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




The President was dead.

On the grim stone road outside their barracks, in the shadow of the old bombed ruins, the officers and men of Eastern Command mustered, immaculate in their dress uniforms. They formed up four abreast in a long column that filled the road. At its head was a color guard of three men bearing the flag of the United States, the first time in Eastern Command’s existence that the Stars and Stripes had been flown at Poltava. The colors had been brought out of storage, and this parade had been mustered, to mark the passing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The news had reached Poltava the previous morning via British radio. The Americans, already demoralized and resentful toward the Russians, were cast into an angry depression. They had lost their officers, and now they had lost their leader. Like the ousting of Colonel Hampton and Major Kowal, Roosevelt’s death was the fault of Stalin, they believed. The Soviet dictator was too frightened to leave his own country, so the sick president had been forced to travel all the way to Yalta for the Big Three conference, and the stress had been his final undoing.

General Kovalev made a gesture that helped heal the division; upon hearing the news, he immediately marshaled his officers and marched them to the American camp, where they paid their respects and offered their condolences. The Americans were surprised and touched to learn that the Russians too were upset by the death of Roosevelt. They had thought of him as Russia’s friend, a man who would bring peace to the world. They knew nothing of Truman, and it worried them.

Today, as Eastern Command paraded their colors and marched through the camp to the theater, where a memorial service was to be held, Poltava’s Red Army officers joined them, in a rare show of unity. With all the combat crews who were stranded at the base by the grounding of flights, the little theater was packed, with dozens of men sitting in the aisle. The colors were set either side of the stage, which was draped with the Stars and Stripes. Poignantly, on the right of the stage was a portrait of the President that had been painted by a Soviet artist some months ago, with a matching head of Stalin on the opposite side.

Seated in the front row were Eastern Command’s senior officers. Nervously, Captain Robert Trimble rose from his seat and mounted the stage. In the silence, he began his address. “Today the United States has lost a great leader,” he declared, and glanced down at Colonel Hampton, seated solemn-faced among the Soviet officers, and at Major Kowal, sitting with his fellow Americans. “And Eastern Command too has lost a leader.” Most of the men and women who heard him speak had only learned yesterday that he had been made commanding officer; some of them barely even knew who he was. It was a curious and almost chilling echo of the succession of President Truman.

Robert retained no memory of what else he said in his address, but it didn’t matter; in his opening lines he had said what really mattered to the Americans gathered in the theater. The leaders they knew and trusted were gone, and the future was uncertain. Like Captain Trimble, all they could do was push ahead and do their best, and not give up.

The day after the memorial service, the new commander and his officers held a conference with General Kovalev and his staff.

It seemed such an absurd situation. Robert had subordinates who outranked him—his executive officer was a major—and he was facing a Russian opposite number who was a general. But he gritted his teeth and did his best.

Despite the fact that he ranked lower than the men he was dealing with, there were still moments when he had to swallow his pride. Notwithstanding the brief show of Russian-American unity at the memorial service, relations were still tense, hovering on the brink of open conflict. In Soviet eyes, the Americans were in the wrong; they had behaved in suspicious ways in Poland and were still on a kind of probation. The ban on American flights and movements was still in force after more than two weeks.

During his stopover a few days ago, immediately after the incident over Shenderoff, General Hill had taken Robert aside and told him that he must do everything he possibly could to appease and cooperate with the Soviets. This meeting was the first step. It had been convened expressly for the purpose of asking General Kovalev if there was anything the Americans could do to improve relations.

Knowing the Soviets as he did, and with his firsthand knowledge of what they had done (and were still doing) in Poland raw and vivid in his memory, to Robert every word he spoke at that conference felt like an affront to his own morals and a blow to his self-esteem. He could feel himself becoming a part of the machine.

