All the lost prisoners

BTC70longversionJan31


On this day 70 years ago – the last day of January 1945, Captain Robert Trimble was en route to the Soviet Union, bound for a secret mission he didn’t yet know about. Meanwhile, advancing Red Army spearheads were closing in on Stalag III-C, a Nazi POW camp near the eastern border of Germany.

Inside the camp were thousands of prisoners, including a large number of American enlisted men. As the Russian forces approached, the Germans decided to evacuate. The POWs were herded into a long column in the camp’s snow-covered main street. Near the front of the column was Sgt Richard J. Beadle – a medic from Louisiana, Beadle had won a medal for bravery in the Anzio raid the previous year, and had later been captured in France. He was about to face his toughest time in this whole war.

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The prisoners were kept waiting for hours in the bitter cold. Then, just as the order came to march out, the leading Soviet troops and tanks opened fire. Shells and mortar bombs rained down on the camp gateway, killing and wounding dozens of prisoners. This was the Allied POWs’ first taste of how the Red Army viewed prisoners of war. Stalin had decreed that men who surrendered to the enemy were “criminal deserters” who had “breached their oath and betrayed their Homeland.” This attitude had filtered down to the troops, and although their bitterest hatred was reserved for their fellow Russians who had been captured, they viewed all POWs with cold callousness.

Sgt Beadle survived the barrage, but he was among a group of POWs who were rounded up by the Russians, force-marched eastward and abandoned to their fate, without help or food in the severe winter conditions.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, the Russian soldiers had taken over.

When the Red Army attack first began, at the rear of the column of prisoners was Sgt Rudolph Vergolina, a young soldier from Milwaukee. Like Beadle, Vergolina was a medic. He’d landed in France on D-Day and been captured during the battle for Normandy. Trapped inside the camp when the Russians captured it, he witnessed a shocking sight.

From Beyond the Call…

Entering the camp, the Russian soldiers went methodically from building to building, shooting the handful of Germans who’d been caught there. A squad also went into a barracks block that had been set aside for the dozens of Russian POWs who had contracted tuberculosis during a recent epidemic. Bursts of submachine-gun fire came from the building, then the squad came out again. Rudy Vergolina, inclined to be positive about everything, thought perhaps it had been a mercy killing, but he had a hard time convincing himself, and the event left him badly shaken.

Lingering in the vicinity of the camp for a week or two, Vergolina and his friends saw many more instances of Russian cruelty: German prisoners executed and civilians murdered. The Red Army was on German soil now, and the bitter enmity between the two peoples caught fire. Seeking shelter in a house near the camp, Vergolina found the entire family dead, all apparently shot by the father to save them from the Russians. Only the family dog was left alive, alone and barking.

Some of the remaining prisoners decided it was time to move on. The Russians were obviously going to do nothing for them, and the front line was still dangerously close by. In groups, the POWs began to drift east, joining the thousands of other wanderers. Sergeant Vergolina eventually found himself in the region near Danzig, where there was still fierce fighting going on to pry the Germans out of the Baltic ports. Somewhere between Danzig and Warsaw, Vergolina met up with Jim McNeish, a Scottish ex-POW. They banded together and headed south, toward Warsaw.

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Surviving barrack building at Stalag III-A (part of the group which included III-C). (Photo Wikimedia.org)

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Sgt Rudolph Vergolina. (Photo Vergolina family) 

Heading toward Warsaw at the same time as Vergolina and his friend was Sgt Richard Beadle, who also joined up with a British comrade – Private Ronald Gould, an infantryman from London. Finding nothing but neglect, captivity or abuse at the hands of Soviet troops and secret police, they and hundreds of others drifted across Poland, seeking refuge, many converging on the area around Lwów. There, in the most unexpected place, weeks after their “liberation” from Stalag III-C the ex-prisoners encountered an American officer called Captain Robert M. Trimble.

Captain Trimble was in Poland on a mission – a dangerous, top secret mission of mercy. These four men were just a few of the hundreds he hoped to smuggle to freedom.

Read the full story of Captain Trimble's daring scheme to rescue Vergolina, Beadle and their two comrades from Russian persecution in Beyond the Call, coming February 3, 2015. Described by Booklist as "A riveting, tense, and ultimately satisfying account of [Captain Trimble’s] heroic effort.

Content © Jeremy Dronfield and Lee Trimble 2015