian rubles. He’d already checked them back at the hotel and knew he had plenty for the tickets. He folded the bills up in bundles and put them in the pockets of his parka.

It was quite a sum. But how much it was actually worth to the United States government depended on how you translated it. The money situation in Soviet territory was totally crazy. According to the official exchange rate dictated by the Russians, which their banks and the US Military Mission were obliged to honor, this parcel of tickets was going to cost north of a thousand dollars. But it seemed less painful if you looked at it through the local black market exchange rate. In Poland, US dollars were like gold. At black market rates, the total bill for the four hundred tickets would be about forty bucks.

Robert peeled off the last few bills and put them in his parka pocket. Altogether he’d allowed enough for twenty extra tickets on top of the four hundred. He was concerned in case more women had joined Isabelle’s crowd in the meantime. Best be prepared. It would be a crying shame if any of those girls got left behind.

A few minutes later, Robert walked back out of the men’s room carrying his parka over his arm. Józef was sitting on a bench in the concourse. Robert sat beside him, and they chatted for a while about their homes and families, taking out their wallets and showing each other their photos. Eventually Robert stood up, said goodbye, and walked out of the station building. He strode off toward Chernivetska Street, apparently unaware that he had left his parka behind on the bench; even outside, with just his flying jacket between him and the biting breeze, he still seemed not to notice.

He also failed to notice the figure that left the station building a few moments after him, following him up the long avenue toward the city center.

Back in the station concourse, Józef scooped up the parka and hurried across to the ticket office. Inside, checking that nobody was looking in through the glass, he rifled through the pockets, extracted the bundles of cash, and tossed them into the safe. He slammed the door shut, heaved a sigh of relief, and went back to work.

When Robert pushed open the door of the little eatery, he found Isabelle already waiting for him. His heart lurched a little when he realized that she wasn’t alone: three other young women were sitting with her. It was a foolish risk, coming into the city so many at a time. Isabelle introduced him to her companions, all young French girls like herself. All the women, she said, had wanted to see with their own eyes the American who was going to save them, but only these three had dared come into town. They gazed adoringly at him, and he experienced a moment of masculine frailty, grinning back like a teenager.

Isabelle, who had lost none of her earnest demeanor, brought the conversation back to business. Robert went over the details of the arrangements he had made. Isabelle and her friends knew the countryside for miles around Lwów far better than he did. At every mention of a place and time, they nodded; they knew where it was, and knew how best to get there. They suggested refinements to the plan. Four hundred was a lot of women to maneuver around the countryside, but they quickly worked it all out.

The only thing that beat them was how they were going to eat. It would be three days to Odessa, even if there were no holdups. Robert took out the wad of dollar bills from his pants pocket and passed it surreptitiously to Isabelle. They could get a whole heap of rubles for that many dollars, and buy food for everyone en route. Along with the money, he handed over the wad of tickets he’d quietly pocketed while chatting to Józef.

When they got up to leave, the women’s eyes were aglow with excitement. They looked at Robert as if he were a combination of Galahad and Cary Grant; it was an effort to maintain his officer-like bearing while they smothered his face with kisses. Amid this cloud of bliss, Robert’s sensible side was just thankful that he hadn’t been followed—this little scene would have made any bird dog suspicious.

While her friends treated him like a hero, Isabelle gazed seriously at him: the same appraising look she’d given him on that first evening at the hotel. “Demain,” she murmured, “nous verrons bien. Tomorrow we shall see.” Then suddenly she smiled, reached up to him, and kissed him softly on both cheeks. “Adieu,” she said. And then, chivvying her friends ahead of her, she was gone, the door swinging shut behind them.

It was the last he ever saw of any of them.

Józef was brewing coffee in the back office when he was startled by a violent rapping of knuckles on the ticket window.

