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




They called it “Little America.” Grosvenor Square, in the heart of London’s Mayfair district, with its palatial Georgian town houses surrounding the huge public garden, was older than the United States itself and had deep ties with the former colonies. John Adams had begun the first American mission in the square right after Independence, and now it was home to the United States Embassy, which loomed over one corner. Near the opposite corner, an elegant red-brick mansion had been commandeered for General Eisenhower’s headquarters (“Eisenhower Platz,” some people called it). Next-door to that was the HQ of the American Red Cross. Less conspicuously, the London headquarters of the secretive Office of Strategic Services, nest of spies, saboteurs, and secret agents, was a short walk away in Grosvenor Street.

Ike and his staff had moved to Paris a few weeks ago, but the square still teemed with American military and diplomatic activity. The former residences and gardens of the cream of Britain’s ruling classes now buzzed with the accents of Texas and Virginia, West Point and Annapolis, and every state, city, and homestead.

On this cold January evening, the gardens were dusted with a fresh fall of snow, which glowed in the starlight—the only illumination in the blacked-out city. A car drew up in front of the embassy, and a young officer stepped out; he glanced up at the forbidding façade, and shivered. Captain Robert M. Trimble was already wondering what in the world he’d got himself into. In the past eight hours he’d had one strange experience after another. And if not strange, at least somewhat embarrassing . . .

Robert had caught the early afternoon train from Woodbridge, the nearest station to Debach, and settled down to enjoy the ride, still feeling the inner glow of a man who knew he was safely but honorably out of combat for the rest of the war.

Sharing the compartment were two English girls, wearing the blue uniform of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Born with a susceptibility to feminine charm, and feeling pleased with himself, Robert struck up a conversation. He liked the girls; they had an attitude that was common among the British—the phlegmatic determination to carry on serenely in spite of the pounding they’d taken from Hitler. They were cheerful and talkative. Not overly concerned about the danger of loose lips sinking ships, they chatted freely about life in the WAAF. They were stationed in London, assigned to RAF Balloon Command, where they helped crew one of the city’s hundreds of barrage balloon wagons.

Talking blithely, they didn’t notice that the American had fallen silent. At the mention of barrage balloons, Robert felt suddenly very uncomfortable, recalling an incident just over a month ago which he hoped they hadn’t heard about—or, worse, witnessed firsthand.

It had happened on his last visit to London—an unorthodox and entirely unscheduled visit from the air. The 493rd were returning from a mission to Germany near the end of November. Debach was socked in by freezing rain. Fortresses were skidding off the runway, and the squadrons still airborne were diverted to another airfield, hundreds of miles away in Cornwall. The next afternoon, with the weather improved, they set off on the return flight, on a route that took them near London. Robert, in a rush of high spirits, figured they were technically on a three-day pass after yesterday’s mission, so maybe they ought to divert and take a flyby to look at the sights of the capital.

He ought to have known better. Even his copilot, Lieutenant Warren Johnson, said it was a bad idea. Warren was a fun-loving guy; a singer and jazz trumpeter, he always brought his horn on missions, stowed beside his seat, and liked to entertain the boys with swing tunes over the interphone during the long, tedious mission flights. He kept the mouthpiece on a chain tucked inside his suit to keep it warm, and smeared it with Vaseline to prevent it freezing to his lips. Warren had nerve; on one memorable occasion, on the approach to a bomb run, with the Fortress shaking and battered by a storm of flak, losing altitude with a gaping hole in her wing, he boosted the men’s spirits with a verse of “Amazing Grace.” But even Warren balked at the idea of a pleasure flight over London. There were rules—very strict rules.

But Robert had a reckless streak in him, and it was in control right now. He had a gift for persuasion, and it helped that he was also the airplane commander. “We can spot where we want to go at the weekend,” he said. “Tell you what, we’ll fly over St. Paul’s Cathedral. Eleanor always wanted to see it; she’ll be excited to hear what it looks like.”

With this unwise idea in mind, he turned the bomber off the planned route and headed toward the capital, easing down to low altitude for the best view. The gray river Thames snaking through London’s urban sprawl was their guide. For a major city, London had hardly any tall buildings, and the landmarks were easy to spot—Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and then, rising immaculately among the bombed-out buildings of the City district, the great dome of St. Paul’s. Dotted here and there, mostly over toward the docklands in the east, were the silver blobs of barrage balloons.

“Not bad,” Warren admitted. “We’ll have to see her on foot when we get the chance. Now can we get the hell outta here?”

