Near the end of World War II, thousands of Allied ex-prisoners of war were abandoned to wander the war-torn Eastern Front. With no food, shelter, or supplies, the POWs were an army of dying men. As the Red Army advanced across Poland, the Nazi prison camps were liberated. In defiance of humanity, the freed Allied prisoners were discarded without aid. The Soviets viewed POWs as cowards, and regarded all refugees as potential spies or partisans.
The United States repeatedly offered to help, but were refused. With relations between the Allies strained, a plan was conceived for an undercover rescue mission. In total secrecy, the OSS chose an obscure American air force detachment stationed at a Ukrainian airfield. The man they picked to undertake it was veteran 8th Air Force bomber pilot Captain Robert Trimble.
With little covert training, Trimble took the mission. He would survive by wit, courage, and determination. This is the compelling, true story of an American hero who risked everything to bring his fellow soldiers home to safety and freedom.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Jeremy Dronfield is a multi-faceted writer, biographer, and novelist, with a special interest in WWII aviation. He began in archaeology, gaining his PhD at Cambridge University. In 1997 his debut novel, The Locust Farm, was a bestseller in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of Resurrecting Salvador, Burning Blue (a novel about the experiences of a U.S. pilot in WWII), and the critically acclaimed The Alchemist’s Apprentice. He is also coauthor of several historical biographies, including one about the life of the Russian spy Moura Budberg.
Read an Excerpt
Captain Robert M. Trimble’s route from the UK to Ukraine, January–February 1945.
Map by J. Dronfield
Eastern Europe, early 1945. Captain Trimble’s area of operations.
Map by J. Dronfield
By the fall of 1944, the mighty forces of the Red Army, at a bitter cost in lives, had pushed the Nazi invaders out of Russia. As the front line rolled steadily across the Ukraine and Poland, the grim prison camps of the Third Reich were discovered and liberated: concentration camps, death camps, slave labor and POW camps. In their thousands, the suffering inmates were set loose.
The Soviets’ attitude to the freed prisoners of war was not charitable. Setting the moral mood for the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, Stalin had decreed in 1941 that there were no prisoners of war, only traitors and cowards. His declaration, coupled with the culture of savage violence on the Eastern Front, led to cruel treatment and even atrocities against former Russian soldiers who were liberated from POW camps.
It also affected the treatment of Allied ex-prisoners. They were left to wander, starving, sick, and dying. Some were fired upon indiscriminately by Russian troops; some were robbed; many more were marched to the rear and abandoned. Even worse, hundreds were rounded up into camps where they were treated as potential spies or anti-Soviet partisans and kept in squalid conditions. Those who were able to went into hiding in the forests and abandoned farms, where they mingled with freed slave laborers and escapees from the Nazi death marches. The fortunate ones were given shelter by Polish citizens. Many lost hope of ever seeing their homes again.
Britain and the United States pleaded urgently with the Soviet government to honor their obligations to Allied prisoners of war. The United States offered to bring in planes, supplies, and contact teams to round up the liberated POWs and evacuate them. Stalin refused. He didn’t want foreigners wandering around in his territory, seeing things he didn’t want them to see. A tense, increasingly angry exchange of letters between President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin failed to resolve the situation.
The ex-POWs were caught between callousness and politics.
Stalin began using the POWs as leverage to force Britain and America to repatriate Russians who had been liberated from POW camps or captured fighting for the Germans. Give me mine, and I’ll give you yours seemed to be the attitude. Roosevelt and Churchill rightly mistrusted Stalin’s motives, and feared for the lives of any Russians repatriated to the USSR.
President Roosevelt, his diplomats, and the United States military high command were left with no option: Relations with the USSR were tense and deteriorating, but had to be preserved. If they were going to save their missing men—not to mention the other Allied ex-prisoners—from starvation, imprisonment, and death, they would have to go undercover.
The Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, provided the means. The options were limited. The OSS European branch, based in London, had no established presence in the regions where the POW camps were. However, the United States did have just one small foothold in Soviet-occupied territory: the air base at Poltava in the Ukraine. Earlier in the war, the Russians had allowed an American unit to be set up there to service long-distance “shuttle” bombing operations from England and Italy. The shuttle missions had ended by late 1944, and Eastern Command had been scaled down to a tiny winter detachment with few duties, almost forgotten, just waiting for the war to end.
Poltava, a tiny dot of freedom in a sea of Communist red, would be the base for the covert rescue mission.
They had the location; they had the mission. All they needed was a man to undertake it. . . .