Muttering a curse against impatient travelers, he ambled through. At first he wasn’t at all surprised by the sight of a Soviet officer, backed by two armed soldiers. Russians were hardly an uncommon sight in the station, and the officers could often be imperious. But this one did look particularly stern. To a Pole who had lived through the Soviet rule and the Nazi regime, the sight of an irate man in uniform with urgent business was worrying. There was a fourth man with them—a nondescript civilian in workman’s clothes. Józef didn’t know it, but he was the very man who had followed Captain Trimble out of the station earlier that morning.

This looked bad; Józef had visions of the Brygidki prison, and of himself lying dead in some backstreet.

The officer ordered him to open the door. He obeyed instantly, and all four men came into the office. “Where is the coat the American officer left here?” the Russian officer snapped. Józef indicated the parka, still hanging on the chair where he had left it. The officer seized it and searched it, turning out all the pockets, feeling inside the sleeves and the lining, under the fur collar.

Nothing. The officer directed a short burst of angry Russian at the civilian informer, who shrugged and muttered something about having seen what he had seen and come as quickly as he could. No, he didn’t know where the American had gone. He only had one pair of legs.

Throwing down the coat, the officer turned to the terrified Józef and uttered the words every Pole most dreaded to hear: “You are coming with us.”

The word spread from farm to farm, from village to remote homestead—wherever the Frenchwomen had found refuge, the news came. Deliverance was at hand.

In ones and twos, in small groups and large bands, the women gathered their few belongings and, saying farewell to the kind Polish families who had sheltered them, took to the roads in the fading light of dusk. They passed unseen across fields, through isolated copses and along country lanes.

Arriving first at the woodland rendezvous, Isabelle and her friends watched their countrywomen congregate, chattering excitedly in lowered voices. There were greetings and snatches of song and laughter.

Would it all be worthwhile? Would the American honor his word? Those few who had met him were confident he would, and others just had faith that their fortunes must change. But they all knew that the American’s word and his honor might not be enough. There was also skill and cunning to reckon up, not to mention luck. The NKVD was a dangerous opponent.

The women settled down to wait through the long, cold night.

Robert woke with a sense of dread. I’m crazy, he thought, wondering, not for the first time, what he’d got himself into. How had he ever imagined he could pull off a stunt like this? Four hundred women? Crazy, completely insane.

He went over the plan again and again in his mind. Was there anything he could have done differently? Countless things, probably, but he couldn’t think of them, other than to tell Isabelle No right at the start. Well, that had been out of the question. Beneath the anxiety, Robert was conscious of a sense of joy at the thought of setting all those women free. The same feeling he had about all his missions, but this was an extra-large slice of it.

When he looked at it cold, he knew he’d done the best he could in the time available—much like all his activities since coming to this country. If it wasn’t enough—why, he’d told them all along that he was an airman and a soldier, not a spy. He’d said those very words to Colonel Hampton, back at Poltava on the day he arrived, when they sprung their big surprise on him. (Had that really been less than two months ago?)

Robert went down to the dining room for breakfast. He was determined to resist the urge to go out to the train station. There was no need. He’d set his plan in motion; it was out of his hands now. He absolutely didn’t need to go there, no matter how much his curiosity urged him to.

He kept this up for about an hour. Then he put on his hat and jacket (regretting the parka he’d sacrificed the day before) and set out on foot for the station. He had to know whether any problems had arisen, or if there was any news of the outcome.

When he was still making his way along the station avenue, he began to get a sense that something wasn’t right. Drawing closer, he noticed that there seemed to be a few more Russian soldiers in front of the station than was normal. They also looked more alert than usual. Robert was already feeling the sinking weight in his stomach when he walked into the station concourse and saw even more soldiers—there must have been a full platoon of them—guarding the ticket office, the waiting room, the dining hall, and the platform entrances, detaining people and questioning them.

Before he’d even had a chance to take in the scene, Robert was confronted by a Soviet captain. He reeked of NKVD and seemed to recognize Robert on sight.

“You are Captain Robert Trimble, of the American Eastern Command from Poltava?” he said in English.

