Mission of mercy

BTC70longversionMar17


A tale of POWs and Cossacks, a hero flying by the seat of his pants, and an act of mercy that almost caused allies to go to war with each other . . .

Continuing our series “Beyond the Call 70,” marking the 70th anniversary of Captain Robert Trimble’s mission to rescue POWs in Soviet-occupied Poland, we return to the day 70 years ago today when a storm was brewing between United States Army Air Forces Eastern Command and the Soviet authorities.

The cause of the storm was Captain Robert M. Trimble. That day, March 17, 1945, he had just flown in to Poltava air base at the controls of a patched-up B-17 bomber with a group of starving and desperate American and British ex-POWs whom he’d smuggled out of Poland disguised as airmen.

From Robert’s point of view, this had been an act of natural mercy, but to the Soviet authorities – if they ever found out about it – it would be seen as an act of defiance, possibly espionage, and a political betrayal. It could even be the cause of a diplomatic incident . . .

From Beyond the Call 

In a pool of light cast by a single desk lamp, Captain Trimble sat alone in the gloom of the deserted Operations Office. He took a sheet of paper and fed it into the typewriter.

HEADQUARTERS
EASTERN COMMAND
US STRATEGIC AIR FORCES IN EUROPE APO 798

RMT/rte
17 March 1945

SUBJECT: Report on Flight to Rzeszow, Staszow, Lwow, Poland.

He paused and stared at the row of place names. How innocuous they looked on paper. Yet the memories associated with them were still raw, and would never entirely heal—wounds on top of wounds . . .

The adventure had begun nearly three weeks earlier, when Robert Trimble had been temporarily taken off his secret POW rescue mission and ordered to spend time on his “official” duties (his cover for the ultra-secret mission that had brought him to the Eastern Front) – retrieving and salvaging US aircraft that had been brought down in Poland. (At the end of February, after weeks of tireless diplomacy, the Americans had finally been allowed by the Soviets to send an official POW contact team into Poland, and hoped that the Soviets would allow the team to do its work unmolested. If so, Captain Robert Trimble’s covert mission could be suspended. This turned out to be a vain hope. Robert’s role was far from over.)

The plane that Robert and his team had been sent to salvage was B-17 “687,” which had been badly shot up during a raid on Germany and force-landed in Poland (read about the story of 687 and her crew in the recent post Fighting Bastard of the Ukraine).

Repairing the B-17 was an adventure in itself. Constantly hamstrung by their Soviet secret police escorts, the American team worked for a week to patch up the bomber, which was stranded in a snow-laden field miles from the nearest settlement. They slept in the plane, and one night were shot up by a passing Cossack patrol. The Americans managed to make peace with the horsemen and spent a night carousing with them on local “three beets” liquor, which was blue and ferociously potent.

15cossacks
Kuban_Cossacks_1937

Top: A band of World War II-era Cossacks. These men are very similar to the patrol with whom Robert Trimble spent a memorable night in the wilds of Poland.
Bottom: Cossacks on parade. The Red Army and the German Wehrmacht both used mounted cavalry on the Eastern Front in World War II. Cossacks, who had a unique spirit and character, served on both sides at various times. (See Horses in World War II - Wikipedia)

The next day, bewildered and nursing fierce hangovers, the Americans went on with their duties, repairing the damaged bomber.

The Soviets were constantly looking for opportunities to steal American military planes in order to gather intelligence on their design. During the present operation, Robert came across evidence that a Red Army unit had murdered an American fighter pilot in order to take away his crash-landed P-51 Mustang. And they attempted to do the same with B-17 “687.” When the plane was almost ready to fly, a Red Army colonel arrived on the scene and tried to persuade Captain Trimble to go away with him to a nearby town and leave the plane to a Red Army crew. Robert was instantly suspicious; the OSS agents who had given him a crash-course in fieldcraft had warned him of situations just like this.

