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

Previous: PROLOGUE
Next: 2. AN AMERICAN IN LONDON

1.

ONE LUCKY BASTARD

The wintry afternoon light was beginning to fade to dusk as the formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses streamed in over the Suffolk coast. The individual bombers began peeling off from the formation, joining the airfield circuit and lining up to land. Some, shot with holes, were limping as they covered the last leg of their journey home. One Fortress was absent, its crew having bailed out over the sea. The 493rd Bomb Group, along with the other groups in its division, had been to bomb the marshaling yards at Kassel, Germany, and they hadn’t been welcome.

Landing lights glittering on their wings, the heavy bombers touched concrete with a rubbery squawk and rolled on down the runway, swung onto the taxiways, and headed, engines rumbling, toward their dispersal areas around the airfield. Some jolted, wings tipping awkwardly, as they taxied over the pits and breaks in the concrete. Debach (pronounced Debbidge by locals, to the bewilderment of some American personnel) was the last of the heavy bomber airfields built for the Eighth Air Force. The construction was poor, and the runways had already deteriorated to the point where the 493rd might soon have to move elsewhere.

Avoiding the worst pitfalls, B-17 Big Buster eased to a halt on its hardstanding. In the cockpit, Captain Robert M. Trimble and his copilot, Lieutenant Warren Johnson, went through the elaborate ritual of shutting down the shuddering aircraft, flicking switches and sliding levers. One by one the four huge propellers chopped and swished to a halt, and a hush punctuated by the ticking of cooling metal settled on the cockpit.

“Home she comes!” said a voice on the interphone.

Trimble and Johnson smiled at each other as the last switch was flicked and the dials dropped to zero. Home—now there was a thought to heal a weary heart. Captain Trimble and his crew had been in England for nearly six months, and flown their fill of missions: today had been the thirty-fifth, and their tour of duty was complete. Robert Trimble had beaten the odds, and it was time to go home. Home, where his wife, Eleanor, and the baby daughter he hadn’t yet seen were waiting for him. Little Carol Ann had been born exactly two months ago, while her father was flying into Germany on his twenty-fifth combat mission, heading for the fearsome target of Merseberg. As if fate was working in his favor that day, the bombers were recalled due to low cloud over the target, and they flew back to England unharmed. That had been a lucky day, and this was another.

One by one the crewmen dropped through the escape hatch onto the concrete. Some stretched their stiff backs; a few went to the edge of the concrete, unfastened the layers of coveralls, heated suit, pants, and underwear, and watered the frosty grass, sighing with relief. Tired but jubilant, the nine men tossed their gear on the waiting jeeps and climbed aboard, joking and taunting one another, free of the silent gloom that often came over them as the adrenaline drained away at mission’s end. Captain Trimble dropped into the jeep’s passenger seat.

“The CO wants to see you, sir,” said the sergeant driver as he put the jeep in gear.

“Me?” said Trimble, startled. “Now?”

“At your convenience, sir.” The sergeant crunched the gears; the jeep revved and swerved away.

Captain Trimble gripped the edge of the windshield as the overloaded vehicle sped across the field toward the complex of buildings in the far distance. He couldn’t imagine why the CO would want to see him, but he didn’t give it too much thought. Dog-tired after seven hours of piloting the Fortress through flak, fighters, and ungodly cold, he rode back to the airfield HQ with happy thoughts of home swimming in his head, violently jolted though they were by the jeep’s bouncing progress. By the time the crew was dropped off at the debriefing room, he had forgotten all about the summons.

It was shaping up to be a good weekend. The Trimble crew were not the only men whose tours were done—their squadron-mates under Lieutenant Jean Lobb had also completed today. As wingman to the group leader, Lobb had been on Trimble’s starboard nose all the way to Germany, but had to drop out of formation with supercharger failure before reaching the target (leading to a tense moment of urgent re-forming as Lieutenant Parker crawled up from the rear to take his place). Luckily for Lobb, he was credited with a sortie, despite bringing his bombs home with him.