Fighting down the sick sensation, Robert acknowledged that he was and produced his passport. While the Russian studied it, Robert glanced at the ticket office; there was a different face behind the glass, no sign of Józef. Gathering up his indignation, Robert demanded to know the meaning of this inconvenience. “I am an authorized representative of the United States Military Mission and Eastern Command. You have no right to—”

“I have every right,” the Russian captain interrupted, “to detain and question foreign persons who are suspected of giving aid to possible anti-Soviet spies in the territories governed by the forces of the Soviet Union. I have evidence that you are assisting four hundred such persons to leave Poland, without submitting them to the relevant authorities for screening.”

Now Robert knew for certain that they had got to Józef. This possibility had been discussed, and they had agreed that Józef should not attempt to resist interrogation. He should admit to the number of tickets and the arrangements for payment, but claim ignorance of anything else. Robert could only pray that the Russians hadn’t taken the interrogation further, because the thought of Józef resisting torture was as bad as the thought of him spilling the whole plan.

The captain had no power to arrest Robert, but he detained him at the station while his men conducted their searches. The one thing that gave Robert hope was the fact that they seemed to expect the passengers to arrive here. They must have a low opinion of his intelligence. Sometimes it was good to be thought a fool.

Hour followed hour. Robert heard the familiar railroad sounds echoing through the halls—arrivals, departures, freight cars being shunted in the huge marshaling yard next to the station. It was impossible to tell which of them was the incoming train from Przemysl, bound for Odessa. He knew the Soviet captain had men up on the platforms, detaining and boarding every train in the hope of finding illicit passengers in it. If the Russian was smart, he’d detain every train for the next twenty-four hours, or send them all out filled with NKVD guards.

Robert looked at his watch, and wondered how Isabelle was.

Freedom held its breath . . .

Outside the city, once it had shaken itself clear of the suburbs, the main rail line cut across the vast, gently rolling farmlands and flat marshes, taking a great sweep eastward before turning southeast toward the Ukraine and Odessa. About ten miles out from Lwów, it passed through a mile-long stretch of woodland. Shallow banks of scrub grass and bushes rose on either side of the track, and met a dense tree line. Hidden among the pines on the slope above the tracks, shivering in the bitter cold, was Isabelle.

She and her friends had been hiding, keeping their anxious vigil, all through the freezing night, waiting for deliverance or disaster. Isabelle hadn’t conceived the plan, but she shared the weight of responsibility. She had believed she could trust Robert and had led her countrywomen to believe they could too. If the rendezvous failed, or if it led to incarceration in a Soviet camp for all of them, she would bear part of the blame.

Morning had come and worn away; midday had passed, and yet there was no sign of the train. If it didn’t come, or if it was filled with Russians, or if any one of a hundred mishaps occurred, all the women could look forward to was more imprisonment, more suffering, quite possibly death. Isabelle, her heart sinking, dug into the dwindling reserves of hope that had kept her going through the past two years. The train had to come; it must.

Isabelle believed in Robert. He was a good man; perhaps even a hero. But in this world, there were limits to what good men could do.

Isabelle’s faith was wavering, hope slipping from her fingers, when she heard the faint whistle in the distance. She tensed. There was no mistaking it: the sound of an approaching train.

Would it be the right one; would it be expecting the signal? Would there be agents of the NKVD on board? Those creatures were everywhere. This moment would show whether her American was a hero after all. Isabelle’s heart beat faster. When she saw the steam above the trees beyond the distant bend in the track, she rose from her hiding place and ran down the slope. Slipping on the ice, stumbling over the stones, she clambered onto the rail bed and stood up in the center of the tracks. She raised the sign she had made: a sheet of board bearing a single hopeful word scratched in charcoal: “France.”

The locomotive thundered toward her, shaking the ground under her feet. Holding her sign in the air, Isabelle waited for freedom . . . or death.

In the cab, the engineer peered ahead through the rushing smoke and steam. Suddenly he spotted the tiny figure; he swore and yelled a warning to the fireman. The brakes slammed on, the wheels locked, shrieking on the rails, scrubbing off speed as the train bore down on the tiny figure of the woman. Isabelle closed her eyes and prayed. The locomotive slid and shuddered, throwing forward a huge billow of steam that embraced her, blanking her from sight.

