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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17.

BLOOD SACRIFICE

The storm had been gathering slowly, over many weeks and months, but when the lightning fell on Poltava it did so with shocking suddenness. Soviet mistrust of American activities in Poland had swollen to a dangerous level.

Captain Robert M. Trimble and Colonel James D. Wilmeth both rode the skirts of the storm into Poltava, landing just before it broke. Both officers had helped to stir up the tempest. Now, as it swept across Eastern Command, both would find themselves maneuvered into positions where they would have to help their comrades weather it. For Captain Trimble the part he would be forced to play would reveal to him the sickening duplicity and dishonor of politics on the grand scale.

On the 28th of March, Major General S. K. Kovalev, commanding officer of the Poltava Air Base, on instructions from Moscow, issued an order forbidding all flights by American aircraft. All transports belonging to Eastern Command and Air Transport Command were grounded. Salvaged bombers waiting to be ferried back to their units were barred from leaving. More than a dozen rescued combat crews from the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces—more than one hundred and eighty men—were stranded. The Soviets even refused clearance for the evacuation of six wounded airmen whose injuries were too severe for Eastern Command’s little hospital to treat properly.

In Poland, ongoing salvage work on downed American aircraft was brought to an immediate halt. The salvage teams were detained by the NKVD, and the planes they had been working on, together with their transports, were sealed. From now on, the local Soviets said, all force-landed American aircraft would be regarded as trophies of war and would be repaired and flown out by the Red Army Air Force.

Tensions escalated.

On March 30, General Aleksei I. Antonov, Red Army chief of staff, wrote an indignant letter to General Deane, in which he set forth a list of actions by individual American personnel that had “violated the order established by the Command of the Red Army.” Apparently oblivious to the irony, Antonov upbraided the Americans for having breached the code of good behavior that was expected between allies and having perpetrated a “rude violation of the elementary rights of our friendly mutual relationship.”

Antonov didn’t mention the unauthorized exfiltration of ex–prisoners of war, because he didn’t know about it; no Soviet officials did (although a few NKVD bird dogs on the ground in Poland clearly suspected that Captain Trimble had been up to something nefarious under cover of aircrew rescue). But Antonov did complain stridently about the behavior of Colonel Wilmeth, who had insisted on staying in Lublin beyond the agreed date of March 11, for no good reason that the Russians could see (or were willing to recognize).

But Wilmeth’s misdemeanors were minor compared with the actions of three otherwise obscure individuals. Two were American bomber pilots, and the third was a Russian engineer. Each one had perpetrated deeds which proved in Stalin’s eyes that the Americans were engaging in espionage and giving secret aid to anti-Soviet Polish partisans.

The first of these men was Lieutenant Myron King, one of the dozens of B-17 pilots who made forced landings in Poland in early 1945. On February 3, Lieutenant King’s Fortress, Maiden USA, was damaged in a raid on Germany, and he had to make an emergency landing at a Soviet airfield near Warsaw. After a two-day stopover, King was ordered by the Russians to fly on to another Soviet base, escorted by a Soviet plane. During the flight, the B-17 crew discovered that a young Polish man had stowed away. They thought little of it, believing him to be an official interpreter working for the Soviets. Unable to pronounce his Polish name, they called him “Jack Smith.” He was suffering from the cold, so they allowed him to put on some spare American flight clothes. Jack Smith confided to the Americans that he had an uncle in London, and begged them to let him come with them when they flew back to England.

When the two planes landed at Szczuczyn Airfield, the presence of Jack Smith was quickly discovered by the Soviets. He wasn’t an interpreter. The fact that he was dressed as an American airman caused instant suspicion. It appeared to the Russians that Lieutenant King was attempting to assist a disguised Polish saboteur to escape the country. The B-17 was seized and the crew was detained. The Russians kept the Americans in effective custody (although not actually under arrest) for seven weeks, transferring them from Szczuczyn in Poland to Lida in Belarus. Eventually, on the understanding that charges would be brought against Lieutenant King by the American authorities, the crew were cleared to fly on to Poltava, where they arrived on March 18. It was only when other suspicious incidents occurred that the Russians started believing that King’s actions were all part of a covert American plot.

One of those incidents was Captain Trimble’s arrival at Poltava on March 17 (the day before King) carrying four POWs disguised as American airmen. But that was a small affair—a mere irritant—compared with others that struck the Russians as deeply suspect.