Robert wanted a better view right now. He turned the plane’s nose toward the dome, about half a mile away, and eased the control column forward, intending to drop down to about three hundred feet. He looked down at the instrument panel, then back up—and swore. Directly ahead, rising rapidly into the previously empty sky, was the fat, gleaming bulk of a barrage balloon. And there was another, off to one side, and another, and another . . . all trailing the steel guy wires that were designed to snarl the wings of bombers. The only way to go was up, but the balloon ahead was a hundred feet higher than the B-17 already, still ascending, and getting closer by the second. Robert pushed the throttles to full emergency power and hauled back on the control column. The bomber lifted, and the men inside prayed. The silvery mass of the balloon flashed beneath the plane’s nose, and there was a gentle bump and scrape as it dragged along the fuselage.

They weren’t clear yet. As the balloon passed beneath, Robert was conscious of a sporadic pinging noise—the familiar sound of bullets hitting the plane. Robert’s assumption—that London’s defense forces would recognize the B-17 as an American aircraft—had been wrong, just like his assumption that the barrage balloons parked permanently in the sky over the city were the only ones available. Balloon Command had quick-response wagons too. To the defenders on the ground, any bomber was the enemy; they didn’t have time to distinguish friend from foe. Even if they had, rumors abounded of captured bombers flown by devious Luftwaffe crews; no chances were taken, and the tendency was to shoot first and think later. As Robert and his crew climbed and steered away from the city, they were lucky not to be fired on by the anti-aircraft batteries that were everywhere.

Somebody—probably an RAF plane on patrol—must have identified the aircraft, and got a clear enough view to note the group ID and call sign; a report was passed immediately to VIII Bomber Command, and then down to 493rd headquarters. As the Fortress flew on toward its proper destination, the tourist atmosphere having long dissolved into grim silence, an irritated voice came over the radio from the Debach control tower.

“This is Whitewash to Pillar 366. You are reported off course and in London airspace. Explain yourself.”

“Compass malfunction,” said Robert. “Lost bearing and descended below cloud base for visual navigation.” It wasn’t a bad attempt under the circumstances, but the tower wasn’t buying it.

“Not good enough. Report to HQ immediately on landing.” The voice added peevishly: “And no more sightseeing—that’s an order.”

There was an official inquiry. The crew backed Robert up (even though they were furious with him), and Colonel Helton decided to accept the “compass malfunction” story. If Robert hadn’t been such a favorite of the CO, things might have turned out differently. He’d have been grounded at best, maybe even busted down a rank. When he wrote his next letter to Eleanor, he judged it best not to mention his visit to St Paul’s. She would have seen it as disrespectful to the church, and maybe regarded his narrow scrape as a just warning from God. Colonel Helton might have forgiven him, but Eleanor and the Almighty were another matter.

Listening to the two young WAAFs chatting gaily about the life of a balloon wagon crew, Robert felt the heat of shame rise up his neck, turning his cheeks red. He had the absurd thought that they might have heard of him, or even recognize him. But if they knew about the incident, they made no mention of it.

Evening was coming on as the train pulled into Liverpool Street Station (just a short walk from St. Paul’s, had Robert had time to revisit the scene of his shame). In his pocket was a slip of paper with an address written on it. His orders were to report there immediately on arrival. He managed to hail one of the small number of black cabs that still plied the wartime streets. Gasoline was rationed, and many of the drivers had been drafted. The few that remained scraped a living mostly from US military personnel.

Like many American tourists before and after, Robert discovered the marvelous ability of London cabdrivers to know their way, without hesitation, to any address in the metropolis, no matter how obscure. Even in the blacked-out city, with only hooded headlights to guide him, the cabbie found the street requested, and drove without hesitation right up to the door.

As the taxi rumbled off into the night, Robert looked in bewilderment at the building in front of him. He thought he must have come to the wrong place. He’d been expecting some kind of military facility or other official building. What he was looking at, as far as he could tell in the darkness, was a modest row house in a residential street. But the number checked out. There must have been an error somewhere. He’d been given a wrong address, or the cabbie had deposited him in the wrong street. There was nobody about. He figured he might as well knock on the door; maybe they’d have a phone he could use to call for instructions.

He knocked. There was a pause, and then a muffled voice called out, “Who’s there?” A female voice with an English accent, which rather confirmed that he’d come to the wrong place.

“I’m an American officer, ma’am. I’m lost, and hoping to use your telephone if you have one.”

There was a click of a latch, and the door opened. Against the darkness of the blacked-out hallway, Robert could make out the dim shape of a woman. Before he could apologize for disturbing her, she spoke: “Are you Captain Trimble?”

He was stunned. “. . . Why yes, yes I am.”

“Do come in,” she said warmly. “I’ve been expecting you.”

Mystified, Robert stepped inside. The door closed, and the hall light was switched on. Smiling pleasantly at him was a tall, middle-aged lady.

