WWII captain's secret mission to save hundreds from Soviets

Capt. Robert Trimble stands outside the Operations Office at Poltava Air Base in February 1945.
<br>Lt. Tillman collection/Texas Military Forces Museum
Capt. Robert Trimble stands outside the Operations Office at Poltava Air Base in February 1945.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Capt. Robert Trimble was “mad as hell” when he learned of the deception.

It was Feb. 15, 1945, and the 25-year-old U.S. Army Air Forces bomber pilot had just arrived for duty at Poltava Air Base, Ukraine. It was one of three bases in Soviet territory where the U.S. military was allowed to operate during World War II, and Trimble accepted orders there believing it would be a relatively risk-free mission flying out aircraft that had crashed and been repaired.

Checking in with the commanding officer of the small U.S. contingent at Poltava, Trimble asked, “Where are these planes that they want ferried back to Italy and England?”

That’s when Col. Thomas Hampton dropped the bombshell, informing Trimble that flying planes out was only a ruse to deceive the Russians. His real business at Poltava was a top-secret mission, working with counterintelligence agents to find recently liberated American POWs and help them get home. The mission would eventually expand to include POWs from other allied nations as well as death camp refugees.

EXPLORE | Follow Capt. Trimble's journey through Europe

As his mind tried to process the information, Trimble had to restrain his anger at being duped into a role that was a “one-way ticket to a firing squad” if the Russians discovered what he was doing.

Later, after making contact with POWs roaming the Polish countryside, Trimble fully embraced his mission. He saw the desperate plight of those who had been liberated from Third Reich prison camps. Many were sick, emaciated, often clothed in rags and left to fend for themselves during a brutally harsh winter.

Trimble risked his life numerous times over six weeks, helping to rescue hundreds of POWs. He came to the aid of others, too. In one daring rescue, nearly foiled by Russian agents who had become suspicious of his activities, Trimble helped 400 French women make it out of Poland and back to France.

“The Russians were trailing me something fierce,” he would later tell his son, Lee, who only learned of his father’s secret exploits in 2006, more than 60 years after the war. Robert Trimble accidentally mentioned to his son that he had served in Russia. The slip of tongue led to three years of interviews as the son coaxed his father into telling his story. Robert Trimble died in 2009.

“He never wanted to go public with this,” Lee Trimble said during a recent interview in Northern Virginia, where he spoke of his nearly decade-long effort to document and research his father’s war experience for a book, “Beyond the Call,” published in February. “He had held on to this for 60-plus years … because his superiors had told him, long ago, that it was top secret and not to talk about it.”

There was also the fear that divulging his experiences might come back to haunt him. “The Russians may not be happy with some of the things he did,” Lee Trimble said.


Cowards and traitors

That first day in Poltava, Robert Trimble received a crash course on the political hurdles the United States and its western allies faced. As many as 1 million former inmates recently freed from Nazi prison camps in Poland were in dire need. Advancing Soviet troops, for the most part, were not interested in providing aid to those who might turn out to be spies or who might hold anti-Soviet sentiments. And they were not interested in letting other allied nations provide aid in territory that the Soviets were planning to gobble up as the war was coming to a close.

Allied leaders were concerned about treatment of prisoners of war, whom the Soviets viewed as cowards. In 1941, in an effort to ensure his troops fought to the death in their war with Germany, Soviet leader Marshal Joseph Stalin decreed that any troops who became POWs were criminal deserters. “There are no prisoners of war, only traitors,” he said.

Russian POWs who survived Nazi concentration camps and fell into the hands of their own comrades were usually put to death for the crime of becoming a POW.

Because the Soviets had thwarted nearly every effort to get teams into Poland to extract POWs, a plan was hatched to bring a pilot to Poltava to be an agent working with the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. military’s wartime intelligence agency, which was the precursor to today’s CIA.

I think the world deserves to know that there was this great humanitarian who saved on the order of a thousand lives.
--Lee Trimble

‘Absolutely safe’

On Dec. 30, 1944, Capt. Robert Trimble had just completed his 35th and final bombing run over Germany. Elated that his tour of duty was over, Trimble was eager to get home and see his wife and newborn daughter. As he landed his B-17 Flying Fortress at RAF Debach, England, where he was assigned to the 493rd Bomb Group, he was called in by his commanding officer, Col. Elbert Helton, who made Trimble an offer: You can go home on leave for three weeks and then face the very real possibility of getting new orders that will put you in harm’s way again, running more bombing missions. Or you can take an “absolutely safe” job out of the combat zone.

It was an agonizing decision that cost him his leave, but Trimble took the latter. Six weeks later — after getting a diplomatic passport in London and taking a circuitous route from the U.K. through Paris, southern France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Iran, and Rostov, Russia — Trimble landed at Poltava.

After his briefing, Trimble met two OSS agents who were to work undercover in Poland gathering information on POWs. They gave him instructions on contact procedures and codes for communications, all of which he had to memorize. They also touched on the hazards he would face, particularly if the Russians learned of his work. In that case, he would be a prime target for murder.

The day after arriving in Poltava, Trimble was flown to Krakow, where the Russians wanted to show the Americans a former Nazi camp that had been liberated. It was his first day in Poland, and Trimble was taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. A pile of naked bodies frozen stiff overflowing from a shed was one of the horrific sights that etched itself in his mind and haunted him for the rest of his life, he later told his son.

Trimble was also exposed again and again to atrocities committed by Soviet troops. Lee Trimble writes in the book that his father had been “to the abyss, looked over the edge and could never be the same.”