On March 22, a B-24 Liberator piloted by Lieutenant Donald Bridge of the 459th Bomb Group, based in Italy, made an emergency landing at the airfield at Mielec, Poland. The bomber had run low on fuel during a raid, but was otherwise undamaged. This caused the Soviets to be immediately suspicious, and they barred Lieutenant Bridge from taking off once the plane had been refueled. After two days, Bridge decided that he wasn’t going to wait around for Soviet approval. Claiming that they were just going to check on their personal belongings, he and his crew went out to their aircraft and started it up. Avoiding Russian attempts to block them, they took off and flew back to their base in Italy.

The very same day that Lieutenant Bridge landed in Poland, another American B-24 took off from the Soviet base at Kecskemét in Hungary, where it had been under repair, bound for its home base in Italy. On board was a stowaway, a Captain Morris Shenderoff, who was one of the Soviet aircraft engineers at Kecskemét. Morris Shenderoff was American by birth and citizenship, but also part Russian. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, as a teenager he was taken back to the mother country by his Russian parents. The family decided to stay in the Soviet Union. Although young Morris Shenderoff wanted to go home to America, the Soviets took away his US passport.

When war broke out, Shenderoff, who had become a mechanic, was drafted into the Red Army. After a series of appalling experiences on the Eastern Front, he was severely wounded and transferred to the Air Force. He ended up working as an engineer at the base at Kecskemét. The NKVD were suspicious of him, especially when he made friends with the crew of an American B-24 that was under repair. He told the Americans his story, and the pilot, Lieutenant Charles Raleigh, agreed to fly him out. Shenderoff boarded the B-24 in his capacity as engineer, and the crew took off, telling the Soviets that it was a routine test flight. As soon as they were airborne, they set a course and flew to Italy.

When the bomber landed at Bari in Italy, Shenderoff identified himself to the American authorities and pleaded for asylum, claiming what he believed were his rights as a US citizen. He was taken into custody, interrogated, and detained while a decision was made about what to do with him. The Soviets, furious about his defection, began making strident demands for his return.

General Antonov informed General Deane that all these Americans’ actions had caused “extreme perplexity” to Red Army Air Force personnel. Indeed, Captain Melamedov, the officer at Mielec who had allowed Lieutenant Bridge’s plane to land was “so put out” that “on the very same day he shot himself.” Antonov laid all these crimes at the door of General Deane and demanded that he do something about them. While the Soviets waited for a response, all movements of American aircraft and personnel in Soviet territory were barred.

Tensions escalated further. At Poltava, General Kovalev started laying down plans for dealing with Eastern Command in the event of a sudden escalation to war between the United States and the USSR. All he had at his disposal was a technical battalion, an engineering battalion, and a unit of SMERSH, the Red Army’s counterintelligence branch. Each unit was briefed accordingly. If hostilities broke out, the American camp would be surrounded, all American planes and munitions would be seized, and American radio communications would be shut down. Any US personnel caught outside the camp would be detained at special facilities in the city of Poltava.

The Americans knew nothing of these plans, but they were acutely aware of the atmosphere of tension and imminent breakdown. Eastern Command began working round the clock to secure its classified documents, and it was noticed that the adjutant had begun wearing his pistol on duty.

Presented with a choice of a diplomatic—maybe even military—face-off or a conciliation, the United States didn’t hesitate: it chose conciliation. The war wasn’t won yet, and the West might need Soviet help to defeat Japan. The generals and the politicians involved cited sensible reasons for the diplomatic path they took, but in truth the Americans had simply been wrong-footed by the sheer brazen self-righteousness of the Russians. From this moment on, all American pressure on the Russians over the evacuation of ex–prisoners of war came to an end. The day before the Soviet order that grounded American aircraft, Ambassador Harriman had still been up in arms, writing to Foreign Minister Molotov “setting forth our complaints regarding the treatment of our prisoners of war liberated by the Red Army.” That wouldn’t happen again.

Official POW contact, such as it was, now passed to the British, who were allowed to send a team into Poland, on terms similar to those endured by Colonel Wilmeth. Having regarded the British as the more suspect of its allies, the Soviet Union now seemed to be coming around to the view that the United States was the one to watch. It was as if the Russians were realizing that the openhandedness of the Americans, with supplies, intelligence, and general cooperation, might be some kind of ruse.

Lord Halifax, the British ambassador in Washington, advised the US secretary of state that Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, was “of the opinion that it would be better for the present not to renew the attempt to secure permission for contact officers to enter Poland.” Eden was convinced that “the Soviet Government suspects that the contact officers would, under cover of dealings with prisoners of war, proceed to contact Polish leaders, and, in fact to convert themselves into the proposed Observation Mission.” The Observation Mission was a scheme by the British and American governments to place observers in Soviet-occupied Poland to monitor and report on conditions there. Nothing could have been more guaranteed to provoke Soviet anger.