General Kovalev responded diplomatically. He had always been content in his relations with the Americans, he claimed. He understood their anxieties, which were no doubt caused by their inability to get their stranded combat crews home. Kovalev inquired kindly whether the Americans wished to take part in the upcoming May Day celebrations. And he suggested that if Captain Trimble should have any problems at all in running his command, he should come right away and talk them over. “Anything that you cannot settle by yourself,” the general said, “I am certain that you and I can handle easily together.”

It was an olive branch, in a way, but it was an olive branch offered to a young and inexperienced officer whom General Kovalev clearly believed he could push around and patronize. The words were kindly spoken, but the power remained in Soviet hands, and Eastern Command’s airplanes were still grounded until further notice. Over the weeks that followed, Captain Trimble would prove to be a little less easy to mollify than Kovalev had anticipated, but for now Robert held his temper in check and kept relations running smoothly.

Or at least, fairly smoothly. Robert kept his mouth shut about the POWs he believed were still stuck in Poland, but he quizzed Kovalev about the American salvage personnel who were trapped there by the flying ban. They must have long since run out of rations, and Robert had doubts about whether the Soviets would feed or take care of them properly. After a pointed inquiry to Kovalev about resuming salvage work, Robert received a message from Moscow ordering him to desist. Eastern Command’s role in salvage was at an end, he was told; the Russians would be conducting salvage of US aircraft from now on.

This was preposterous. As Robert and his chief engineering officer knew, the Russians didn’t have the skills to repair and fly an aircraft like the B-17 properly. There was also the Soviets’ history of stealing American aircraft. However, the Russians seemed intent on acting in good faith, and did repair some planes, fly them back to Poltava, and hand them over. Robert’s expectations were confirmed when a B-17 flew in with all four of its engines overheating and smoking like volcanoes. The Russian crew hadn’t known how to operate the cooling flaps built into the engine cowls. The Russian mechanics also had a habit of filching bits and pieces from salvaged planes, and they stole tools from Eastern Command’s stores.

In protest, Captain Trimble began refusing to accept any aircraft turned in by the Soviets in substandard condition. Another order came from Moscow: “Desire that you accept any American planes turned over to you from Soviets without raising question of missing parts with local Soviet command.” Robert replied that any aircraft repaired by the Soviets would need a complete overhaul by American mechanics. He also requested that Eastern Command be relieved of any responsibility for the safety and performance of Soviet-salvaged planes when they were sent back to their units. Hill authorized him to do the necessary remedial work on the planes, and to report any problems to him rather than to Kovalev.

What really got under the skin of the Americans at Poltava was the demoralizing sense of being trapped and ignored. There were still sick men in the hospital, needing evacuation to Tehran, and dozens of combat crewmen waiting to go back to their units. There was no mail delivery. And there was a simmering anger that the politicians, diplomats, and generals were giving way to the Soviets far too much.

The Russians, for their part, still felt that the Americans had not yet been punished enough for their airmen’s misbehavior in Poland. There were heads that still must roll.

Morris Shenderoff was not the only sacrifice the American Military Mission gave to the Soviets, but he was the only blood sacrifice. As April wore away and the Russians maintained their blockade on American flights in Soviet territory, two more AAF officers were punished. Near the end of the month, Lieutenant Donald Bridge, the pilot who had flown his B-24 from Mielec without Soviet clearance (allegedly causing a Russian officer to commit suicide in shame), was court-martialed at Fifteenth Air Force headquarters in Italy. He was found guilty and fined $600, and his record was besmirched. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Myron King, who had allegedly tried to smuggle the Pole “Jack Smith” to England, was being held at Poltava. He was awaiting transport to Moscow, where he was to be court-martialed in the US Embassy.

Acting as judge advocate at King’s court-martial would be none other than Lieutenant Colonel James D. Wilmeth, also stranded at Poltava by the flying ban. The defense was being organized by his comrade from the Lublin trip, Lieutenant Colonel Kingsbury. Lieutenant King’s defense counsel (who happened to be the only trained lawyer involved in the proceedings) was Second Lieutenant Leon Dolin, a B-17 pilot who had force-landed in Poland and who had been brought in from Lublin by Colonel Wilmeth.