In seeing the depths of depravity reached in war, the pilot asked himself, “How could this be a world worth fighting for?”

Soon after his trip to Krakow, Trimble was staying at the Hotel George in Lwow, Poland, where he received information on a group of American POWs in a barn in southeast Poland. Sneaking away from the hotel and his official Russian escort, Trimble found his way to the barn with a small supply of food and a plan to get the men to Lwow, where he would buy them tickets to Odessa, Ukraine. Once there, the POWs stood a good chance of getting transport that would get them back home.

After a few such missions, word began to spread throughout the Polish countryside about the American captain who was helping POWs of all nationalities. Soon groups were making their way to Lwow to find him.

Every time Trimble left the air base, he carried a vest stuffed with as much as $15,000, a huge amount of money for a war-zone economy. The cash would be quickly spent attending to the needs of the POWs.

INTERACTIVE | Trimble's journey through Europe

‘Needles in a haystack’

Lee Trimble, co-author of "Beyond the Call: The true story of one World War II pilot's covert mission to rescue POWs on the Eastern Front."

After his father’s death, Lee Trimble began the arduous odyssey of discovery to see whether there was official documentation of what his father had revealed.

“This was really like trying to find needles in a haystack. I’ve been researching this for six years,” he said. He got no information through Freedom of Information Act requests.

“I went to the CIA. I went to the Department of Defense. And all I could get was a simple reply like, ‘No records found,’ just three words. There’s no comeback with these people. You can only interact with them through their websites.” If he wanted to ask a follow-up question, Trimble said he had to start a whole new case for each one.

With the help of his daughter, Rachael, Trimble began searching the National Archives and found documentation that showed his father had served at the U.S. Eastern Command at Poltava. And he learned of the intense political battles brewing behind the scenes as Cold War rivalries were heating up at the close of WWII.

Treated like pawns

By the end of March 1945, Trimble’s secret mission in Poland came to an abrupt end. The Soviets were angry over several incidents involving American aircrews and unauthorized transport of personnel and aircraft. In retaliation, they halted all flights by American aircraft into and out of Poltava for nearly a month. Rescued combat crews, wounded troops and salvaged bombers were kept from leaving the base. No mail was allowed in or out. Morale plummeted.

To appease the Soviets, the U.S. court-martialed two pilots involved in suspect flights, and the top two U.S. officers at Poltava were relieved of command. That left Trimble as the next highest-ranking officer to take command of the American contingent.

That the U.S. repeatedly caved to Soviet demands and seemed more than willing to sacrifice its own people in doing so was very troubling to Trimble. He was sickened by the “duplicity and dishonor of politics.”

He doubted that the generals in charge would stand up for him if his secret mission became known.

There was a deep sense of betrayal, Trimble later told his son. “That was an overriding theme in my discussions with my father — that he had always felt that he and his men were all treated poorly as though they were pawns in a greater political battle,” Lee Trimble said.

The war in Europe came to an end in May 1945, and the Eastern Command at Poltava was closed down June 23, 1945. Trimble received the Bronze Star for his work at Poltava, though it is not known if it was for his role as commanding officer or if it also recognized his secret mission.

“Beyond the Call,” recounts how Trimble was so disturbed by the events that unfolded during his time at Poltava, that he wrote in one of his last weekly report as commanding officer: “Shame on America.”

Upon returning to the States, he couldn’t shake the horrors of war he had seen. His belief that the higher-ups sold out their men for the sake of diplomacy ate at him. Already struggling with depression, Trimble was called to the Pentagon, where a general upbraided him for what he wrote.

The book recalls: “How could it have come to this? After everything he’d been through, all he’d given of himself, to be scorned like that, told he was unpatriotic; to have longed so deeply to come home, only to find that the war tormented him more here than it had when he was in the thick of it.”

Trimble had suicidal thoughts. His wife, Eleanor, realized it and beat him to the gun, threatening to use it on herself. It jolted him to tears, he told his son.

“It was hard to put the part of my mom threatening to kill herself into the book,” said Lee Trimble. “But I felt it was important. It just shows how emotional the time was between the two and that it actually took a few years after he got back to really have the relationship better again.”

While he was in the process of getting his discharge papers, Trimble was ordered to go to Wright Air Base in Dayton, Ohio. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that his work in Poland was being recognized. The French ambassador presented Trimble with the Croix de Guerre for his efforts in saving the 400 women.

“So this was the irony of what was going on,” Lee Trimble said, noting that the French recognized his father’s heroic acts just after he was reprimanded by a U.S. general. Trimble also received recognition from the Russians in 1995, who sent him the 50th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War medal for his contributions at Poltava in helping the Russians defeat the Nazis.

This was really like trying to find needles in a haystack. I’ve been researching this for six years.
--Lee Trimble
"Beyond the Call" tells the story of an American pilot whose undercover mission in Soviet-held territory in Poland towards the end of World War II helped save hundreds of military and civilian prisoners liberated from Nazi prison camps as German forces retreated before the advancing Red army.

Overdue honor

Though his father never intended to have his story go public, Lee Trimble said he felt compelled to write it.

“I think the world deserves to know that there was this great humanitarian who saved on the order of a thousand lives,” he said.

For several years, Lee Trimble worked with the office of Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to get the Air Force to posthumously promote his late father to major in accordance with two general officers’ recommendations in 1945. However, the Air Force said the request had gone well past the statute of limitations and denied it.

The office of Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., is now in the process of submitting a package to the Defense Department requesting they look into whether Trimble is deserving of the Medal of Honor, his son said.

“I feel that my father never received from the United States the honor that he should have received for the work he did.”


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