“Come in and sit down,” she said, leading him into the front room. She guided him to a chair by the unlit gas fire. The house was even more modest inside than outside, with bare walls and hardly any furniture. The lady’s cut-glass accent seemed bizarrely out of place in this shabby setting. She fed a shilling into the gas meter and lit the fire. “There. Now I need to make a telephone call. Cup of tea?” Robert nodded mutely.

The mysterious woman was gone for a few minutes and came back with a tray on which were cups and a teapot, and a plate of ham sandwiches. “You must be hungry after your journey,” she said. “Do take a sandwich.”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you.”

She turned away to pour tea. “I suppose you must be wondering what this is all about,” she said sympathetically.

“Well, ma’am, I was told I was going to Russia to fly airplanes.” He looked curiously at her, wondering if she was about to offer him an explanation. She wasn’t.

“Honestly, I don’t know what plans they have for you. I’m just an intermediary. It’s better that you don’t ask me any questions. The embassy is sending a car for you. In the meantime, do help yourself to sandwiches.”

The embassy? Don’t ask any questions? What was going on here?

Despite his confusion, he managed to concentrate some of his attention on the sandwiches. They were another feature that marked this out as no ordinary house; with meat rationed, there wouldn’t be anyone else in this street eating ham sandwiches right now. Robert had eaten two and was reaching for a third (it had been a long day) when they heard the sound of a car pulling up outside. There was a knock on the door, and a suited civilian was admitted. He looked Robert up and down and spoke without ceremony: “Come on, it’s late.” He had an American accent and an irritable tone; he looked like someone who didn’t get too much sleep. Robert followed him out to the car.

It seemed like an awfully big charade for a ferry pilot. As they drove through the city, Robert decided to chance an inquiry. “So,” he said, “what’s all this special treatment about?”

“I don’t know,” the man said. “And I wouldn’t tell you if I could. To you I’m just your driver.”

Robert let it be, and lapsed back into silence.

Even in the dark, he could see that the streets were getting wider and the houses larger as the car headed west. Finally they turned a corner and pulled up in front of a large, looming building. It didn’t look like much in the dark, with its pillared façade in shadow, and its dozens of elegant windows blacked out, but this was 1 Grosvenor Square, Mayfair—the United States Embassy and heart of Little America.

Inside, Robert was left waiting in the large, cold foyer. It was 9:30 P.M. when at last an attaché came to collect him. Once again there was no introduction, no explanation. He was merely asked to confirm his identity, told that he would be called for in the morning, then handed over to an attendant, who escorted him to one of the embassy’s guest rooms.

Too dog-tired to think, Robert undressed and sank into bed—a bed that he would later recall as the best and most comfortable he had ever slept in in his life.

Next morning, an attendant woke him at seven and warned him to be down for breakfast in thirty minutes. After a shower in lukewarm water, he ventured downstairs. Following his well-trained soldier’s nose, he found his way to the staff dining hall. That breakfast was some of the best food he’d had since arriving in England. These diplomats sure knew how to live the civilized life, even in a city on the front line of a war.

Afterward, he was taken in hand again and brought to an office where he was met by a senior-looking attaché. Yet again there was no introduction, no pleasantries, but this time there was at least some information. However, it was not the kind of information calculated to settle Robert’s qualms about this whole business.

The attaché looked quizzically at Robert’s uniform, then spoke briskly: “The first thing to do is have you fitted out with a suit. That will be done this morning.” He wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to Robert. “Go to this address. You’re to be supplied with two suits. They’ll be ready by this evening. Then you’ll be transported to pick up your flight to Stockholm. You—”

Robert interrupted. “Suits? What do I need suits for? I have my uniform.”

The attaché peered at him. “You need civilian clothing. You will be provided with two suits. It will be taken care of today, in time to make tonight’s flight to Stockholm.”

“Whoa, whoa!” Robert put up his hands. “You’re gonna put me in a civilian suit, and then send me in a plane over Europe?”

“Oh, you don’t have to worry,” the attaché said. “That plane goes over every night. You’ll be perfectly fine.”

“You don’t understand. I’m wearing a dog tag. If that plane has to make an emergency landing in enemy territory, and I’m caught in a civilian suit with a dog tag, I’ll be shot.” The attaché stared while Robert went on objecting. “I just put in thirty-five missions; I don’t want to stick my neck out now. And what’s this about Stockholm?” he demanded. “I’m supposed to be going to Russia, not Sweden.”

“Russia? I assume there’s been a change of orders,” said the attaché.

“No, no, I never signed up to go to Stockholm in a civilian suit. I’m supposed to be going to Russia to fly airplanes!”

The attaché hesitated. Throughout the short interview, he had become less and less sure of himself. “Captain,” he said at last, “step outside and wait.”