My father was a regular guy. Not quite what you’d call ordinary, but not noticeably exceptional either. Not a bad father, for someone whose own dad had deserted his wife and children. Dad was faithful and did his best, despite the lack of a role model. As a citizen, he did his duty in the war, and survived, then came home and raised a family. I couldn’t have told you anything extraordinary about him, had it not been for an astonishing confession when he was eighty-six years old, which revealed a whole period in his life that I knew nothing about.
The events that led to his confession began on a hot summer day in 2005, when Dad was working alone in the communal garden of his retirement community. After a couple of hours under the sun, he began to feel dizzy. He’d forgotten to bring his medicine and water. Rising from his work, he felt faint. He was unconscious before he hit the ground. He lay there for hours before he was found, sunburned and close to death. But Robert Trimble had always been a survivor.
Around noon of his second day in the Willow Valley Manor infirmary, he was done lying in bed. Without permission, he got up and dressed himself in the dirty, sweaty gardening clothes he’d been brought in wearing. Having paid a visit down the hall to his dear wife Eleanor (her dementia had confined her permanently to the infirmary), he was back in his own apartment. He got some homemade bean soup out of the refrigerator, then turned on the ball game. After dinner he put on his cap, the one with his WWII squadron insignia, and headed back to the garden.
Dad’s fall made me realize that the time I had left with him and Mom was limited. And so, in the winter of 2006, I began the first of several long drives up from Virginia to Pennsylvania.
I needed Dad to help me get reacquainted with my heritage. I knew he’d been a bomber pilot in the war, and I wanted to hear those stories again in detail and learn more about his earlier life. He had been a mystery throughout my life. He was a sociable, friendly kind of guy, yet he wasn’t someone we children could share our troubles with intimately. He had even greater difficulty sharing his own feelings. He was kind and caring, but none of us had a close personal relationship with him in our younger days. He was a disciplinarian, so I tended to steer clear of him when I was in trouble, which meant most of the time.
On that winter day, when I knocked on the door of his apartment he answered with a happy greeting. But when I announced casually that I wanted to spend some time talking about his early life and his experiences in the war—and that I’d brought a recorder with me to preserve his memories—he frowned and said, “All right, if that’s really what you want to do.” He suggested we go and shoot some pool in the rec room.
“Okay fine, Dad,” I said, chuckling inside that he was still deflecting after all these years. I was determined to get him to open up. I asked him about his experiences as a pilot. I knew this would hook him. Although he didn’t like to talk about the past, he did love to talk about flying. Our conversation lasted until dinnertime. He was relaxed and forgot that he was being recorded.
We kids always admired him for his WWII heroics—my brother Robert (who was named for him), my sister Carol (who was born in the midst of it all), and I. He didn’t talk about the war very often, but when you got him started, he always spoke vividly, reliving the memories as he spoke—right down to the remembered conversations and the emotions.
On that day in 2006, I finally realized my lifelong wish of recording his story, the tales of adventure in the hostile skies above Europe. At the controls of a heavy bomber (B-24 Liberators at first, later B-17 Flying Fortresses), he ran the gauntlet of thirty-five harrowing raids over Germany and France during the last six months of 1944. He withstood the horror of seeing his friends blown to bits by German flak. He fought courageously to return to base with engines in flames or, worse, blown completely off of the wing, leaving a hole ten men could stand in. Hearing the stories in our youth, we hadn’t realized, of course, how lucky he was to have survived to tell them to us.
As long as he was talking war stories that weekend, his conversation was self-sustaining. When asked about his personal feelings, though, he would deflect by commenting on the ball game that was usually running on TV in the background. But I was feeling content that I had thoroughly documented all Dad’s wartime testimony. Above all, I felt I was beginning to know him, to bond with him again.
Before leaving that Sunday afternoon, I asked Dad about his father. He fell silent. When he finally spoke, his voice quivered with anger. I felt the urge not to press him, as he was old and frail, but I had to know. It seemed like I had touched a hidden trigger, and at last Dad’s feelings started to come out.
“Lee,” he said, “I don’t know how to start. When my dad left, it devastated all of us. I hated him. My mom despised him. I was always happy up until that day, then not for a long time after. Life got hard; all I felt was emptiness and anger. Then I met your mom, and boy, she saved my life. She saved my life more than once.”
I was mystified. Suddenly he’d opened up a seam of memory I knew nothing about. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t interrupt me,” he growled. Having finally allowed his feelings out into the open, he was going to do it his way. “I met Eleanor and I was happy again.” He looked at me. “There’s so much I need to tell you that you and your brother and sister never knew.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“In some ways going off to war helped me escape my past for a while; I was so excited. But while I was in Europe something happened to me that changed how I looked at life. It was terrible. I came home from Russia depressed, not caring about my relationship with Eleanor, the military, or anything. I was a mess.”
