The miracle of the 400 Frenchwomen

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For all his selfless deeds in Poland, saving the lives of hundreds of Americans and other Allied ex-prisoners of war, Captain Robert Trimble received only two official awards; neither was from his own government.

Aside from the US medals he received for his service as a bomber pilot (Air Medal, Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross) the award he was most fond of was the French Croix de Guerre, which was given for – as he expressed it – “rescuing 400 French girls”. And yet the medal lay hidden at the bottom of the old cigar box in which he kept his war mementos – never spoken of, never revealed to his family. The story of how he won that medal was tied up with a lot of heartache and trauma, and the secret mission he had been ordered never to talk about.

Robert Trimble April 1945

And yet, in spite of the darkness, it was the only episode during his three months on the Eastern Front which afforded him a sliver of amusement – merely the thought of how overwhelmingly, flatteringly grateful those girls might have been if he’d actually met all of them (“they’d have smothered me with kisses!” he chuckled, recalling the incident). Perhaps fortunately, he met only a few of them. Most of his dealings were with an enigmatic young woman whom he knew only as Isabelle. Her tragic, harrowing story left a mark on him in which there was no humor at all.

The episode took place in late March 1945, exactly 70 years ago, and for the women involved it was all but a miracle.

RendezvousLwow

This location, a few miles east of Lwow, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) on the railroad which leads to Odessa, is close to the location of the rendezvous between the 400 Frenchwoman and the freedom train organised by Captain Trimble.

From Beyond the Call

Isabelle wondered if she would ever see her homeland again. Three years ago, she had been a free woman—or as free as you could be in a Nazi-occupied country. She had kept her head down, minded her own business.

Then came the labor conscription. At first the Germans tried to tempt young French people with promises of pay, but few people wanted to go hundreds of miles to a foreign country to work for the occupying power. So the Nazis switched to their natural way of doing things: coercion. In September 1942 the puppet Vichy government passed the law that established the Service du Travail Obligatoire— compulsory labor service. All men aged between eighteen and fifty and all women between twenty-one and thirty-five were eligible …

By February 1943, more than 160,000 French civilians had been swept up in the STO. Isabelle was one of them. They were put on trains and sent to Germany, where they joined the great teeming hordes of other foreign workers—mostly Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians. The majority labored in German factories, but Isabelle was among the thousands put to work on the farms of Germany and Poland …

The women suffered worse than the men – many were raped, and some were put to work in brothels for the use of male laborers. After the labor camps were captured by the Red Army, Isabelle and hundreds of her fellow slaves who had escaped the Nazi evacuations were set loose to wander in the Polish countryside, just like the Allied POWs whom Robert Trimble was here to help, believing that they would never see their homes again.

When Isabelle heard that there was an American in the city of Lwow who could smuggle people out of Poland, she approached him, and found that he was willing to help. She was suspicious of Robert at first – her experience of men during the past three years had prepared her to suspect their motives always.

From Beyond the Call

… Robert told her again that she was safe now. “I’ll take you to the station and put you on the Odessa train. You’ll be home in no time.”

She looked at him, studying his face. “I have heard that the Americans have liberated France,” she said. “But you – why do you do this, for nothing?” After what she had been through, the idea of a man helping a person without expecting something in return was mystifying. She had apologized for her suspicions of him, but still she didn’t understand.

Neither did Robert, entirely. It would be many years before he would be able to look back on all this and begin to figure it out. He had seen too much death, and it was as if he was trying to fight back; as if helping people, doing good, could somehow push back against the tide of violence, cruelty and callousness that was threatening to engulf the world. He couldn’t articulate it to Isabelle – or even to himself; all he knew at the time was that his missions helped to stave off the nightmare of what he had been through.

“Anyhow,” he said. “We’ll go to the station in the morning and get you on a train. You’ll be in Odessa in a couple days. There’ll be a British ship to take you home, and—”

“Ah, non,” she interrupted, almost panicking. “Non! Toutes mes amies – il faut qu’elles m’accompagnent.” She stopped and gathered herself. “Excuse me. My friends … I will not be without them. It … they must too, go with me.”

“Sure,” said Robert, unfazed. Refugees were almost never alone. They always came in pairs or groups. “How many of you are there?” In his head he started working out ticket costs and a plan for getting them to the train station without attracting attention.

“Four hundred,” said Isabelle carefully.

Robert blinked. “Four … er, I think you mean forty.” Forty was a lot to manage at once, but he’d handled larger numbers. He went back to his mental arithmetic.

There was a pencil lying on the table; Isabelle picked it up and wrote on a piece of paper: 4 0 0.

“I can count,” she said. “Four hundred.”

The number swam in front of Robert’s eyes. It wasn’t possible to get that many out in one go. No way in the world. Nobody sane would even attempt it. Four hundred Frenchwomen, marching through Lwów? They’d be arrested before they got within a mile of the station. They’d have to be split into groups; but that could take days. He tried to puzzle it out. Say ten groups of forty … but there was only one train a day. In the meantime he had other calls on him, other people needing help. Maybe eight groups of fifty, or five groups of eighty … but no, it wasn’t feasible, not without abandoning the stray POWs who needed him.

He saw her watching him anxiously. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll think of something. Do you have any papers? Identification?”

She shook her head.

“Okay, well, I guess we’d better sleep on it.” He looked regretfully at the quilt and the soft pillows that had been calling to him for the past couple days. “I guess you’d better have the bed,” he sighed.

That night he lay awake on the hard floor in his parka, trying to work out a solution. He couldn’t bring four hundred women into Lwów, and he couldn’t split them into groups. There had to be another way.

And then the solution dawned on him. Couldn’t bring them into Lwów … That was the answer, right there: he didn’t need to bring them in. The idea was absurd, it was dangerous. But it was  a plan. He was going to need a whole train …

Read the full, gripping story of how Robert organised the operation, how it brought him into a deadly dangerous confrontation with the Soviet secret police, and how he was eventually decorated for his achievement, in Beyond the Call.

Croix de Guerre

Croix de Guerre with silver star awarded to Captain Robert M. Trimble, August 1945 for his part in the liberation of the former slave laborers.

Content © Jeremy Dronfield and Lee Trimble 2015