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

Previous: 19. THE LONG WAY HOME
Next: Photos



He awoke to birdsong. For a while his mind was lost in a mist, and he had no idea where he was. He recalled lying on the ground, with a fierce sun on his back, and a painful flame igniting in his skull. He believed he’d been in the garden, tending to some plants, when a haze came over him, and then he was burning up. They told him later it was dehydration and low blood pressure, and too long gardening in the sun. He recalled being lifted and carried, and then blackness . . . and now birdsong.

It was around noon when he opened his eyes. He was in a hospital room. The sound he’d thought was birdsong was the soft bleeping of machinery. He found his eyeglasses on the stand beside the bed, and his dirty gardening clothes folded nearby. Pulling the tube from his arm, he got out of bed and pulled on the clammy garments. Then he shuffled out into the corridor, following the glow of daylight to the front desk.

“Where am I?” he asked.

They told him he was in the infirmary of the Willow Valley Manor retirement community. He relaxed. The Manor was his home; he had an apartment in the complex, living there alone now. He was growing accustomed to the solitude, but it was hard. They told him to go back to bed. He refused, and when a nurse came to assist him, he brushed her aside. “Leave me be,” he said gruffly. “Go find some sick people to tend to.”

He headed off down the hallway. He was getting the hell out of there and going home, but he had a call to pay first. He knew the infirmary well; how odd that he hadn’t recognized it. He took the familiar turn, stopped at the familiar door, and opened it.

She was asleep. He padded across to his regular chair and sat down beside the bed. Taking her hand in his, he murmured softly, “It’s me.” Eleanor’s eyes opened and gazed dully at him for a few moments, then she smiled, and he forgot about the aches that had dogged him all the way from his own bed.

Eleanor would not be long in the world now; she had been in the infirmary for six months, and was fading week by week. After all those long decades together, it was hard being without her. He’d kept her by him for as long as he could, until the round-the-clock care became too much for his own deteriorating health. All that was keeping him going now was sheer stubborn toughness.

Their hands lay together, and he talked softly to her, reminding her of the world outside and the lives they’d lived together, even though she could no longer understand. “You saved my life, Eleanor,” he said. “Three times, by my count. First time when we were nothing but kids. And again when you let me go to Russia instead of another combat tour. And the third time . . .” He squeezed her hand, and she smiled again.

He sat there an hour, and soon she was sound asleep again, her breathing accompanied by the soft chirping and sighing of the machines. He laid her hand down, stood up stiffly, and walked off down the corridor, glancing sternly at the nurse who tried to divert him back to his room. He walked out through the door and into the sunshine.

Robert put the old cigar box on the table and raised the lid. Here it all was—the artifacts that had survived the years, all that was left of the war other than the memories. He hadn’t kept much. The medals, the papers, all worn and discolored now, shut away in a box. One by one he lifted them out and laid them on the table.

Each one dragged a train of memory with it, a disjointed spool of images and half-remembered emotions that came to life in his old, trembling fingers. Near the bottom, still astonishingly bright after all these years, was the scarlet-and-green ribbon of the Croix de Guerre. Its silver star was tarnished almost black, but the ribbon was vivid and the cross still had a sheen. What a wonderful, warm surprise it had been to receive it. The memories that came with it were unalloyed, as fresh as ever.

It was in the middle of that troubled summer of 1945. He was down at San Antonio, waiting for his discharge. Peace had come; Spaatz’s men had dropped the big one on Japan, and the war was finally over. Robert’s time in the Army Air Forces was coming full circle, bringing him back to the very place where he’d begun his flying training. One afternoon, a voice barked over the camp PA, telling him to report to the adjutant’s office. An order had come through for him to proceed to Wright Field, Ohio. The French government was going to give him a medal.

He was mystified. Why would the French want to give him a medal? And why now? And then he remembered that afternoon meeting in the eatery on the outskirts of Lwów, and the ring of pretty faces looking at him like he was some kind of unearthly hero.

Even now, holding the aged medal in his hands, touching the tarnished star, he could see their faces still, past all the intervening years, still feel the kisses on his cheeks. He couldn’t recall their names (if he’d ever known them) except for one—Isabelle. She must have remembered his name, and told her story. The result had been this, the only official thank-you he ever received.

