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Colonel Van Vliet on the Katyn massacre

[As a prisoner of war, Colonel Van Vliet was taken to the site of the Katyn massacre in the spring of 1943. He seems to have been very well connected, with easy access to General Lawton Collins upon his release in 1945, and staying as a guest of another general in Paris. Nevertheless, his report to General Clayton Bissell was classified Top Secret and hidden away so thoroughly that it has never surfaced. In 1950, at the U.S. Army's request, he tried to recreate that report. It would be included in the 1952 Findings of the U.S. Congress's investigation of the Katyn massacre. Note that the colonel, like most people at the time, knew only of the approximately 4500 bodies buried in the Katyn Forest site, not of the much larger atrocity encompassing at least three other sites in the Soviet Union. I have reproduced his typewritten report as accurately as possible, and if I found it necessary to add something, I enclosed it in square brackets [like this]. -- Dan Ford]

Quarters 165
Ft Lewis, Washington
11 May, 1950

To: F. L. PARKS,
Major General, USA
Chief of Information

1. Pursuant to your letter of 26 Apr 1950 ... I am personally typing this report of my recollections concerning the KATYN Case. I am retaining one carbon copy for my personal file.

2. Since five years have elapsed since I made the first report to Maj Gen [Clayton] Bissell, this report will have to omit some details such as names which I have forgotten. In order to assist in locating my original report here are the circumstances under which it was made:

On 22 May 1945 Gen Bissell discussed the case with me alone in his private office in the Pentagon for about 20 minutes. He decided that it was important and directed his civilian female assistant ... to go with me to closed room across the hall and take dictation. I dictated my report, she typed it up and we added the photographs as inclosures. The General read the finished report, directed that it be marked "Top Secret" and filed. He then dictated the letter directing me to silence, and had me sign a copy of it in his presence. He explained the importance of my remaining silent, gave me my copy of the letter and thanked me.

3. Narrative: I was a prisoner of war at Oflag IX/AZ in Rotenburg, Germariy in April, 1943. It was primarily a British Officers prison camp headed by Brigadier [Claude] Nicholson (who had been the defender of CALAIS [in May 1940]). I was the senior of the 125 (approx) American officers in the camp. At this time the German press began a big splurge on the KATYN case. So also did the German radio....

Hauptman HEYL the German camp commander, told Brig Nicholson and me that he had orders to send two American officers and 1 Brit. officer to the RR station at KASSEL Germany where they would be met by British Maj Gen [Victor] FORTUNE (from another nearby POW camp. He had commanded the Brit [51st Higland] Div in France)

Hauptman Heyl stated that I would be one of the two U.S. officers; that I would select the other one; that together with other Allied prisoners we would be a "Board of Inquiry" to investigate the Katyn Massare. I flatly refused to have any part of it. Brig. Nicholson backed me up on this and together we wrote a letter to the Swiss Protecting Power which stated that no officers from the camp wonld make any visit to Katyn or make any investigation, or express any opmion. That if we were forced to go it would be only as individual prisoners under guard and against our protest.....

Our protest did no good. Using armed guards, the Germans took me and Capt Donald Stewart, FA (regular army) to the Kassel RR station where they expected to meet Maj Gen Fortune. He did not arrive, to the surprise of the German guards. We were tthen taken to Berlin and jailed in an Arbeits Kommmdo (sp?) -- a building overlooking the Spree River, housing PWs of several nationalites who were performing labor in Berlin.

In this jail we met several U.S. soldiers who had been brought from a nearby PW camp for the same reason that we had. One of these was a CPL TAUSSIG who had been in the same regiment with me for the invasion of ALGIERS by the 168th Inf. There were also several british soldiers and a british civilian (internee) as well as LT COL STEVENSON (british, South African, Sig corp) and a british captain, medical corps, whose name I cannot now remember. In my opinion these men were actually what they appeared to be and did not include any "plants". We prisoners of war were very careful in our efforts to make certain identification.

Soon we were taken, one by one, to the jail office where we were interviewed by several German staff officers and some civilian officials who appeared to be from both the foreign office and the propaganda ministry. The procedure appeared about the same for all of us. "Since you have voluntered to investigate this terrible Katyn atrocity we are taking you to the scene. You will of course sign a parole not to escape." [He tells of vigorous protests by the prisoners.] ...Finally they announced that since we wouldnt give our paroles they would have to place guards on the airplane with us. This meant that some prisoners would not make the trip, to make room for the guards. The American soldiers were left back.

Lt Col Stevenson was the senior in the group. We cautioned the entire group to do no talking, to give no indications of opinion, and not to cooperate in any way with the Germans. All agreed. It was evident to all of us that we were involved in an international mess with terrific political implications.

An english-speaking german captain was placed in charge of the group together with an english speaking Sonderfuhrer (sp?) who gave the name of Von Johnson, spoke idiomatic American, and said he had attended school at Rice in the USA.

We were flown from Templehof to Smolensk about the 6th of May, 1943. At that time Smolensk was about 60 miles from the front and appeared to contain only garrison troops. We were billeted in some of the remaining intact buildings, of which there were only a few.....

A German Lt (spoke no English) appeared from the group that was in charge of operations at the scene of the Mass Graves in KATYN Forest. He acted as our guide. We were driven to the site where there was a gate, guarded by young soldiers in Polish uniforms. A sickly-sweet odor of decaying bodies was everywhere. At the graves it was nearly overpowering. There were several graves. Professor Herr Doktor BUTZ (BOOTZ?) a German expert in forensic medecin was present together with other technicians. Several Polish Red Cross workers were present. Civilian labor was being used to remove bodies from the graves. Each body was searched very carefully, examined, identified, and reburied in a nearby mass grave whicn was to become a national shrine with suitable monuments. The articles removed from each body were placed in a large manilla envelope for safekeeping. The search of the bodies was very thorough, including removal of shoes or boots where it was possible. (sometimes the whole leg from the knee down came off with the boot) The examiners wore rubber aprons and rubber gloves. A typist was present recording the findings on each body.

We followed our guide right into each of the graves--stepping on bodies that were piled like cord wood, face down usually, to a depth of about 5 to 7 bodies covered with about 5 feet of earth. About 300 bodies were laid out beside one of the graves. These all had their hands tied behind them with cord. The rest appeared not to have been tied. All bodies had a bullet hole in tne back of head near the neck with the exit wound of the bullet being in the forehead or front upper part of the skull.

continued in part 2