The accused and the legal team were scheduled to fly from Poltava to Moscow on April 18, on a Russian-crewed, American-owned C-47. When Captain Trimble heard who the pilot was going to be, he immediately refused clearance. It was Lieutenant Roklikov, the crazed incompetent who had busted up a C-47 and nearly killed Robert’s salvage team with his bungled landing and takeoff at Staszów. Repeated attempts to have him removed from duty had come to nothing. Now Robert tried again. He sent a message to General Kovalev: “It is not within my jurisdiction to allow any American aircraft here to be flown by Lt Roklikov.”

Another meeting was called, and Robert experienced in full the Soviet ability to flatly deny reality. General Kovalev brushed away Robert’s expert eyewitness account of the pilot’s escapade at Staszów and insisted that Roklikov was an excellent pilot. “If I had an airplane of my own,” the general said blithely, “I would happily let him take it up and land it however he chose.”

This time Robert was determined not to be bowed. He refused to clear the flight. There was a stalemate, and it was Kovalev who was forced to give a little. Would it help if he were to personally guarantee the safety of Colonel Wilmeth and the other passengers? Robert said that it would not. The flight could not be cleared. But sensing that Kovalev would never yield, and feeling the pressure from Moscow to get the King case settled, Robert had to be content with Kovalev’s personal guarantee. Getting a Soviet officer to stake his honor on such a promise was quite an achievement.

Colonel Wilmeth and his party left Poltava that day, and made it to Moscow in one piece. They were taken directly to the embassy. Wilmeth had left this place over two months ago on his hopeful mission to help the prisoners of war in Poland. Having been treated shamefully by the Soviets there, he was returning in the role of their puppet prosecutor against a fellow American officer. As far as he could see, there was barely any case at all against the young lieutenant. But he was under orders to ransack the rulebook and cobble together whatever charges he could.

The charade began on April 25 and ran for two days, in an atmosphere of unease and ill will. Lieutenant King was found guilty and, like Lieutenant Bridge, was fined $600, with a permanent black mark on his record. The officers of the jury, ashamed of what they had taken part in, all signed a request for clemency, which they forwarded to General Deane, currently in Washington. Deane, effectively acting on behalf of the Soviets, denied the request. The purpose of this trial was not justice; it was diplomacy.

Diplomacy was satisfied. The sacrifices were sufficient, and the Americans had been humbled. The day after the verdict, General Kovalev officially lifted the ban on American flights in and out of Poltava. On that day, Captain Robert Trimble, sensing the return of peace to his command, cabled Moscow: “On twenty eighth day of Soviet grounding . . . local test hops for combat and transportation aircraft allowed. . . . One B-17 and one P-51 scheduled to depart for Italy tomorrow with Soviets quite cooperative.”

Knowing what this peace had cost, Robert was disgusted. He felt ashamed of himself and, for the first time in his life, ashamed of his country. It was only chance that had prevented Robert himself from being part of the court-martial. His name had been on the list of potential court members, and only his appointment as CO had saved him. The mood throughout Eastern Command was low. The officers and men felt that they had been let down by their superiors. The Soviets had been appeased when they should have been stood up to.

Lieutenant Myron King returned to Poltava that same day. He had been flown out of Moscow in a rush, in case the Soviets made a stink about the leniency of his sentence. Captain Trimble took advantage of the lifting of the flying ban and ensured that King and his crew got on a flight the very next day to Tehran (their B-17, Maiden USA, had already been ferried back to England). When General Kovalev—learning of their departure after the event—complained, Robert advised him to take the matter up with Moscow.

In his few quiet moments, when he was able to give thought to his own situation, Robert wondered what might have happened to him if he’d been caught in any of his prisoner-exfiltration missions. If this was what they would do to men who’d given the kind of trivial offense that King and Bridge had, what would the Soviets have done to him? Well, he knew the answer to that already—they’d most likely have killed him off quietly, somewhere out in the wilds, and blamed the partisans and terrorists. Would the US generals in Moscow have stood up for him and held them to account? He doubted it. To do so would have been to admit their complicity. That was why there were no written orders and no trail leading from his activities back to them.