I could see that the question about his father had awakened a world of pain. I decided not to push the discussion. Later, as I was leaving to drive back to Virginia, while embracing Dad (the warmest I remember), one of the words he’d used suddenly jumped to the front of my mind.
“Russia?” I said.
“Russia. You said you returned from Russia after the war. You never said anything about Russia in your stories.”
He shook his head. “We’ll talk about it next time, Lee. I purposely never mentioned it to any of you. In fact I was ordered not to. No one knew about it, except your mom. It was painful then and it’s taken a lifetime for me to recover. It was a dark, evil time.” He stuffed a ten-dollar bill in my shirt pocket. “Here, drive safely.”
I drove home to Virginia through a snowstorm, which matched my state of mind. Russia? What would an American bomber pilot be doing in Russia? I’d always thought Dad had returned home after serving his tour of duty in England. And why would he have been ordered not to talk about it? It was a dark, evil time . . .
The snow flew thick and fast out of the darkness, danced in the headlights, and spattered against the windshield. I didn’t know it at the time, but my drive home was a strange echo of one of Dad’s untold tales—with instead of a heated, comfortable car, a thundering, half-repaired bomber that he had defended at gunpoint from a furious Soviet officer and flown off from a field, limping along at zero feet through a wild Polish snowstorm . . . and the small group of freed prisoners he took with him, and the trouble it caused when Moscow found out. . . . It was just one of the experiences that had harrowed him in the hidden period between the completion of his combat tour and his return to America.
I realized there and then that I was being compelled toward a new mission: discovering my father’s secret past.
I was full of anticipation when I arrived at Dad’s place two weeks later. We shot pool for a while; he loved to play, in spite of his frailty. I was more aware than ever of his deteriorating body. Once a tall man, he was now hunched over, and used a cane. But he was a proud man and wouldn’t accept help. He drove himself everywhere, and always volunteered to drive other residents in the community to their appointments. Dad had a strong sense of giving. He loved to help people, and still gave blood when he could. But that was nothing compared to what he had given of himself during World War II.
“Two weeks ago as I was leaving, you dropped an incendiary on me about spending time in Russia.”
“I did?” he said dryly.
“Yes, Dad. We all thought you came right home after your tour. What happened in Russia?”
He was silent for a while. “It was a horrific time in my life. I don’t know if I can talk about it even now. I saw atrocities. I saw the worst in people. I was deceived into going there—misled and lied to by my own people.”
Slowly, piece by piece, the story began to come out. A story bottled up for decades must be hard to tell and keep straight. He skipped over whole episodes, left out details and had to backtrack; some things he struggled to recall, but most were as vivid in his mind as the day they happened. And so were the emotions.
It was an incredible story—literally incredible. A story of a mission in Soviet territory; a mission so secret that even the OSS had to keep a distance from it because of the diplomatic furor that would blow up if the Soviets knew about it. As a cover, they had picked an innocent bomber pilot and sent him out to a US base in the Ukraine. From there he was sent into Poland. His task: to rescue Allied prisoners of war set loose by the Soviets. He had to help them survive and get them to freedom. He was sent beyond the protection of his own side, beyond the call of duty. He helped not just American POWs but slave laborers and concentration camp survivors; all the lost souls of Poland learned to seek out the American captain.
Anyone else hearing Dad’s story might have thought the old man was delusional. But he was my father, and I’d known him to be a straight shooter all his life. Although even I had doubts. After all, he’d taken quite a blow to the head from his fall. I knew he wouldn’t invent a story like this, but could he have dreamed it, and convinced himself it was true?
Dad brought out his cigar box of remaining war memorabilia. I was surprised at what we found in that box. Aside from his pilot insignia, it contained his Air Medal, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Flying Cross, his discharge papers and War Department ID card. Farther down was an astonishing item—a passport issued by the United States Embassy in London in January 1945, for travel to the USSR, via Cairo and Tehran, on “Official Business.” Inside I saw Dad’s youthful face, looking stern and kind of wary (like he guessed something strange was going on but didn’t know what), stamped over with “American Consular Service.” There were also two medals I had never seen before—a French Croix de Guerre and, at the very bottom of the box, a letter from the Russian government, dated 1996, with a commemorative medal awarded for participation in the “Great Patriotic War.”