Simmering, Robert did as he was told. Out in the hallway, he sat and waited . . . and then paced up and down and waited . . . and then waited some more. All the while, his mind rehearsed the indignant speeches he would make if they tried to discipline him over this. Stockholm! In a civilian suit! Were they trying to use him as a spy? He’d be safer flying another combat tour. He wasn’t cut out to be a spy—or trained, for that matter. No, he’d be damned first. His reckless side was back in control again, and he was perfectly prepared to face the stockade and a court-martial rather than go along with this insane, half-cocked plan. Had Colonel Helton known anything about this? Surely not.

After about an hour of waiting, Robert had had enough. He made his way back to the dining hall. By now it was long past breakfast. A cook offered him a turkey sandwich, which he accepted gratefully. His indignation hadn’t affected his appetite. If he was going to be incarcerated, he figured it might as well be on a full stomach.

After a while, an attendant came looking for him and told him to come at once. Robert stood up and went to face his doom. To his surprise, he was taken to a different office, where he was met by an entirely different embassy official—a tall fellow who greeted Robert with a smile. Again no name was given, but at least this time he got a warm welcome.

“Captain Trimble, come in and sit down. Colonel Helton gave you a strong recommendation.”

Robert felt a surge of relief at the mention of Helton’s name. “Sir,” he said, “I came here as an officer of the Army Air Forces, and I intend to go home the same way. I don’t know what all that business about civilian suits and flying to Sweden is all about, but I’m a pilot. I can’t change my skin, if you know what I mean.”

“I understand, Captain. We’ve changed our minds; we can go back to the original arrangement. You’ll be going to the Soviet Union.”

“And I’ll be ferrying planes back to England, like Colonel Helton said?”

“Yes . . . and other functions as deemed necessary. You wouldn’t want to be bored, right, Captain?”

“No, sir. What would the other functions be?”

Somehow he never got told about the other functions. Suddenly the official became very busy, and Robert was escorted away by an attendant.

Like an aero engine on a cold morning, the bureaucratic machine had got off to a halting, juddering start. But now that it had been set in motion, it turned with a will, and Robert was swept along in the prop wash. In short order, he was equipped with travel warrants and other requisites for the long and roundabout journey to the USSR. He was also photographed and fingerprinted for ID documents. Unlike the plain, regular War Department AGO card he and every other officer carried, this was a real embassy-issue passport. Still unsure what intentions the military machine had for him, and whether they would be for good or ill, Robert lost the cheerful countenance he usually wore when a camera was pointed at him, and stared with deep suspicion into the lens.

The photo was printed, and he signed it; then it was fixed into the passport, and “American Consular Service” was stamped across it.

He was now officially part of the machine. Unofficially, and though he didn’t yet know it, he had passed beyond the bounds of the Army, and was now in the orbit of the Office of Strategic Services.

To the end of his life, Robert never understood what had gone on in the embassy, even in the light of what came later. It was almost certainly a bureaucratic screwup: a case of mistaken identity. In 1944, the OSS, in cooperation with the British Special Operations Executive, had established a base in Sweden—the Westfield Mission. In early 1945, Westfield was being used as a way station for field agents (known as “Joes”) being infiltrated into Germany and German-occupied Poland. They did indeed have flights going to and from Sweden virtually every night, taking supplies and ferrying Joes. When Robert showed up at the embassy, having been passed along from the OSS/SOE handler, the embassy attaché (probably an OSS officer from the headquarters round the corner in Grosvenor Street) believed he was a Joe, and treated him accordingly. The “change of plans” was presumably the result of the realization that Captain Trimble was actually the pilot for the Ukraine mission.

It was all too easy for such a mix-up to occur. A lot of Joes were being processed for infiltration missions. Whole networks of them were built up behind German lines. Joes were trained at the OSS’s British bases, either in London or one of the secret “areas” in the countryside, and then passed along to Area T (Harrington in Northamptonshire) for air transportation. Typically they would liaise with their mission handlers at a safe house, which would be a shabby, partly furnished place, often in a London backstreet, exactly like the one Robert was sent to. For all OSS personnel other than the handlers and mission briefers, there was a strict culture of silence surrounding Joes. For everyone, from the administrators who processed them to the specialist aircrews who transported them, there was a code of conduct: You do not ask a Joe any questions about himself, and you do not tell a Joe anything that he doesn’t need to know.

The OSS attaché at the embassy might have been a little puzzled by Robert’s uniform on an agent, but it was common for OSS personnel in England to wear AAF uniforms in order to blend in with the people they had to mix with at the training and operational bases. The fitting for a civilian suit was also part of standard procedure; the OSS clothing depot was nearby, in Brook Street, Mayfair, and the tailors there could create any kind of clothing, from authentic European work overalls to civilian suits and even enemy uniforms, all with the correct stitching styles and labels.

Having realized their error, the anonymous officials at the embassy put Captain Trimble back on his proper intended course and sent him on his way, shaken and puzzled by the experience but completely innocent of what was in store for him.