By the fall of 1944, the mighty forces of the Red Army, at a bitter cost in lives, had pushed the Nazi invaders out of Russia. As the front line rolled steadily across the Ukraine and Poland, the grim prison camps of the Third Reich were discovered and liberated: concentration camps, death camps, slave labor and POW camps. In their thousands, the suffering inmates were set loose.
The Soviets’ attitude to the freed prisoners of war was not charitable. Setting the moral mood for the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, Stalin had decreed in 1941 that there were no prisoners of war, only traitors and cowards. His declaration, coupled with the culture of savage violence on the Eastern Front, led to cruel treatment and even atrocities against former Russian soldiers who were liberated from POW camps.
It also affected the treatment of Allied ex-prisoners. They were left to wander, starving, sick, and dying. Some were fired upon indiscriminately by Russian troops; some were robbed; many more were marched to the rear and abandoned. Even worse, hundreds were rounded up into camps where they were treated as potential spies or anti-Soviet partisans and kept in squalid conditions. Those who were able to went into hiding in the forests and abandoned farms, where they mingled with freed slave laborers and escapees from the Nazi death marches. The fortunate ones were given shelter by Polish citizens. Many lost hope of ever seeing their homes again.
Britain and the United States pleaded urgently with the Soviet government to honor their obligations to Allied prisoners of war. The United States offered to bring in planes, supplies, and contact teams to round up the liberated POWs and evacuate them. Stalin refused. He didn’t want foreigners wandering around in his territory, seeing things he didn’t want them to see. A tense, increasingly angry exchange of letters between President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin failed to resolve the situation.
The ex-POWs were caught between callousness and politics.
Stalin began using the POWs as leverage to force Britain and America to repatriate Russians who had been liberated from POW camps or captured fighting for the Germans. Give me mine, and I’ll give you yours seemed to be the attitude. Roosevelt and Churchill rightly mistrusted Stalin’s motives, and feared for the lives of any Russians repatriated to the USSR.
President Roosevelt, his diplomats, and the United States military high command were left with no option: Relations with the USSR were tense and deteriorating, but had to be preserved. If they were going to save their missing men—not to mention the other Allied ex-prisoners—from starvation, imprisonment, and death, they would have to go undercover.
The Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, provided the means. The options were limited. The OSS European branch, based in London, had no established presence in the regions where the POW camps were. However, the United States did have just one small foothold in Soviet-occupied territory: the air base at Poltava in the Ukraine. Earlier in the war, the Russians had allowed an American unit to be set up there to service long-distance “shuttle” bombing operations from England and Italy. The shuttle missions had ended by late 1944, and Eastern Command had been scaled down to a tiny winter detachment with few duties, almost forgotten, just waiting for the war to end.
Poltava, a tiny dot of freedom in a sea of Communist red, would be the base for the covert rescue mission.
They had the location; they had the mission. All they needed was a man to undertake it. . . .
My father was a regular guy. Not quite what you’d call ordinary, but not noticeably exceptional either. Not a bad father, for someone whose own dad had deserted his wife and children. Dad was faithful and did his best, despite the lack of a role model. As a citizen, he did his duty in the war, and survived, then came home and raised a family. I couldn’t have told you anything extraordinary about him, had it not been for an astonishing confession when he was eighty-six years old, which revealed a whole period in his life that I knew nothing about.
The events that led to his confession began on a hot summer day in 2005, when Dad was working alone in the communal garden of his retirement community. After a couple of hours under the sun, he began to feel dizzy. He’d forgotten to bring his medicine and water. Rising from his work, he felt faint. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. He lay there for hours before he was found, sunburned and close to death. But Robert Trimble had always been a survivor.
Around noon of his second day in the Willow Valley Manor infirmary, he was done lying in bed. Without permission, he got up and dressed himself in the dirty, sweaty gardening clothes he’d been brought in wearing. Having paid a visit down the hall to his dear wife Eleanor (her dementia had confined her permanently to the infirmary), he was back in his own apartment. He got some homemade bean soup out of the refrigerator, then turned on the ball game. After dinner he put on his cap, the one with his WWII squadron insignia, and headed back to the garden.
Dad’s fall made me realize that the time I had left with him and Mom was limited. And so, in the winter of 2006, I began the first of several long drives up from Virginia to Pennsylvania.
I needed Dad to help me get reacquainted with my heritage. I knew he’d been a bomber pilot in the war, and I wanted to hear those stories again in detail and learn more about his earlier life. He had been a mystery throughout my life. He was a sociable, friendly kind of guy, yet he wasn’t someone we children could share our troubles with intimately. He had even greater difficulty sharing his own feelings. He was kind and caring, but none of us had a close personal relationship with him in our younger days. He was a disciplinarian, so I tended to steer clear of him when I was in trouble, which meant most of the time.
