Beyond-Call-Pilots-Mission-Eastern/dp/042527604X">Beyond the Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot’s Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on the Eastern Front
By Lee Trimble and Jeremy Dronfield
(Berkley Caliber, 323 pages, $26.95)
Beyond the Call is an inspiring but uncomfortable read. Inspiring because it shows an American hero and patriot bravely performing his duty under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. Uncomfortable because it shows our hero being tested to the limit and beyond, seeing about the worst the human race can offer, while getting a good deal less than the support he needs and deserves from his superiors.
The hero of Beyond is the late Robert M. Trimble of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, one of the unexceptional millions who answered America’s call during World War II and performed exceptionally. During the action of this book, Trimble was a captain in the United States Army Air Forces. We pick up the thread at a point where most surviving warriors’ stories are about done. Captain Trimble has completed 35 missions as a pilot of a B-17. In late December of 1944 Trimble has received his “Lucky Bastard” certificate, given to those who survived death and unspeakable horrors in air battle over Germany.
As Beyond opens, Captain Trimble has already endured more than should be asked of anyone. He has tasted fear when facing, over and over, German fighters and flak. He has seen planes carrying his friends and colleagues blown from the skies. He has seen men killed and mangled in their planes as they try to disrupt the Nazi war machine. He is a changed man who has already served his country admirably. But the war in Europe has almost a half-year to run. And the U.S. Army is not through with Captain Trimble yet.
Trimble’s final military duty was not the milk run he expected and deserved after his combat service. He was given an assignment he was manifestly unqualified to carry out (no one would have been qualified), but which he performed admirably. His last Army job was so horrific that he never spoke of it until his final days, when he opened up to his son, Lee, co-author of Beyond with biographer and novelist Jeremy Dronfield.
The final frozen and bloody months of World War II in Europe, as the Soviet Army pushed westward into Germany, are horrific and chaotic. Death, destruction, rape, pillage, starvation, and cruelty at an almost incomprehensible level are everywhere. In official Soviet history it was “The Great Patriotic War.” On the ground as it happened it was a slaughterhouse. If God ever wept…
Cast into this chaos and misery were thousands of Allied prisoners of war, liberated from their east European stalags as the Soviets pushed the Wehrmacht back into Germany but having no way to get back home. The allies were getting no help from the Soviets in repatriating POWs as the Soviets considered POWs to be traitors and deserters. They imprisoned or shot most of their own returning POWs. And they had no interest in helping the French, British, or Americans get their prisoners back. They obfuscated at every point, making Captain Trimble’s excellent new assignment, which was to get the prisoners back, a mission impossible. He performed his magic while being assigned to a no-stars American base at Poltava, Ukraine.
In addition to their jaundiced view of prisoners of war, the Soviets were paranoid about having running-dog capitalists in their territory as they prepared to make a workers’ paradise out of Eastern Europe. They were convinced that every American or Brit behind the Eastern front — even those on the reasonable (to reasonable people) mission of repatriating prisoners or repairing and flying back downed Allied aircraft — was a spy. So they were continually watched by Soviet secret police, denied permission to go where they needed to go, and were generally harassed. In some cases the Soviets even disappeared Americans they considered inconvenient, using barely credible cover stories of accidents or attacks by Germans, who, as everyone knew, were no longer in the area.
With all these elements stacked against him, an intelligent, resourceful, brave, and stubborn young captain — 25 at the time — managed to locate and secure places on westward heading trains hundreds of Allied prisoners and a similar number of slave laborers from Allied countries. The story of Trimble’s heroics and success against overwhelming odds is the inspirational part of Beyond. Inspiring also is the story of many Poles who risked their own lives to feed, shelter, and protect Allied prisoners on the loose and at as much risk from Soviet troops as they would have been from the Germans.
Not inspiring is how American diplomats, politicians, and senior military officers, keen to keep the Soviets in the war against Japan (in which effort the Soviets’ final contribution was effectively zero), sucked up to Stalin, almost collaborating with the totalitarians against American troops. They went so far as to court-martial officers who did the right thing in defying the Soviets to get Americans back home. Some of this is absolutely cringe-inducing, and led this reader to hope that an elderly Trimble had misremembered some of this. How could high-ranking American officials act so shamefully? Trimble and Dronfield say every effort was made to verify the captain’s story through independent evidence. But there are no witnesses for some of the events. And the veil of secrecy has been dropped on much of it. If the captain’s narrative is accurate, you can certainly see why.
As difficult as many parts of this book are to take, it is worth the read. It tells of a little known chapter of World War II. There is much to be proud of in America’s conduct of this war. We can never sufficiently thank the millions like Captain Trimble who fiercely defended civilization against barbarism. But there is plenty enough to trouble us as well about “The Good War” (if there was ever a misnomer).
Beyond the Call reminds us again of the distinction between warriors on the one hand, and bureaucrats and politicians on the other. Diplomats are expected to be bureaucrats and politicians. But sadly, then and now, many of those wearing uniforms and with stars on their shoulder boards are also politicians. And they should never, never, never, be trusted to do the right thing.
Another reason to read the book is to remind ourselves of how lucky and blessed America is to turn out patriots like the late Robert M. Trimble of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Thank you for your service, Captain. RIP.
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