As the train came to a halt, the engineer, fearing the worst, jumped down from the cab and ran through the fog to the front of the engine. As he got there, the steam cleared. There was the young woman. She was still standing, her face pale, close enough to reach out and touch the engine in front of her.

They stared at each other.

The engineer came to his senses first, and shouted at her in Polish: “Well, come on, woman!” he said. “Don’t just stand there—we’re late!” Whipping off his cap, he waved it in the air. Isabelle snapped out of her stupor. At that moment, cheers broke out from every direction: dozens upon dozens of women emerged from their hiding places among the trees and came hurrying down the slope toward the train. With a cry of “Allons! Allons en France!” Isabelle flung her sign aside and joined the other women swarming along the trackside and clambering in through the car doors.

The American had proven himself. They were on their way to freedom.

The Soviet captain glared at Robert as he walked away. He had no further excuse to detain him. When five hours had come and gone, it was obvious that nobody was coming to board a train, let alone four hundred people. “Maybe they saw you and your men and changed their minds,” Robert suggested. The captain knew he’d missed something, but there was nothing he could do. He might even have been wondering if this whole charade was an elaborate bluff to distract the NKVD from something more important going on elsewhere.

Robert bade the captain a polite farewell and walked out into the cold sunshine, heading back along the well-worn route toward the city center, tired but triumphant.

It was time to go.

Robert had packed, and was ready to leave. Tucking the empty money vest into the top of his kit bag, Robert turned and looked at himself in the mirror, straightening his tie.

He was leaving Lwów. Several days had passed since the departure of Isabelle, and his money and store of rations were about used up. What was more, he was being recalled. It seemed his aggravation of the Soviet authorities in Poland had built to the point where Moscow had taken notice. Whether it was bunking in Polish homes rather than official Soviet barracks, holding off senior officers with a pistol, smuggling POWs, or bamboozling suspicious NKVD captains, sooner or later something had to give.

But he’d be back, he told himself. There was a mission in this country still unfinished. He figured he’d exfiltrated as many as a thousand people out of Poland since the middle of February, but there were still a lot of strays out there: Americans, British, French, and all the nationalities of the Allied nations. The numbers were getting fewer, but the cases were all the more desperate. Those that remained tended to be the ones least able to care for themselves: the sick and the starved. They were likely to be a major challenge for one man on his own. But there had to be hope. Maybe he’d have to return with another salvage team as cover.

Isabelle and her compatriots had reached Odessa safely. This morning the news had reached him at the hotel, having found its way back along the chain of railroad workers to Lwów: “Liberation of France successful,” said the cryptic note. He’d known it would be okay; once people were on the train for Odessa, they were likely to be let alone.

Robert put on his parka, thankful to have it back. He’d been to the station the day before to collect it. Józef had been there, back at work in his usual window, a little paler than he’d been before, but still in one piece. As well as his parka, Robert got from him an account of how the rendezvous had worked out.

A jeep with a Russian driver had been provided to take Robert out to the airfield. He tossed his kit bag and pack in the back, climbed in, and the jeep sped off across Mickiewicz Square and up the grand avenue. The Soviets for once were falling over themselves to be helpful, so long as it meant he was leaving the country. Or maybe they just wanted to be sure he’d go.

The C-47 took off, and as it circled around to head east, Robert looked out the window. The city was emerging from its winter shell. The snows were thawing slowly, and out in the countryside streaks of green were showing through the white. A fanciful person might have taken it as a symbol of warmth and hope for the future.

In fact, the opposite would have been truer. The Russian bear was stirring from its winter lethargy, and was about to tighten its claws around its possessions. The Soviets had decided that the time had come to curtail American movement once and for all. Their patience with American interference in their territory had come to an end. As Robert looked down from the C-47 climbing over Lwów, he had no idea that he was seeing the city for the last time. His mission was over, and he was about to be launched on a course that would thrust him right to the sharp end of US-Soviet relations and push the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.

Previous: 15. ISABELLE