On that winter day, when I knocked on the door of his apartment he answered with a happy greeting. But when I announced casually that I wanted to spend some time talking about his early life and his experiences in the war—and that I’d brought a recorder with me to preserve his memories—he frowned and said, “All right, if that’s really what you want to do.” He suggested we go and shoot some pool in the rec room.
“Okay fine, Dad,” I said, chuckling inside that he was still deflecting after all these years. I was determined to get him to open up. I asked him about his experiences as a pilot. I knew this would hook him. Although he didn’t like to talk about the past, he did love to talk about flying. Our conversation lasted until dinnertime. He was relaxed and forgot that he was being recorded.
We kids always admired him for his WWII heroics—my brother Robert (who was named for him), my sister Carol (who was born in the midst of it all), and I. He didn’t talk about the war very often, but when you got him started, he always spoke vividly, reliving the memories as he spoke—right down to the remembered conversations and the emotions.
On that day in 2006, I finally realized my lifelong wish of recording his story, the tales of adventure in the hostile skies above Europe. At the controls of a heavy bomber (B-24 Liberators at first, later B-17 Flying Fortresses), he ran the gauntlet of thirty-five harrowing raids over Germany and France during the last six months of 1944. He withstood the horror of seeing his friends blown to bits by German flak. He fought courageously to return to base with engines in flames or, worse, blown completely off of the wing, leaving a hole ten men could stand in. Hearing the stories in our youth, we hadn’t realized, of course, how lucky he was to have survived to tell them to us.
As long as he was talking war stories that weekend, his conversation was self-sustaining. When asked about his personal feelings, though, he would deflect by commenting on the ball game that was usually running on TV in the background. But I was feeling content that I had thoroughly documented all Dad’s wartime testimony. Above all, I felt I was beginning to know him, to bond with him again.
Before leaving that Sunday afternoon, I asked Dad about his father. He fell silent. When he finally spoke, his voice quivered with anger. I felt the urge not to press him, as he was old and frail, but I had to know. It seemed like I had touched a hidden trigger, and at last Dad’s feelings started to come out.
“Lee,” he said, “I don’t know how to start. When my dad left, it devastated all of us. I hated him. My mom despised him. I was always happy up until that day, then not for a long time after. Life got hard; all I felt was emptiness and anger. Then I met your mom, and boy, she saved my life. She saved my life more than once.”
I was mystified. Suddenly he’d opened up a seam of memory I knew nothing about. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t interrupt me,” he growled. Having finally allowed his feelings out into the open, he was going to do it his way. “I met Eleanor and I was happy again.” He looked at me. “There’s so much I need to tell you that you and your brother and sister never knew.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“In some ways going off to war helped me escape my past for a while; I was so excited. But while I was in Europe something happened to me that changed how I looked at life. It was terrible. I came home from Russia depressed, not caring about my relationship with Eleanor, the military, or anything. I was a mess.”
I could see that the question about his father had awakened a world of pain. I decided not to push the discussion. Later, as I was leaving to drive back to Virginia, while embracing Dad (the warmest I remember), one of the words he’d used suddenly jumped to the front of my mind.
“Russia?” I said.
“Russia. You said you returned from Russia after the war. You never said anything about Russia in your stories.”
He shook his head. “We’ll talk about it next time, Lee. I purposely never mentioned it to any of you. In fact I was ordered not to. No one knew about it, except your mom. It was painful then and it’s taken a lifetime for me to recover. It was a dark, evil time.” He stuffed a ten-dollar bill in my shirt pocket. “Here, drive safely.”
I drove home to Virginia through a snowstorm, which matched my state of mind. Russia? What would an American bomber pilot be doing in Russia? I’d always thought Dad had returned home after serving his tour of duty in England. And why would he have been ordered not to talk about it? It was a dark, evil time . . .
The snow flew thick and fast out of the darkness, danced in the headlights, and spattered against the windshield. I didn’t know it at the time, but my drive home was a strange echo of one of Dad’s untold tales—with instead of a heated, comfortable car, a thundering, half-repaired bomber that he had defended at gunpoint from a furious Soviet officer and flown off from a field, limping along at zero feet through a wild Polish snowstorm . . . and the small group of freed prisoners he took with him, and the trouble it caused when Moscow found out. . . . It was just one of the experiences that had harrowed him in the hidden period between the completion of his combat tour and his return to America.
I realized there and then that I was being compelled toward a new mission: discovering my father’s secret past.
I was full of anticipation when I arrived at Dad’s place two weeks later. We shot pool for a while; he loved to play, in spite of his frailty. I was more aware than ever of his deteriorating body. Once a tall man, he was now hunched over, and used a cane. But he was a proud man and wouldn’t accept help. He drove himself everywhere, and always volunteered to drive other residents in the community to their appointments. Dad had a strong sense of giving. He loved to help people, and still gave blood when he could. But that was nothing compared to what he had given of himself during World War II.