I was stunned. Aside from the first few items, these were hardly the typical belongings of a bomber pilot stationed in England. I’ll be damned, I thought. The old man had a big secret. He had lived in fear (real or imagined) for sixty years, that if he talked he might get in trouble with the government, or even suffer some sort of retribution from the Russians. He told me he had declined an invitation to an award ceremony for the Russian medal because of that mistrust. According to Dad the letter and medal would have been round-filed had it not been for Mom’s insistence that he keep them. His bitterness about the Soviets ran deep, and the more I heard of his story, the better I understood why.
There existed a set of stories within his story, each more intriguing than the last. The rescue of freed POWs was just a part of it—there were seat-of-pants flying adventures, plus encounters with desperate Frenchwomen, seductive Russian spies, Soviet agents, and more. My father was suddenly more of a mystery to me than ever.
Dad died in 2009, in his ninetieth year. I continued researching his story. There was still a lingering doubt in my mind—could such an incredible story really be true? I wrote to military historians, consulted official histories, and acquired documents from government archives. The more I searched, the more evidence I found that corroborated my father’s story. I found a report he had written, describing an aircraft salvage operation which turned into an impromptu POW rescue and almost led to a diplomatic incident. I found a letter from the commander of the American Military Mission in Moscow, alluding to the “exceptional nature” of Captain Robert M. Trimble’s duties and his outstanding performance. I learned about the indignant letters sent to Stalin by President Roosevelt and Ambassador Harriman, protesting the treatment of freed Allied POWs, and about how Stalin stonewalled his supposed ally.
Inevitably there were gaps. My father’s mission in Soviet territory was hastily improvised, beyond top secret, and of such a diplomatic sensitivity that even the OSS could only be involved off the record. But wherever you would expect to find documentation, I found it, and it matched Dad’s story. Even in situations where he didn’t understand what was happening, the historical record made sense of the facts that confused him—such as the misunderstanding which, unknown to him, nearly caused a breach of OSS security in the US Embassy in London.
Robert M. Trimble was such a meticulously truthful man, and his story so fully corroborated wherever it could be, that I believe we can take his word that his undocumented activities—the long-distance, ad-hoc missions out in the lonely snows of Poland—occurred just as he described them, reliving them as he talked, feeling again the anger, the fear, and occasionally the humor.
I am proud of my father. America—the land that gave birth to him and shaped him—can be proud of him too. An ordinary American who undertook a most extraordinary mission. This is his story.
March 1945: Poland
Freedom held its breath . . .
Ten miles east of the Polish city of Lwów, the main rail line, snaking its way through the snow-covered farmlands, passed through a mile-long stretch of forest. On this day, hidden among the pines on a slope overlooking the tracks, shivering in the bitter cold, was a young woman. Her name was Isabelle, and she had been hiding here, keeping an anxious vigil, all through the freezing night. She was waiting for a train. Not just any train: the train to freedom.
Isabelle was a long way from home, a fugitive in an alien land. Two years ago she had been taken from her hometown in France by the German authorities, herded together with other young women and men, and taken away to the Reich. There the captives—the so-called Zwangsarbeiter or forced workers—were incarcerated in camps and put to work: some in the factories, some in the mines, others on the farms of Germany and occupied Poland.1 Isabelle and her compatriots had endured years of captivity, forced labor, hunger, and in some cases, rape.
The approach of the Russians caused the camps to be evacuated. The Nazis drove the foreign laborers in Poland westward toward Germany, murdering those who resisted. Many escaped the forced marches. But although they were at liberty, they were still far from freedom. Like countless other escapees—laborers, prisoners of war, and even some concentration-camp survivors—Isabelle and her friends took to a fugitive life. Grouping together for safety, some of the Frenchwomen made their way eastward, away from the battlefront. From various camps they came—Zwangsarbeiter camps, concentration camps; a few had escaped the death march from Auschwitz. Hundreds of them, all French, gathered in the countryside around Lwów, some hiding out in farms that had been destroyed when the battlefront passed over the region, others sheltered by sympathetic Polish farmers and villagers. Many, including Isabelle and her friends, hid among the very farms where they had labored; they knew the region, knew the safe places and the local people. The women lived in daily fear of being taken by the Russians, who would treat them as illegal aliens—potential spies and anti-Soviet insurgents—and incarcerate them in their own hellish camps. Sometimes these camps were the very ones the refugees had been liberated from in the first place.2
Now at last there was hope. Word had reached the groups scattered around Lwów, passed along through the word-of-mouth network that had sprung up among the fugitives: freedom was at hand. Isabelle had dared to go into the city, and there she had found the man who could arrange to get them home to France. He was neither a Pole nor a Russian—he was an American officer. He could arrange for a train to take them to the coast city of Odessa, where they could board a ship bound for home. In small groups the women cautiously made their way to the forest rendezvous in the twilight gloom: there they concealed themselves and waited through the cold night hours.