And so the British and the Americans both began acceding to Soviet demands. At Russia’s insistence, court-martial proceedings were initiated against Lieutenants Donald Bridge and Myron King. In Italy, there were deliberations over whether Morris Shenderoff ought to be sent back to Russia.

Flexing their muscles, the Soviets escalated their demands still further. They insisted on the removal of senior Eastern Command officers whom they didn’t like. The first to go was the commanding officer, Colonel Hampton. He had aggravated the Russians by commenting negatively on their behavior in Poland, by attempting to expedite Wilmeth’s journey to Lublin, by being combative in his dealings with his Soviet opposite number, and by generally standing up for what he saw as the rights of Americans.

The Military Mission in Moscow acquiesced, and on April 10, Colonel Hampton was officially notified that he was being relieved of his command (“without prejudice”) and reassigned to USSTAF headquarters in Paris. As of April 11, operations officer Major Michael Kowal would assume command. The Soviets were notified accordingly.

They weren’t satisfied. Lieutenant General Nikolai V. Slavin of the Red Army General Staff, the Soviet liaison officer for the American Military Mission, wrote to General Hill to protest, and General Hill immediately cabled Colonel Hampton: “Have just received a letter from Slavin which states that Major Kowal has shown himself to be inamiable and frequently hostile . . . and was a source of deterioration of relationship.” The retention of Major Kowal at Poltava, Slavin said, was “absolutely undesirable.” Having held the command for less than a day, Kowal was relieved of it and notified that he too was being reassigned to USSTAF HQ.

That left Eastern Command with a power vacuum. They had several majors at Poltava, but none of them were flyers. The AAF, like air forces everywhere, had a regulation that the officer in command of an air base must be a rated pilot. It happened that the ranking pilot at Poltava right now was none other than Captain Robert M. Trimble.

On April 12, bewildered and reluctant, Robert became the CO of Eastern Command. General Hill asked USSTAF to send a more experienced officer, but it never happened. Into the lap of Robert M. Trimble, the humble captain who’d already had far more than he’d bargained for since leaving England, fell the task of repairing the diplomatic damage that his actions had helped to cause. If the Soviets were conscious of the irony of appointing the one man who had done more than any other to defy Soviet control in Poland, they never showed it.

As it turned out, Robert’s first day in command was also very nearly his last.

From different directions, fourteen hundred miles apart, two B-24 Liberators were heading toward Poltava. Both carried passengers who were important, but in very different ways. Both planes were scheduled to stop at Poltava for refueling before heading on again. One of them was destined to almost cause a diplomatic incident.

The American and Russian commands at Poltava had been notified of the arrival of the two planes. One was coming from Moscow; aboard were General Deane and General Hill, who were en route to the United States. The other was coming from Bari in Italy en route to Moscow, carrying a passenger whose identity was not disclosed.

Somehow, perhaps due to the shift of command, perhaps due to the strained relations between Americans and Soviets, and certainly due in part to the secrecy surrounding the Moscow-bound plane, wires were crossed, and nobody quite knew which of the two planes was coming in at which time. Eastern Command’s officers were under the mistaken impression that the aircraft from Italy, heading for Moscow on a “special Soviet mission,” was a B-17.

It was near lunchtime when the tower received word that a B-24 Liberator, call-sign 6E, serial 771, was approaching the field. Personnel who had been on standby were alerted. A ground crew and a refueling crew headed out to the hardstandings. The word spread that this was the Deane and Hill flight. Thoroughly accustomed to greeting planeloads of VIPs during the Yalta Conference, a reception committee of Russian and American officers hopped into jeeps and zoomed away down the road to the field. Among the party was brand-new commanding officer Captain Trimble. Robert wasn’t at all accustomed to VIPs. Colonel Hampton, doing all he could to ease the transition, was accompanying him, and would take the strain of the occasion.

The heavens had decided to rain on Robert’s first day. The snows had thawed, and Poltava was being steadily soaked by spattering showers. In the open jeeps the officers pulled their collars up and their hats down, and waited for the plane to arrive.

Robert wondered what was happening in Poland while he was greeting generals. How many Americans were still hiding out or rotting in Soviet holding camps? The grounding of American aircraft, still in force after two weeks, irritated and worried everyone, but to Robert it was profoundly frustrating and disturbing. He wondered where Isabelle was now, or little Kasia’s mother. Beadle, Vergolina, Gould, McNeish—he knew they had reached freedom. Then there were all those gaunt men, the hundreds whose names he couldn’t recall (if he had ever known them) but whose faces lived in his memory, who had been put aboard the Odessa trains.