What Robert couldn’t reconcile was the contradiction. On one hand there was the moral urge, the sense of loyalty and brotherhood that had made his superiors bring him here and send him out to rescue his compatriots; on the other was their willingness to sacrifice innocent people to the Soviets now—not just these three officers but the men and women left behind in Poland. Robert didn’t understand politics, and maybe never would.

Everything was coming to an end.

At 1900 hours Poltava time on May 7, 1945, the BBC, broadcasting from London, announced that the war in Europe was over. They were a tad premature, as the final surrender would not be signed until the following day. Nonetheless, the pent-up emotions among the Americans at Poltava, and the natural joy at the end of the conflict, produced an explosion of celebration. They danced and sang in the streets, firing their weapons in the air.

Russian soldiers watched the display with surprise and puzzlement. When told the reason, they refused to believe it; the end of the war had not been announced by Moscow, so it could not be true. The next day, there was still no word from the Kremlin. Finally, in the early hours of May 9, the word came through: the Great Patriotic War was officially over—the Germans were beaten. The Russian contingent at Poltava erupted in a display of jubilation even greater than their American counterparts’. Later that day, a joint parade was held in the city. Once again Eastern Command marched in pride behind the colors of the United States. Soon, they believed, their job would be done and they would be able to pack up and go home.

Everything was coming to an end. Everything except the ghosts and the memories that would linger for decades among the men and women who had served.

A reception was held at the US Embassy in Moscow to celebrate Victory in Europe, and as CO of Eastern Command, Captain Robert Trimble was invited.

He arrived in Moscow filled with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Robert would be mingling with the very topmost of the top brass, and he had mixed feelings about them, and the contradiction that he would never be able to reconcile. It was they who had foreseen the cruelty of Soviet conduct in Poland and had conceived the humane covert mission that had brought him to Russia. They had, in effect, risked all for the sake of American servicemen. That made them noble and honorable, didn’t it? He couldn’t have done what he had in Poland if they hadn’t put the means in his hands and provided him with cover. But when it came to the final diplomatic horse-trading, those same men had sold their own officers, and the entire nation of Poland, to the Soviets. Or their masters in London and Washington had, and they had helped enact the bargain.

What would happen to Józef now, or that delightful lady who ran the Hotel George, or the Kratke family on their farm at Staszów? Would the young girl’s brother, Tadeusz, ever be able to return home? Would the citizens ever be safe after dark on the streets of Lwów?

Robert took a cab from the airport and was driven to the US Embassy. It stood on Novinskiy Boulevard, one of the grand thoroughfares encircling the heart of the Russian capital. The embassy was even bigger and more impressive than the one in London, a glorious, palatial building in honey-colored stone and white stucco. Remembering what had happened to him the last time he entered an American embassy, Robert felt a little uneasy. And the idea of lavish parties when there were so many people suffering made him uncomfortable. Perhaps he could at least talk to someone in power, and get them to put pressure on the Russians to alleviate the situation at Poltava. Morale was still low, with the Soviets still being awkward about American flights. And mail was still not getting through.

He was greeted by a young attaché from the Military Mission, who escorted him to the ballroom. The place was brimming over with gold braid and satin gowns. Senior officers of the armies, air forces, and navies of the three allies mingled with civilians of the diplomatic corps, nibbling canapés and guzzling wine, and gossiping at the tops of their voices under the crystal chandeliers.

As he was escorted around the room and introduced to people, Robert was warned sotto voce by his companion that half the Russian women present were employed by the NKVD. There really was no escaping them—from the streets of Lwów to the heart of the diplomatic mission, the Soviets got their spies and informers everywhere. In a culture so obsessed with spying, it was hardly surprising that you ended up with the kind of mean-spirited paranoia that treated ex–prisoners of war like potential partisans, and men like King, Bridge, and Shenderoff like terrorists.

