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.
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.