Had they made it? It was reported that Odessa was the one place where the Soviets were honoring their duty, but only because they were exchanging batches of Western ex-POWs for batches of their own. The fates of those repatriated Russians didn’t even bear thinking about.

“Here she comes,” said an officer sitting next to him, who was scanning the horizon. “Top brass, three o’clock level.”

The familiar silhouette of a B-24 was curving in to land. It touched down and taxied toward the hardstanding where the ground crews and reception committee were waiting. The officers got in line. To Robert and a few of the other airmen, something didn’t look right about the aircraft. Normally a Moscow VIP like Deane would fly in Becky, Ambassador Harriman’s passenger-converted Liberator. But the plane that was taxiing in front of the rain-soaked lineup was a combat B-24 with unit markings on her tail fins, a shark’s mouth decorating her nose, and the name Judith Ann written on her fuselage. And unless those were just the empty cooling barrels protruding from the gun positions, she also appeared to be fully armed.

Judith Ann rolled to a stop. The little parade of officers saluted and waved, a little uncertainly, and waited for the visitors to disembark and exchange polite greetings. The official photographer snapped a picture. The officers waited . . . and waited. Figures could be seen in the waist gun window, but nobody got out.

Robert, with no experience of the proper protocol, thought perhaps the generals were waiting for him to come and greet them. Whatever it was, as commanding officer he’d better investigate. He glanced at Colonel Hampton, who nodded.

At that moment, another jeep came racing across the field and drew up on the hardstanding. A group of Russian officers, looking like they meant serious business and all very conspicuously wearing pistols outside their greatcoats, jumped out and stood between Judith Ann and the reception committee. Robert walked toward the plane, but his way was barred by one of the Russians.

“Instructions from General Kovalev,” said the Russian officer. “No American personnel are to approach this airplane. It is engaged in a special Soviet mission. Refueling only is permitted. Please instruct your fuel men to begin their work. All other personnel are required to leave, please.”

This must be the plane from Italy en route to Moscow. But why would a combat B-24 from a group down in Italy be engaged in special missions for the Soviets? Given all the US combat aircraft that had been salvaged and stolen by them, the arrival of this one now was deeply suspicious.

“This is an American AAF aircraft,” said Robert. “All American aircraft at this base are the responsibility of Eastern Command. I’m going to inspect it.”

He went to pass the Russian officer, who barred his way again.

Robert, his hackles rising, tried again. “As of today, I am the commanding officer here. All US aircraft landing at this base are subject to my clearance. I demand to know the full schedule and purpose of this aircraft.”

He glanced at the pistols on the Russians’ belts, and at the cold stares they were directing toward him. He was acutely conscious of the tension that had set Poltava on pins during the past two weeks, and even more conscious that he might be about to whip the tension into a crisis, but there was something going on here that stank. Bracing himself, he pushed past the Russian officer, ducked under the tail of the aircraft, and pulled open the access door.

Expecting the plane to be full of Russians, he was surprised to find himself staring at a group of startled American officers, including two immaculate Military Police captains. They sat on makeshift seats, and sandwiched between them was a disheveled, anxious-looking man wearing what appeared to be the uniform of a Soviet officer. His wrists were handcuffed. There were two other officers in the crowded waist section of the plane, a major and a colonel. Suddenly Robert felt very outranked.

“I’m Captain Robert Trimble, officer commanding Eastern Command. What is the purpose and schedule of this flight?” The officers glanced at one another and raised a skeptical eyebrow at his claim to be the CO, but said nothing. “This aircraft is not to proceed without my clearance. I’m not about to grant clearance to an aircraft that I believe to be suspicious.”

“This is an approved flight to Moscow,” said the colonel. Despite his American uniform, he had traces of Russian in his accent. “It has been authorized in advance by the Military Mission, Eastern Command, and the Soviet authorities.”

Robert looked at the handcuffed man again, and at last he understood—Italy, Moscow, a Russian officer . . . This must be the man the rumors had spoken of—the Russian captain who claimed to be American, who’d got himself flown from Hungary to Italy in a bid to escape. Shenderoff, Captain Shenderoff. So they’d decided to hand the poor guy over to the Russians, had they? Not if Robert Trimble could do anything about it. The Soviets weren’t the only ones who could be obstinate.

“It hasn’t been authorized by me,” he said. He stepped past the colonel and squeezed along the narrow walkway through the bomb bay, heading for the front of the plane. (He’d forgotten how tight it was getting from one end of a Lib to the other.) In the radio compartment behind the cockpit, he took a headset from the operator and ignored the stares of the pilots.