“Two weeks ago as I was leaving, you dropped an incendiary on me about spending time in Russia.”
“I did?” he said dryly.
“Yes, Dad. We all thought you came right home after your tour. What happened in Russia?”
He was silent for a while. “It was a horrific time in my life. I don’t know if I can talk about it even now. I saw atrocities. I saw the worst in people. I was deceived into going there—misled and lied to by my own people.”
Slowly, piece by piece, the story began to come out. A story bottled up for decades must be hard to tell and keep straight. He skipped over whole episodes, left out details and had to backtrack; some things he struggled to recall, but most were as vivid in his mind as the day they happened. And so were the emotions.
It was an incredible story—literally incredible. A story of a mission in Soviet territory; a mission so secret that even the OSS had to keep a distance from it because of the diplomatic furor that would blow up if the Soviets knew about it. As a cover, they had picked an innocent bomber pilot and sent him out to a US base in the Ukraine. From there he was sent into Poland. His task: to rescue Allied prisoners of war set loose by the Soviets. He had to help them survive and get them to freedom. He was sent beyond the protection of his own side, beyond the call of duty. He helped not just American POWs but slave laborers and concentration camp survivors; all the lost souls of Poland learned to seek out the American captain.
Anyone else hearing Dad’s story might have thought the old man was delusional. But he was my father, and I’d known him to be a straight shooter all his life. Although even I had doubts. After all, he’d taken quite a blow to the head from his fall. I knew he wouldn’t invent a story like this, but could he have dreamed it, and convinced himself it was true?
Dad brought out his cigar box of remaining war memorabilia. I was surprised at what we found in that box. Aside from his pilot insignia, it contained his Air Medal, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Flying Cross, his discharge papers and War Department ID card. Farther down was an astonishing item—a passport issued by the United States Embassy in London in January 1945, for travel to the USSR, via Cairo and Tehran, on “Official Business.” Inside I saw Dad’s youthful face, looking stern and kind of wary (like he guessed something strange was going on but didn’t know what), stamped over with “American Consular Service.” There were also two medals I had never seen before—a French Croix de Guerre and, at the very bottom of the box, a letter from the Russian government, dated 1996, with a commemorative medal awarded for participation in the “Great Patriotic War.”
I was stunned. Aside from the first few items, these were hardly the typical belongings of a bomber pilot stationed in England. I’ll be damned, I thought. The old man had a big secret. He had lived in fear (real or imagined) for sixty years, that if he talked he might get in trouble with the government, or even suffer some sort of retribution from the Russians. He told me he had declined an invitation to an award ceremony for the Russian medal because of that mistrust. According to Dad the letter and medal would have been round-filed had it not been for Mom’s insistence that he keep them. His bitterness about the Soviets ran deep, and the more I heard of his story, the better I understood why.
There existed a set of stories within his story, each more intriguing than the last. The rescue of freed POWs was just a part of it—there were seat-of-pants flying adventures, plus encounters with desperate Frenchwomen, seductive Russian spies, Soviet agents, and more. My father was suddenly more of a mystery to me than ever.
Dad died in 2009, in his ninetieth year. I continued researching his story. There was still a lingering doubt in my mind—could such an incredible story really be true? I wrote to military historians, consulted official histories, and acquired documents from government archives. The more I searched, the more evidence I found that corroborated my father’s story. I found a report he had written, describing an aircraft salvage operation which turned into an impromptu POW rescue and almost led to a diplomatic incident. I found a letter from the commander of the American Military Mission in Moscow, alluding to the “exceptional nature” of Captain Robert M. Trimble’s duties and his outstanding performance. I learned about the indignant letters sent to Stalin by President Roosevelt and Ambassador Harriman, protesting the treatment of freed Allied POWs, and about how Stalin stonewalled his supposed ally.
Inevitably there were gaps. My father’s mission in Soviet territory was hastily improvised, beyond top secret, and of such a diplomatic sensitivity that even the OSS could only be involved off the record. But wherever you would expect to find documentation, I found it, and it matched Dad’s story. Even in situations where he didn’t understand what was happening, the historical record made sense of the facts that confused him—such as the misunderstanding which, unknown to him, nearly caused a breach of OSS security in the US Embassy in London.
Robert M. Trimble was such a meticulously truthful man, and his story so fully corroborated wherever it could be, that I believe we can take his word that his undocumented activities—the long-distance, ad-hoc missions out in the lonely snows of Poland—occurred just as he described them, reliving them as he talked, feeling again the anger, the fear, and occasionally the humor.
I am proud of my father. America—the land that gave birth to him and shaped him—can be proud of him too. An ordinary American who undertook a most extraordinary mission. This is his story.