With end-of-tour celebrations, and New Year’s Eve tomorrow, it was all good cheer for the homeward-bound boys.

Despite the carousing that went on in the mess that evening, Robert Trimble had the best night’s sleep he’d had in months: no mission in the morning, no fear of a mission alert during the day; just a beautiful future to look forward to, a future with Eleanor and baby Carol Ann. He wondered if Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, had changed at all in the months he’d been away. One thing was for sure, he reflected happily: it had changed by the addition of a brand-new baby girl. . . .

Rested and groomed, Robert put on his dress uniform—olive-drab jacket with tan pants and shirt, the sharp combination known as “pinks & greens”—and set off for his appointment at group headquarters. Unlike the permanent airfields in the States, Debach sprawled over a tract of otherwise untouched Suffolk countryside, and the routes between the technical and domestic sites, the airfield and the munitions stores were winding country lanes lined with hedgerows. In no hurry, Robert strolled along under the winter-bare sycamores. It was quiet, with the group out on a mission.

Headquarters occupied what had been a farm field this time last year, beside a lane connecting the main airfield with the little hamlet of Clopton (the equally tiny settlement of Debach was straddled by a couple of aircraft hardstandings on the far side of the base). Robert presented himself and was admitted to the commanding officer’s inner sanctum—a modest set of offices in a Quonset hut.

Colonel Elbert Helton, CO of the 493rd, was an undistinguished-looking man. Placid and serious, with large ears and a touch of humor in his eyes, he looked more like a friendly small-town doctor than what he actually was—a seasoned bomber pilot with a long string of combat missions in the Pacific and Europe under his belt. The young Texan had been propelled up the ranks by the pressure of war, and he now commanded the four squadrons that made up the 493rd Bomb Group and the sprawling military base that housed them. He had only just turned twenty-nine years old.

He waved Captain Trimble to a chair. “I just got done signing these,” he said, taking a paper from a small pile. “You might as well have yours now.” Robert took it and smiled. It was the customary document, signed by Helton and the other senior officers of the 493rd.

On This 30th Day of December Nineteen Hundred and Forty Four The Fickle Finger of Fate Has Traced on the Rolls of the

“Lucky Bastard Club”

the name of

Capt. Robert M. Trimble 0-1289835
493rd Bombardment Group (H)

Having successfully completed a tour of operations in this European theater with “Butch” Helton’s hard hitting hagglers he is hereby graduated as an Honor Student from Debach’s College of Tactical Knowledge . . .

. . . Therefore it is fitting that he should be presented with this Certificate that all may know that he is truly a “Lucky Bastard.”

“Congratulations, Bob,” said Helton. “You made it. You’re on your way home.”

“Yes, sir,” said Robert. He knew Colonel Helton well, and something in his tone of voice made him feel uneasy. Helton paused, then stuck a pin in the blissful bubble that Robert had been walking around in since yesterday.

“You know you’ll be called back, don’t you? For another tour.”

This was exactly what Robert didn’t need to hear right now. He knew it was a possibility, but Helton said it like it was a stone-cold certainty.

“You’re going home for now—you’re entitled to twenty-one days’ leave stateside—but at the end of it you’ll be recalled. Maybe here, or maybe to the Pacific. The Army’s got plenty of pilots, but not so many good ones, let alone experienced.”

That was true. Earlier that year, the length of a tour for bomber crews had been raised from twenty-five missions to thirty. In September, halfway through Robert’s tour, they raised it to thirty-five. Who could tell when they might raise it again? Sending experienced pilots back into combat seemed all too likely.

“I know your wife just had a baby,” the colonel said, “and I know you’d like to go home. But you go on and go home now, you’re only going to be there for twenty-one days, and more than likely they’ll send you right back.”

“I see, sir.” Robert was wondering if there was a point to all this, besides wrecking his moment of happiness.