When he arrived at Wright Field, it was like a state fair on the first sunny Sunday. Teeming with GIs, WACs, trucks, jeeps, and planes, it was starting to gear up for the big Air Fair, scheduled for the fall, in which the USAAF would show off its latest technology and put on a public display of the amazing planes captured from the Nazis. Robert and two other American airmen were receiving the Croix de Guerre that day. They’d been told that the presentation would be made by President Charles de Gaulle himself, who was visiting President Truman in Washington, but there had been some kind of spat between him and the United States, and the event had been removed from his itinerary. Instead the French ambassador, M. Henri Bonnet, came and pinned the beautiful bronze cross on Captain Trimble’s breast.

It looked such a small thing now, but it meant a lot. All those suffering people, sent on their way to home and freedom. When you came down to it, that was all the acknowledgment that mattered—the hugs and handshakes of those men and women long ago as they boarded the trains, his rubles and dollars in their pockets, along with a precious hope that the war and the NKVD between them had almost obliterated but which Robert had revived. He prayed they had all reached their homes, and rebuilt their lives, and been blessed with wonderful children and grandchildren as he had.

Maybe the time had come to talk about it. Several months had passed since his fall in the community garden. Lee had been asking about his war service, wanting to hear all over again the stories that had enthralled him as a boy. His sister Carol was encouraging him. Until now she’d never seemed very interested in those distant events on the far side of the world when she was an infant. But her own kids were grown up now and had children too; that’s when a person can grow conscious of the past and the way it pulls at the generations who follow after.

Robert’s children knew nothing about their father’s war service beyond his adventures as a bomber pilot. The Russian episode had been kept locked up. Maybe it was time now to unlock the box and let it all out.

In World War I there was a well-known recruitment poster designed to shame reluctant men into enlisting. It depicted an embarrassed-looking father being asked by his little kids, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?”

Every boy of my generation liked to believe that his dad was a war hero; when we got older, most of us were satisfied just to know that our fathers had given their best, that they had played a part in the great human machine that went overseas to defeat tyranny and end suffering. When I listened to Dad’s tales of danger and excitement in the air war, it never occurred to me that there was a whole other half of his war story that he never spoke about.

I don’t know for sure how much his silence was due to the secrecy of what he’d been involved in, and how much was due to the pain that went with the memories. As the years went by, I guess it just got easier for him to keep the lid shut down on it.

When it did come out, it took a long time. There was so much to tell, so many memories to untangle, and such complex emotions mixed up with them. I recorded what I could during my visits with Dad, but there were hours and days of talk that went unrecorded, mostly over games of pool. He rediscovered a few forgotten delights (the warmth of his bed at the hotel in Lwów was a particular joy, and the delight of those French girls at the prospect of freedom), and anything to do with airplanes was always a fond recollection. But as each memory was disinterred, the recurring themes were sadness and anger. His voice, gruff with age, still rasped with indignation when he talked about the fate of Poland. And when he spoke about the atrocities, about the abused and murdered prisoners of war, it was with a bleakness in his voice, so evocative you could almost feel the cold desolation of the railroads and the camps.

There was just a trace of sadness for himself, because he felt he hadn’t done as well as he should, and that other people—from Colonel Hampton, relieved of his command, to the people he hadn’t been able to bring out of Poland—had suffered because of him, either due to his actions or his failure to act. Like most of the men and women who undertook covert work—such as the two OSS agents who helped and advised him but whose names he never knew—he was given no token of appreciation by his own superiors, little indication of how valued, important, and successful his work had really been. That final interview in Washington withered his sense of self-worth. He was told that he would, at best, be given a “Satisfactory” rating, and not be eligible for any promotion. It’s heartbreaking that he never knew exactly what his immediate superiors, Generals Hill and Deane, had said about him to General Spaatz—that he’d been commended for “the exceptional nature of his duties and performance” as well as for his outstanding service as commanding officer.

By the time I learned the full truth, buried in the archives, it was too late to tell him. But in his lifetime, we, his children, Carol, Robert, and I, believed in him.

My last memory of Dad is clear in my mind. I was at his bedside in his last few hours. He could no longer speak, and drifted in and out of consciousness. I took his hand and said, “Dad, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.” I was startled by his sudden, fierce grip. He was still with us. My heart swelling, I continued, “You can go to Mom now; go to Eleanor. You’ve done everything you can—for your family, for your country, and for the world. We all love you and thank you more than you could ever know.”

Those were, as best I can remember, my exact last words to him.

Robert Trimble never wanted to be a hero. He just wanted to fly, and taste a little of what he believed would be the adventure of war. But when the time came to go beyond the call of duty, he went, and he did his best, laying his life on the line in order to bring his fellow Americans safely home.

Previous: 19. THE LONG WAY HOME
Next: Photos