Beyond the Call: covert mission to rescue POWs
Near the end of World War II, thousands of Allied ex-POWs were abandoned to wander the war-torn Eastern Front, modern day Ukraine. With no food, shelter, or supplies, they were an army of dying men.
The Red Army had pushed the Nazis out of Russia. As they advanced across Poland, the prison camps of the Third Reich were discovered and 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 recover their POWs, 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; it would provide the base and the cover for the operation. The man they picked to undertake it was veteran 8th Air Force bomber pilot Captain Robert Trimble.
With little covert training, already scarred by the trials of combat, Trimble took the mission. He would survive by wit, courage, and a determination to do some good in a terrible war. Alone he faced up to the terrifying Soviet secret police, saving hundreds of lives. At the same time he battled to come to terms with the trauma of war and find his own way home to his wife and child.
One ordinary man. One extraordinary mission. A thousand lives at stake.
This is the compelling, inspiring true story of an American hero who laid his life on the line to bring his fellow men home to safety and freedom.
Colonel Wilmeth was puzzled. He had arrived on a Soviet—approved plane, accompanied by Soviet officers. Wasn’t that suﬁicient evidence that he had permission to be here?
No, it Was not. He should have a written permit from the ex- prisoner repatriation headquarters. Which, they reminded him, had just moved to Praga, a hundred miles away. Without it, he would not be allowed to visit the ex-prisoners.
Colonel Wilmeth’s stock of patience remained considerable, although depleted somewhat. Very well, he said; perhaps they could obtain a permit for him? Along with the permit to go to Praga? And could he send a telegram to General Deane in Moscow?
He was told to bring his message to the town commandant, who would send it on. With that curt instruction, the meeting ended. An hour later, Colonel Wilmeth returned to the office with his message for General Deane, summarizing the meeting. The commandant told him the message could not be sent until all the people who had been at the meeting had gathered again; they would have to read it and clear it for sending.
A less placid man might have started tearing his hair at this point. James Dudley Wilmeth was, as far as any man alive could be, a placid man. At West Point he had been known as ‘Uncle Dud’ and regarded as a rather dull, plodding, banal young man.“ That temperament now stood him in good stead.
Later that evening, he was suddenly summoned back to the com- mandant’s office and told that permission had been granted for him to visit the ex—prisoners. It was 10:30pm. All the Soviet officers from the earlier meeting had to be present for the visit. It took three trips by jeep to get everybody — Russians and Americans — to the building near the university where the ex-prisoners were housed.
Until a few days ago, the Russians had been accommodating the ex-POWs at Majdanek, the former Nazi death camp on the outskirts of Lublin, but now they had been moved into the town. Whatever Majdanek had been like, the new quarters didn’t look like an improvement.
The building was in an appalling state. It had walls and a roof, but that was about all that could be said in its favor. The windows were broken, and there were no doors. All the toilets were blocked up and overﬂowing; there was no hot water, and no bathing facilities or medicines. Into this squalor were crowded more than 200 men: 91 Americans and 129 British. Nearly half were infested with lice. They slept on straw-covered wooden pallets. Each man had one blanket. The only source of heat was a single coal-burning stove.
Colonel Wilmeth and his companions had previously heard first- hand accounts of how Allied POWs were being treated by their Soviet liberators, and they heard more now as they moved among the men, taking their names, listening to their stories; but seeing it in the flesh was something else again.
The stories were sickening and heartbreak- ing. The worst treatment began once they were passed back from the front line to troops in the rear areas. They had been starved, robbed, herded with captured Germans; many of their comrades had gone into hiding in Polish homes to escape this treatment. It was as if the liberated POWs were regarded as spoils of war, to be plundered or discarded at will.
An American lieutenant told Wilmeth that if there was no transportation out of there soon, many of the men who were fit enough were thinking of slipping away and making their way south or east on their own. They had been on the verge of giving up hope, but seeing Colonel Wilmeth had revived them. At last, they believed, they would get some real help.