Helton stood up and took out a bottle of scotch and two glasses. “The last of the November special mission supply,” he said, pouring it out.

Robert smiled and took his glass. Part of his unofficial duties in the 493rd was as the commanding officer’s whiskey courier. Once a month he piloted the squadron hack up to Edinburgh and snagged a few bottles.

“I have an offer for you,” Helton went on. “Maybe you’d like to take advantage of it.”

“What kind of offer?”

Helton took a sip of whiskey. “The brass want you, Bob,” he said. “They’ve asked me for a good man, and I’m giving them you.”

The whiskey turned to battery acid in Robert’s mouth. It wasn’t healthy to get noticed by the brass.

“That is, if you want to take advantage of it. They’re looking for an experienced multi-engine pilot—someone rated on both the B-24 and B-17. You’re the only one I know who’d like a job like this. They want to send you to Russia.” Robert’s brain did a backflip. Russia? “You know we’ve got bases there?” Helton went on. “No, well neither did I, much. They were set up for shuttle mission support.”

Colonel Helton sketched in what he knew about the background. A shuttle mission was one in which a bombing force took off from its base, hit a target, then flew on to another base in another country; it was a solution to the problem of targets that were too far away for bombers to reach them and make it back to their home bases. The 493rd had never been involved in Operation Frantic (as the shuttle program was codenamed), so Helton couldn’t tell Robert very much. He would be sent to the Eastern Command base at a place called Poltava in the Ukraine. Now that Frantic was on ice, the US detachment there had changed roles, and Poltava had become a base for salvaging US aircraft that had been damaged in combat and made forced landings in Soviet-occupied territory. Robert’s job, as Helton described it, would be to collect salvaged bombers from Poltava and fly them out—either back to England or down to Italy.

“The Soviets are itching to get their hands on our planes,” Helton said. “Given half a chance, they’ll haul ’em off and tear ’em down to find out how they’re made. Our guys are getting them patched up and the hell out of there before those Reds get the chance. You have experience of emergency soft-field takeoffs, don’t you?”

Robert nodded. Back in the summer he’d been forced to land his B-24 at a Luftwaffe fighter airfield in northern France. Anticipating either a firefight or captivity, he and his crew were relieved to be greeted by American infantrymen who’d captured the field a few days earlier. After refueling and repairs, Robert had learned the hard way about the challenges of taking off a laden four-engine bomber from a short grass strip intended for single-engine fighters.

“I thought so,” said Helton. “So, what d’you say?”

“You mean I have a choice?”

“Of course.” Helton paused. “There’s a catch. They want you right now. You wouldn’t get the chance to go home.”

“Then I’d rather not, sir.”

The colonel glowered. “Listen, Bob, if you take this job, you’ll be out of the combat zone—just flying back and forth, absolutely safe. It’ll take you maybe a few months to ferry those planes. After you get that done, you could tell them you’re going home. Then, after your twenty-one days are up, maybe the war will be over.”

Robert was silent. Colonel Helton was trying to help him out, and the colonel was right—if he went home now, the system would scoop him right up and send him back to the fight. Another tour—another thirty-five missions. He’d beaten the lottery once—could he count on being a Lucky Bastard twice?

“You know the score as well as I do,” Helton went on. “Yesterday was almost a milk run by all accounts. Right this minute the group is on the way to hit the refinery at Misburg, and I’m not expecting to see them all back tonight. How would you reckon your chances if there were another Magdeburg? Nine ships out of thirty-six went down that day.”

Robert felt a chill at the mention of the Magdeburg mission—a name invested with dread. It had been mid-September, and the 493rd had only just completed the transition from B-24 to B-17 bombers. Poor formation flying over the target (oil industry facilities at Magdeburg/Rothensee) opened the door to attacks by two squadrons of German Fw 190 fighters. They came from front and rear, raking the straggling Fortresses. The 493rd lost nine bombers that day—four exploding in flames before their crews could get out. Only half a dozen parachutes were spotted from all the stricken planes.