The forest wasn’t a regular rail stop. The rendezvous had been arranged by the American officer. He had come to this country to rescue his fellow Americans, he said: helping Isabelle was a side issue, a matter of humanity. He had become a magnet for the lost souls of foreign nations washed up by the tide of war in Poland; he was a conduit to home and liberty, and all who could found their way to him.
Isabelle believed in the American. She knew the train would come.
Morning had dawned and slowly worn away; midday had passed, and the train was hours late. If it didn’t come, or if it was filled with Russians, or if any one of a hundred mishaps occurred, all the women could look forward to was more incarceration, more suffering, quite possibly death. Isabelle, her heart sinking, dug into the dwindling reserves of hope that had kept her going through the past two years. The train had to come; it must.
At this very moment, she knew, the American would be using every trick he could think of to avoid, stall, and sidetrack the Soviet secret police and prevent them discovering and foiling the escape plan. He was a good man, Isabelle believed; perhaps even a hero. But in this world, there were limits to what good men could do. Her faith was wavering, hope slipping from her fingers, when she heard the faint whistle in the distance. She tensed. There was no mistaking it: the sound of an approaching train.
Would it be the right one? Would there be Russian soldiers on board—or, worse, agents of the secret police? Those creatures were everywhere. This moment would show whether the American was a hero after all. Isabelle’s heart beat faster. As soon as she saw the steam above the trees in the distance, she rose from her hiding place and ran down the slope. Stumbling over the stones, slipping on the ice, she clambered onto the rail bed and stood up in the center of the tracks. She raised the hopeful sign she had made: a sheet of board bearing a single word scratched in charcoal: “France.”
The locomotive thundered toward her, shaking the ground under her feet. Holding her sign in the air, Isabelle waited for freedom . . . or death.
Three months earlier . . .
December 22, 1944
To: General Carl A. Spaatz US Strategic and Tactical Air Forces in Europe
Request for Personnel
Due to existing conditions at Poltava, it is requested that you send two Counter-Intelligence personnel to that base for duty.
New subject: At the present time there are only two rated pilots in Poltava. Due to the increasing number of flights from Poltava to areas behind the front lines for purpose of picking up crews and bringing parts to damaged bombers, an additional pilot is needed. This pilot should have both four-engine and twin-engine experience.
Major General Edmund W. Hill U.S. Military Mission, Moscow
December 30, 1944: Debach, England Base of 493rd Bomb Group, US Eighth Air Force
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.1 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.2
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.3 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.4 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.5
With end-of-tour celebrations, andNew 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.6
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
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.7 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.8
Captain Robert Trimble had not taken part in the Magdeburg mission; it had been his squadron’s turn to stand down.9 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.10) 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?”
“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.
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.”
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.11 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.12
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.
January 1945: London
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.1 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.2 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 366.3 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.
Excerpted from "Beyond The Call"
Copyright © 2016 Lee Trimble.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 One Lucky Bastard 7
2 An American in London 19
3 The Long Way Round 30
4 Behind the Curtain 47
5 A Brutal Awakening 63
6 Running with the Bird Dogs 78
7 Fighting Bastard of the Ukraine 92
8 Kasia 102
9 Night of the Cossacks 111
10 Russian Roulette 127
11 Suffer the Lost Prisoners 143
12 American Gentlemen 159
13 Rising Tide 175
14 Far from Home 183
15 Isabelle 200
16 Bait and Switch 213
17 Blood Sacrifice 227
18 Spare the Conquered, Confront the Proud 241
19 The Long Way Home 256
Epilogue: Not Without Honor 273
What People are Saying About This
"Snappy and cinematic, Beyond the Call is a gift, an untold story from those last days of WWII in Europe when the unthinkable became real—when our ally had turned against us, when our POWs were left to die, and when a veteran pilot would receive a harrowing final mission—to fly against the might of the Soviet Union." -Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call
"Vivid and engaging, Beyond the Call is partly a story one officer's guile and bravery in the face of forces much larger and more powerful than himself. But is also 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
“Beyond the Call is the brilliantly told, fast-paced true story of a remarkable young man. Deceived by his superior officers he found himself in a place where danger abounded and life was cheap but, drawing on a courage he hadn’t known he possessed, he began his assignment. Nerve-wracking, informative, yet profoundly moving, Beyond the Call is a truly inspiring book.”—Susan Ottaway, author of Sisters, Secrets, and Sacrifice