The attaché steered Robert toward a little group of very senior-looking people. He recognized General Deane. Standing beside him was a thin man with a cheerfully gaunt face, as if someone had given Abe Lincoln a shave and told him a really good joke.

Deane drew Robert into the group. “Averell,” he said to the thin man, “this is Captain Trimble, our excellent new commanding officer at Poltava.”

So this was Ambassador Harriman. He offered his hand. “Delighted to meet you, Captain. So you’re the interim commander I’ve heard about?”

Robert balked a little at “interim,” but pressed on. “Sir, I was very excited to receive your invitation. I hope we can find time to talk about a few matters. There are some problems still at—”

General Deane tensed beside him, but Harriman was already talking over Robert. “Captain, it’s been great meeting you, and I hear you’re doing a superb job. I have a lot of ground to cover this evening, so you’ll forgive me if I circulate. Enjoy yourself, and take care!”

Robert was introduced to more people, and General Deane chatted with him a little, carefully steering the conversation away from shop talk. After a while Robert found himself alone again with the attaché.

“Are the brass always this offhand with their soldiers?” he asked.

The attaché laughed. “Oh, always. I hardly ever know what’s going on—until my superiors want something, and then I can’t do it fast enough for them.”

“My command at Poltava is being undermined by the Soviets, and my people are depressed. I’ve asked for help, but all I get is instructions to do whatever the Russians want.”

The attaché drew Robert to one side, away from some Russians who were standing within hearing distance. “Well, we are guests in their country. Over the past year we’ve had constant complaints from the Soviet authorities about American misbehavior at Poltava—road accidents, GIs exploiting the black market, local women being harassed. You name it, we’ve been accused of it, and some of the claims are true.” Robert didn’t need to be told—handling such complaints was part of his daily round as CO. “As guests,” the attaché went on, “we have the obligation to behave impeccably. If we hope to maintain good relations with the USSR, we have to do what they want.”

During his evening in Moscow, Robert came to the conclusion—as if he’d needed any prompting—that he wasn’t cut out for politics.

There were other things too that were outside his area of competence. A little later, as he was wondering whether it was okay to up and leave the party, he was approached by a glamorous lady with movie-star looks—the most beautiful woman he’d seen since the queen of Iran. She didn’t bother introducing herself, and already seemed to know who he was. “Do you smoke, Captain?” she asked. He admitted that he liked an occasional cigar. She took his arm in hers and guided him out to a balcony.

In the chill air and a haze of perfume and cigarette smoke, she plied him with conversation and questions. She was fascinated by his experiences as a pilot and very keen to learn about the condition of American flyers who had been forced down in enemy territory and how they were rescued.

Robert sighed. He had been here before, just a few days ago. On the evening after the VE Day celebrations, there had been a show put on at Poltava’s theater and a party afterward. Robert had met a pretty Ukrainian performer who called herself Lydia. He wasn’t proud of what had followed. Having taken on board far more booze than was good for him, and with his innate susceptibility to female charm, he allowed himself to be persuaded to go back with her into the city to meet her parents; strangely, they turned out to be an old couple who didn’t seem to know Lydia any more than they knew Robert. More vodka was drunk. Lydia took him up to her room.

Breathing perfume and alcohol over each other, they ended up on the bed. Gazing hungrily into his eyes, Lydia slid her hand along Robert’s thigh . . . and asked him about his parents. And his schooling, and his religion. In a pie-eyed stupor, Robert wondered what was going on. Lydia, continuing the seduction with her eyes and hands, questioned him intimately about his mission in the USSR.

When he returned to the base next morning with a hangover that would split tree trunks, all he could recall was Lydia’s questioning, together with a vague memory of passing out. He didn’t believe he’d answered her questions (not coherently, anyway) but couldn’t swear to it.