Captain Robert Trimble had not taken part in the Magdeburg mission; it had been his squadron’s turn to stand down. He figured it just wasn’t his day to die. That day could come anytime, though, and Colonel Helton’s offer showed a way to put it off.

But Robert wasn’t the kind of man who could be stampeded so easily. He looked his commanding officer in the eye. “What if I turn it down?”

Helton shrugged. “I pass it on to the next fellow on my list. But I was asked for the best, and you’re the best I’ve got available.” The colonel finished his whiskey and stood up. “Listen, go call your wife. Talk it over with her. When you’re done thinking, come back and talk to me again.”

Robert walked across to the communication building, turning the proposal over in his mind. It was a big thing to take in. He didn’t want to go to Russia (or the Ukraine or wherever the hell it was), but maybe it would be for the best. He and Eleanor had been apart for much of their two-and-a-half years of married life. She had followed him dutifully from state to state as he progressed through his pilot training, and then bravely said goodbye to him when he went overseas. That was nine months ago now. Would she be willing to wait another who-knew-how-long, when she’d been hoping to see him any day now? But how could he expect her to wave him off to war again, after only a brief respite? He just didn’t know what to think.

Eleanor Trimble was hard at work, enveloped in steam and sweltering heat. It leaked through even into the side office where she worked at the company accounts. Tonight was New Year’s Eve, and the whole world wanted their dry cleaning this minute. She’d been back at work in the laundry for several weeks now, even though it was only two months since the baby’s birth. She needed the wages. Even sharing a rented house with Robert’s mother, Ruth, money was tight. Ruth and the landlady took turns looking after little Carol Ann, while Eleanor caught the bus each day from Lemoyne to Harrisburg to bring home her meager $12 a week.

It was hard enough living without her husband; harder still to know what a dangerous calling he’d followed. (It was as well, perhaps, that Eleanor didn’t know just how dangerous it was: that flying bombers was the most fatal military occupation in Europe.) She carried the worry day after day, the fear that one morning a War Department telegram might arrive and explode its payload of grief in her home. Eleanor had already lost her brother to the war; she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her husband too, or that Carol Ann might never know her father.

The days passed in a forgettable blur of routine. Apart from the seasonal rush, this morning was no different than usual. As Eleanor worked, her mind was far away, oblivious to the distant ringing of the phone in the next-door office. She was startled out of her daydream by the office door slamming open and her boss leaning out. “Eleanor! Call for you—it’s your old man!”

Eleanor froze. Every repressed fear instantly loomed up in her mind. Her heart thumped and her skin prickled as she hurried across to the office. She was out of breath by the time she picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Eleanor—”

“Robert! Is that you?”

The voice that came down the line sounded thin, crackly, and unbearably distant. “It’s me, I—”

“Robert! Are you okay? Are you hurt? They scared me when they said it was you. I thought something had happened. When are you coming home?” She had known that the time was drawing near when he would finish his tour, and it had heightened her anxiety as well as her hopes.

“Eleanor, that’s why I’m calling. Colonel Helton made me an offer . . .”

“Robert, first tell me you’re not hurt. When are you coming home?”

“I’m okay, Eleanor, I’m fine. Now listen . . .” Robert’s voice took on a serious tone that Eleanor didn’t like at all: even across thousands of miles of ocean it echoed with foreboding. “Colonel Helton has given me a tough decision to make, and you and I have to decide what we want to do. And we have to decide right now.”

“I don’t like the sound of this . . .”

“I’ll get right to it. I’ve finished my last mission. My tour is over and I can come home.” Eleanor’s heart lifted, although she suspected it shouldn’t. “I’ll get twenty-one days and then I’ll likely be called back to do it all over again—another thirty-five combat missions. Or I can accept the colonel’s offer and go on a mission—”

“Mission? What are you talking about? Robert, I want you home!”

“I can’t talk about it. Listen, it’s overseas, but it’s outside the combat area. Just flying and light duty. The colonel singled me out for this. I’d be safe until the end of the war.” He paused. “What do you say?”