“Tower, this is Trimble; I’ve got a B-24 here with no schedule and what looks like a Russian political prisoner on board. First, I want you to make clear to the Russians that this flight is not clear for takeoff unless they fully disclose its purpose . . .”

“Sir—”

“Second, get Moscow on the horn immediately, relay the situation, and put them through to me.”

“Sir, is that B-24 number 49771, with er, lemme see . . . a shark mouth paint job, yellow cowls, and checkerboard tail with black diamond?”

“That’s the one.”

“Sir, the Soviets have already cleared this flight, and we’ve had authorization from Moscow, no questions to be asked. We have to clear it.”

Robert stood with the headset against his ear, wondering what to do next. Did he dare defy Moscow? In the silence that followed, he heard a hubbub of voices from the back of the plane, speaking Russian. General Kovalev himself had arrived on the scene and was loudly demanding to know what was going on.

Kovalev was a small man with Asian eyes and a bald head, an exquisite manner and a permanent retinue of pretty female interpreters. He adored parties and, during the heyday of Eastern Command, had been an enthusiastic participant in officers’ club dances—drinking, dancing, and laughing the night away.

He wasn’t laughing now. General Kovalev believed himself to be a man at the leading edge of a country about to go to war with its principal ally, and he was liable to explode at the slightest provocation. Nonetheless, he had been ordered by Marshal Stalin to dial down the antagonism in his handling of the Americans. His heavy jaw was set, and he glared at this young captain who had dared to interfere with a secret Soviet mission ordered by Moscow.

“What is happening here?” he asked.

Again, but with less conviction, Robert stated his refusal to clear the flight. Kovalev took in the situation and understood immediately. “Captain, I see what you are attempting to do, but your actions are ill-advised. If you leave this airplane now, this incident will not be reported.” Robert noticed Colonel Hampton at the doorway, gesturing at him to come out. He glanced at the handcuffed prisoner. “I assure you,” said Kovalev, “this man will receive justice. Now please leave.”

Robert was reminded of the Soviet officer at Rostov, assuring him that the stowaway boy would “get his wish.” He could still hear the gunshot.

There was nothing he could do. He was outranked and outnumbered ten times over. Obeying Hampton’s urgent beckoning, he disembarked from the plane, defeated and ashamed. The door was slammed shut, and Captain Shenderoff’s fate was sealed.

The reason for Kovalev’s sudden appearance became clear when a second B-24 was seen taxiing in from the runway. This was Becky, the VIP transport from Moscow. The plane drew up on the hardstanding next to Judith Ann and halted. Here at last were the brass.

Still in a daze, Captain Trimble helped Colonel Hampton greet the generals. It was hard to tell Deane and Hill apart physically: similar height, similar build, dressed in identical raincoats. Blunt-featured, Major General Edmund W. Hill looked more like a cop than a general. His roots were in the pioneering spirit of the early aviators; he’d served in the infantry in World War I and later became an airman, with an amateur passion for airship and balloon piloting (his 1928 sporting license was signed by Orville Wright himself). Now he was the go-to man for contact with the OSS. Major General John R. Deane, on the other hand, looked exactly like the smooth military politician he was. As Robert was introduced to them by Colonel Hampton, it didn’t occur to him that gathered here were the only three men in Russia—Hampton, Hill, and Deane—who had known all about his covert mission.

They were in an upbeat mood, and Hampton pulled out all the stops to warm Hill and Deane’s welcome. They noticed the B-24 parked nearby, but made no comment. Although General Deane knew exactly who was aboard, even down to the composition of the crew, he didn’t acknowledge it.

The generals and the reception committee drove back to the headquarters site, leaving the ground crews to check and fuel up the two aircraft. The official photographer lingered for a while, taking pictures. He had no idea what had gone on with the two planes and had missed the actual arrival of the generals. Soon he too departed the scene. Sealed inside Judith Ann, the crew, the passengers, and their prisoner waited.

An hour after she had arrived, Judith Ann’s engines roared into life again, and she taxied out and took off toward Moscow. On arrival, Captain Morris Shenderoff was handed over to a Major Storbanov of the Red Army. Lieutenant Colonel Stepanovich, the American with a slight Russian accent, was careful to obtain a receipt for the handover.

At that point, Morris Shenderoff, who had been born in Cleveland, and whose only desire had been to escape the country of his ancestors and return to the land of his birth, disappeared. Nobody, from General Deane down to Captain Trimble, ever learned for certain what happened to him. But a rumor later reached Poltava that he was shot within minutes of leaving the plane.

The Soviets had taken one of the scalps they had demanded. There would be more before this was all over.

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Next: 18. SPARE THE CONQUERED, CONFRONT THE PROUD