During WWII, the American government tricked him into going on a secret and dangerous mission to save lives. After the war, only France and Russia thanked him.
Robert Matlack Trimble was born on October 5, 1919, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He later joined the Boy Scouts, little knowing how well it would serve him.
In the war, he served as a bomber pilot with the US 8th Air Force in England. When his tour of duty ended in December 1944, he was given a choice: return to America on a 21-day furlough to see his wife and newborn daughter, or go to a small US Airbase in Russia as a ferry pilot retrieving downed planes.
He and his wife agreed that the latter option was best. Germany was losing, by then, and there was no more fighting in Russia. Such a posting would keep him safe until the war was over. Or so they thought.
Britain, the US, and the USSR had become Allies against Nazi Germany and had agreed, amongst other things, to take care of each other’s troops. The USSR, however, had different ideas about what that meant.
By 1945, the Soviets controlled all of Poland as they advanced towards Germany. They had no qualms about freeing civilians from concentration camps.
However, they felt differently when it came to Soviet POWs. As far as they were concerned, the latter were not victims. They were traitors who deserved to be punished further.
They did not care about the British, American, and other Allied POWs either. Those trapped in Soviet territory (including Poland) were left to fend for themselves; if they were lucky. Some were robbed and even killed by Soviet soldiers. Others were imprisoned as potential spies.
The Allies were in a tight spot. With the war still raging, they needed the Soviets and could not afford to annoy them. Pleas to release Allied personnel trapped behind Soviet lines fell on deaf ears. There was the same reaction with requests to bring in rescue teams to retrieve them. This was why Trimble was lied to.
In early February 1945, Trimble was sent to an airbase in Poltava, Ukraine – the HQ of the Allied Eastern Command. It had been used as a staging post for bombing operations between England and Italy. Now, with the Italians subdued, it had become obsolete. Trimble was not there to salvage planes.
He was the rescue mission – armed with only his diplomatic status, cash, his wits, and his Boy Scouts training. With these, he had to find Allied soldiers and get them to Odessa where British ships were waiting to take them home. He had to do all this under the watchful eye of the NKVD – predecessor of the KGB.
Trimble was not happy. Neither were the Allies. They had no intelligence network within Soviet territory, and without a viable cover story, he could not go to Poland. Fortunately, the Soviets gave him one.
On January 26, 1945, the Red Army discovered Auschwitz and wanted the Americans to see it. Trimble was horrified at what he saw, but was his intelligence correct? The Soviets were kind to the prisoners, doing what they could to feed and care for them. Surely they did the same for Allied soldiers.
Getting away from the camp and his Soviet escorts, he found a farm building with about 50 men – all former Auschwitz prisoners, one of whom was an American. He offered to get them to Krakow, but they asked about the women and children at another camp. They took him there and found another 25 emaciated survivors.
“They come with us?” one of the men asked pleadingly. “They come with us,” Trimble replied as he held Kasia, a baby who had been born in the camp.
He got them to the train station and bought everyone tickets to Odessa – all but one. Kasia did not make it.
Although furious at having been tricked by his government, he resolved then to do what he could – sometimes camping out in the frozen countryside to find more victims.
Back in Ukraine, he heard that some foreign men were living in a barn. He found all 23 of them, emaciated and struggling to stay warm – all British and Americans. He put them on a horse-drawn cart and sneaked them into the City of Lviv by bribing the guards with cash and alcohol. They also went to Odessa.
Then he found more British soldiers in the city, wandering around begging for food. He sent them to the British Embassy in Moscow, but he still had to fulfill his cover story.
In mid-March, he retrieved a B-17 bomber that had crashed in Poland following a bombing raid on Germany. Despite their agreement, the Soviets were giving him a hard time because they wanted it for themselves. After threatening the Soviet captain, he repaired the plane and got it flying as Soviet reinforcements arrived.
Unfortunately, he could not go far as it did not have much fuel. Worse, he hit a snowstorm, forcing him to stay in Poland at the Hotel George. There he rescued another 22 Allied soldiers who had escaped from a Soviet camp.
That same month, a French woman dressed in rags went to his hotel. Isabelle had heard that an American was saving Allied soldiers. She asked if he would make an exception for her. She had been taken to Poland by the Nazis to work on a farm and wanted to get back home.
“Of course,” said Trimble as he counted out money for train tickets. “Who else is with you?” “400,” she replied.
Their guards had abandoned the farm, so the women were hiding in the woods outside the city. He had never rescued that many at once, but Isabelle refused to abandon them – it was all or nothing. Trimble bribed train workers to stop their vehicle outside the city and let the women board.
After the war, he found out what happened to them. He was flown to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio where the French Ambassador presented him with the Croix de Guerre for rescuing the women.
As his mission was secret, no one knows how many he saved. In 1995, the new Russian government also awarded him for what he did.
The US only gave him a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal, and a Bronze Star. They have yet to acknowledge the rest.
Trimble kept his story a secret until just before his death. He was still haunted by the horrors of what he saw and his conviction that he could have done more.
His amazing legacy was entrusted to his son, Lee Trimble, who teamed up with Jeremy Dronfield to relate his feats in “Beyond The Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot’s Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on the Eastern Front.” Hopefully, Captain Trimble will get the official recognition he so truly deserves.