There was a deathly hush on the line, filled with crackles and the ghostly echo of aching distance.

“Eleanor?”

She found her voice, and it shook with emotion. “No, Robert. No. I need you home with me. I need you now; I can’t take this anymore.”

A gusty sigh came down the line. “All right then,” said Robert. “I’m coming home.”

His tone was so heavy, so resigned, that Eleanor wished she could unsay what she had just said. “Robert, no. I’ve changed my mind. You have to do the right thing. I’m being selfish. I’m hurting, but I know you are too.” She lacerated herself with every word. “I think I can stand life like it is for just a while longer”—even though she couldn’t—“if it means you being safe. But I know I couldn’t stand to think of you going back into danger.”

“Eleanor, are you—”

“Stay; do what you have to do. Then come home to me alive, and never leave me again. Do you hear me?”

“Are you sure?”

“You heard me, soldier.” Eleanor’s eyes were prickling with tears. “I love you.”

“I love you too. How’s Carol Ann?”

The tears overflowed, and a little sob escaped Eleanor’s throat. “She’s fine! She’s fine . . .” Eleanor could feel the knot tightening in her chest now, threatening to choke her. “Robert, I have to go now. I love you. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

Eleanor put the phone down, fumbling to set it on its cradle as the weeping flooded out of her and her vision dissolved in a blur.

Half a world away, in a freezing, concrete-paved field in Suffolk, Captain Robert Trimble stood under the lowering, slate-gray East Anglian sky—one of the biggest skies in the world, and at this moment the gloomiest. It matched his mood. Oh well, there it was—Eleanor had decided for him. He would be going to Russia.

Later that day, he walked across to the control tower to report his decision to Colonel Helton, and to watch the squadrons fly in from their mission.

Helton had been right—they were pretty beat up, and not all of them had come back. One ship had been lost somewhere over Germany. Altogether, more than five hundred bombers from the 3rd Air Division had gone to bomb Misburg; twenty-seven had been lost, ten times that number damaged, and more than two hundred and fifty men would not be coming back to their bunks that night. Robert could picture the whole thing vividly: the puffs of black flak, the shreds of torn metal falling from hit planes, the blossoming parachutes, the big silver bird turning helplessly over and sinking down to death. And one of the worst sights of all: a chute blooming prematurely, snagging on the falling bomber, and the entangled dot of a man being dragged down toward the distant earth.

Maybe he really had made the right decision; better to postpone his homecoming than go through all that again. Assuredly the right decision. Robert felt better—resigned to his future, resigned to temporary unhappiness and permanent safety. As he watched the lumbering planes taxiing to their dispersals, he reflected that he was indeed a Lucky Bastard.

It was to be a while—more than a month, in fact—before Robert discovered the full extent to which both he and Colonel Helton had been lied to.

Had he been able to see into the future, Robert might have gone to headquarters that minute and willingly signed up for a second combat tour. But even if he’d been granted a sight of what was to come, he might not have believed it. The creaking footfalls in the snow under the winter pines . . . the wild, demonic shapes of Cossacks cavorting around a flickering fire . . . the terrified, hate-filled eyes of the Russian colonel over the leveled barrel of the Colt . . . frozen corpses laid in rows along the lonely railroad tracks . . . the controls of the patched-up bomber shuddering in his grip as the blizzard battered her . . . the mystery of a freshly filled grave in the woods . . . and those lustrous Slavic eyes smiling into his amid a haze of perfume: Captain, you are so handsome . . . yes, there would be good memories in there, too, but he would pay for them with the nightmares.

Robert knew none of this as he watched the last of the Fortresses touch down on the runway. He patted his breast pocket, where he’d placed the neatly folded Lucky Bastard certificate, then turned, went down the tower steps, and walked away into the gathering English dusk.

Previous: PROLOGUE
Next: 2. AN AMERICAN IN LONDON