The drink hadn’t flowed nearly as freely at the embassy reception, and when the beautiful lady stumbled and asked Robert to put his arm around her to steady her, he instantly recalled Lydia. “Captain, you’re so handsome,” the lady breathed, looking up at him with Rita Hayworth eyes. She really was unbelievably beautiful. But he wasn’t plastered this time, and knew perfectly well that all she was interested in was the information locked up inside his head.

With profound reluctance, and fighting against every masculine urge, Robert made an excuse, disengaged himself gently from the lady’s hold, and retreated back inside the building.

It had been a narrow escape. He was just a small-town boy at the mercy of these professionals. He had no training in espionage, and missing home and Eleanor the way he did, he lacked the strength to resist this kind of seduction for long.

In the taxi on the way to his hotel, he thought over the evening he’d had and wondered how long he could keep up this business of politics and leadership. Was it all just a game to these people? The soldiers and civilians on the front line—were they just pieces to be played for and sacrificed in the winning of power?

The next morning, he went back to the embassy, hoping to secure a meeting with Ambassador Harriman or General Deane. He felt he couldn’t go back to Poltava empty-handed; just a personal message that the gods in Moscow were thinking of their people and doing all they could to look after their interests would suffice. Neither Harriman nor Deane was available. Instead Robert was given a tour of the embassy. The facilities for the staff were amazing. In the rec center there were senior officials enjoying a rousing game of indoor tennis. Some folks in the diplomatic corps, he realized, had had themselves a pretty nice war.

Poland had been sacrificed. The government in exile had been cut off over the Katyn dispute and supplanted by a Soviet puppet. And now Russia wanted a slice of Polish territory. Lwów, with its mix of Poles and Ukrainians, had become a gaming chip. Stalin had demanded it on the grounds that it was part of the historic territory of medieval Russia. In time it would be granted to him, renamed Lviv, and a thick strip of eastern Poland would be torn off with it, becoming part of Ukraine.

Robert Trimble couldn’t stomach it. He really wasn’t cut out for politics. Or so he believed. He wasn’t to know that this was how politics felt to many of those who lived their lives inside it.

Looking back on this era, Winston Churchill would reflect sadly, “I have always been astonished, having seen the end of these two wars, how difficult it is to make people understand the Roman wisdom, ‘Spare the conquered and confront the proud.’ . . . The modern practice has too often been, ‘punish the defeated and grovel to the strong.’”

General Deane disliked the way he was forced to bow to the Russians, just as much as Captain Trimble did, especially over the evacuation of American prisoners of war. So did Ambassador Harriman. Even speaking as a pragmatic politician, General Deane would come to regret the appeasement of the Soviet Union by America. “Whenever we did take a firm stand,” he would recall, “our relations took a turn for the better.” He came to the same conclusion that both Captain Trimble and Colonel Wilmeth had discovered during their time at the sharp end in Poland: “Soviet officials are much happier, more amenable, and less suspicious when an adversary drives a hard bargain than when he succumbs easily to Soviet demands.”

Back in 1941, Adolf Hitler had made a grave error about the United States; looking at their democracy, their personal liberties, and their decadent jazz culture, he had concluded that Americans were weak. He heard the soft voice, and failed to notice the big stick. Germany had paid a heavy price for that mistake. Now it seemed that Stalin might be thinking the same way. He saw the generosity and openness of America—the Lend-Lease supplies, the ready sharing of intelligence, the soft-footed diplomacy—and believed that this was a nation that could be bullied.

But as the war drew to a close and the Iron Curtain began to fall, the British and the Americans were playing a delicate, dangerous game. As Churchill would reflect, “Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.”

What Robert Trimble lacked that Deane, Harriman, Churchill, and Roosevelt all had was the ability to reconcile morals and politics. Or maybe he just lacked the experience. The small-town boy, the ordinary American who had become a decorated combat veteran, the combat veteran who had become a secret agent and diplomat, was too low down the ladder to have a clear view of the landscape. He believed that he was no longer doing any good. The stress and the anger were growing, and the cracks were beginning to show.