From Beyond the Call

. . . a voice echoed in his head. Don’t go with them, it said. He couldn’t place it for a moment, then he remembered it as the voice of one of the OSS agents, that first day at Poltava. They’ll try to get you to go with them. Don’t do it. You will be traveling along, and you’ll pass some woodland. Suddenly they stop the car. “Everybody out! There are Germans there, in the trees!” There will be confusion; you’ll jump out and take cover. Meanwhile, two of their guys circle around behind you. . . . You’ll be found with a bullet in your back, from the “German ambush.” The Soviet authorities will buy it—they’re paranoid about German paratroopers and spies everywhere. And believe it or not, there are pro-German partisan groups in Poland. The Americans might not believe it, but there won’t be a damned thing they can do. . . .

Robert looked at the Russian colonel, and the little knot of junior officers and enlisted men behind him. Their faces were impassive. Would they murder him to get their hands on a B-17?

“No,” he said. “Thank you for your offer, but we’ll stay here tonight.”

“Captain, it is late. Come with us now, you’ll be happy you did,” the colonel insisted.

“No thank you, sir.”

The colonel’s face darkened angrily. “I am a colonel; you are only a captain. You must do what I tell you to do. You will come with us now, and tomorrow a Soviet pilot will fly the airplane.”

He turned away for a second and gestured at his men to escort the American captain. Robert, acting on instinct, drew his sidearm; when the colonel turned back he found himself looking into the muzzle of a Colt .45.

“I’m telling you something right now,” Robert said, his voice hard. He leveled the pistol at the colonel’s gut. “I’m not going anywhere with you. But I would invite you to come up right now and talk to all of my men. They’ll say the same. They’ll tell you what we’re here for, and what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna fly this plane out in the morning.”

He stared into the colonel’s astonished, enraged eyes, but there was no reply.

Trimble Poltava 01

Captain Robert Trimble at Poltava

It was a deadly dangerous call, but Robert did eventually fly that plane out – and it was one of the most hazardous, accomplished feats of flying he ever achieved. The heavy bomber, with one engine barely functioning, and a small, snowbound field as a take-off strip, barely made it.

After only a short time in the air, Robert and his team faced another threat – a sudden, intense snowstorm. Instead of flying on to the air base at Poltava, he put down at the Polish city of Lwow, which until a week earlier had been his main base for rounding up wandering POWs. And so it would be again. While the Americans waited out the storm and worked on their plane, a group of POWs found their way to Captain Trimble.

One was Sgt Rudy Vergolina, a medic from Milwaukee, a D-Day veteran who’d been captured in Normandy. Another was Sgt Richard J. Beadle, also a medic and a decorated hero of the Anzio operation. There were also two British POWs who had travelled with them across Poland – Scotsman Jim McNeish and Englishman Private Ronald Gould. All four had been through hell since being “liberated” from their camps by the Red Army, and they were desperate, beginning to believe that they would never get out of this country, and never see their homes or families again. (Read the story of Vergolina, Beadle and the liberation of Stalag III-C in the recent post All the Lost Prisoners.) Robert Trimble took all four men under his wing.

trimble-report

Extracts from Captain Robert M. Trimble’s official report on the operation, March 17, 1945.

As the days passed, more and more ex-POWs drifted into Lwow. Captain Trimble did what he could for them – putting them on trains heading out of Poland – but the first four, Vergolina, Beadle, McNeish, and Gould, he kept with him. (Robert was in a tricky situation, because he had to keep his POW mission secret from his American comrades.) When the plane was flyable again, he dressed the four men up in airmen’s clothing and flew them out to Poltava. He knew it would cause a ruckus, but that was a risk he was willing to take. In fact, along with a couple other events going on at the same time, it almost let to an outbreak of war between the US and the USSR . . .

Read the full story of Captain Trimble’s mission in Beyond the Call. Click here for links to places where you can buy the book in hardcover, ebook or audiobook formats.

Vivid and engaging… a story of one officer’s guile and bravery in the face of forces much larger and more powerful than himself … a moving and appalling tale of the full horror of World War II’s last year on the eastern front.
Randall Hansen, author of Fire and Fury and Disobeying Hitler

Vergolina

Sgt Rudy Vergolina, one of the POWs brought to Poltava by Captain Robert Trimble

Content © Jeremy Dronfield and Lee Trimble 2015