Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Colonel Van Vliet on the Katyn massacre

[As a prisoner of war, the American 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 -- perhaps by accident, perhaps because Bissell wanted to conceal the atrocity. In 1950, the U.S. Army asked Van Vliet to recreate the report. This version was included in the 1952 Findings of the US Congress's investigation of the massacre. Note that the colonel, like most people at the time, knew only of the 4500 bodies buried at the Katyn 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 where I had to add something, I enclosed it in brackets. -- Daniel 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.

The Only War We've Got

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.

The graves on the down-hill part of the slope were more moist than the others. One end of one grave had standing water in it. German photographers were present and took both still and motion pictures of our party while we inspected the graves. Copies of the still pictures were later given to us. We never saw or heard anything of the movies.

After we inspected the graves we were shown several other test holes which had been dug in the vicinity, together with very old human bones, ie, no meat left on them, which were said to have been dug up there. I am inclined to believe the story, although there was no proof. The Germans made much of the fact that this wooded knoll was a long-standing burial side [site] used by the Russian secret police. I forget whether they called them the OGPU, NKVD, or MVD. There was a rustic lodge on the low bluff overlooking the small landing on the river (Dnieper river, I believe). This lodge was allegedly the scene of frequent tortures, drinking parties, and various other orgies held by the russian police as matters of amusement and recreation as well as routine business. The Germans produced an old peasant, Russian, who claimed that this forest of Katyn had an evil reputation -- it was forbidden ground -- that he had seen big closed vans go from the railroad siding (some miles distant) into the forest and that there were stories of shots being heard very often in the woods. This was supposed to confirm that the Russians had brought the victims to the mass graves by rail and truck some time before the Germans occupied the area.

The british medical captain in the group understood German very well and a little russian which he had learned while taking care of russian prisoners.

About a mile down the road the Germans had taken over a house as a field museum and office. The porch and front rooms were filled with glass showcases containing items removed from bodies in the graves. There were sample uniform insignia ranging from General to Lieutenant, there were several Geneva arm bands, many letters, photographs, diaries, news clippings, personal souvenirs etc. These items were just the better samples. In the back rooms of the house there were the individual envelopes containing the items removed from the corpses. This building was also permeated with the smell of the graves, coming from the showcases and the envelopes.

At this point the Germans produced two small drinks for everyone and then we returned to our billets in Smolensk.

We were flown back to the same Jail in Berlin and stayed there about 10 days. During this time the Germans were apparently trying to decide what to do with us. (The british soldiers and the civilian internee were returned to their respective camps before the end of of this ten day period--or so we were told--leaving us four officers to wonder what it was all about. An English speaking German soldier or Sonderfuhrer Von Johnson would take us for [a] walk through the Tiergarten every day, along with guards. It was during this walk period that we had a chance to talk without fear of microphones. Our discussion while in the Jail always avoided any mention of what we thought about who had committed the murders at Katyn.

Death in the Forest: who murdered the prisoners?

During these walks, Lt Col Stevenson did a lot of talking with the germans. Told them that he had once published a book and that as soon as he returned home he was going to get permission from his superiors to write a book about this experience. We couldnt get him to shut up about any subject at any time except the big question of "Whodunnit?" He was a windbag. He claimed to be a member of a group of amateur investigations of the supernatural. He even carried a feather in his wallet which he said was from the head[d]ress of the American Indian Chief (spirit) whom he had contacted through a medium in S. Africa.

We gathered from the Germans that the front office didnt know what to do with us. There was some hopeful implication that we might be released, possibly through Spain.

One afternoon Lt Col Stevenson was bundled off by the Germans on about ten minutes notice. He seemed very surprised and quite uneasy as he left the Jail. We never saw or heard of him again. That night Capt Stewart and I were returned to our original prison camp, where we welcomed by Hauptman Heyl....

Prior to leaving Berlin we were told that Germany had not and would not make any propaganda use of our visit to the graves or the pictures taken of the visit. I have never heard of their doing so.

Throughout the rest of our time in prison camps Capt Stewart and I refused to discuss our experiences. concerning Katyn and never stated what opinion we had formed.

I reached the American lines in the sector of the 104th Inf Div near Duben, Germany, at the MULDE River line on 5 May 1945, still carrying the photgraphs given me at KATYN.

I showed the photographs to G-2 [intelligence officer] of the 104th Div. (I had previously showed them to only one other person apart from the Germam prison camp security personnel who conductd periodic searches, but always allowed me to keep the photographs because they had been stamped "Gepruft". This other person was Col Thomas D. Drake, Senior officer in Oflag 64 who was repatriated for stomach ulcers. Before he left the prison camp to be repatriated Capt Stewart and I talked with him, showed him the pictures and asked that he report the matter to the War Dept. He laughed at me and said that I had been taken in completely by the German Propaganda Experts. I dont know if he ever mentioned the matter when he reached the States.)

G-2 of the 104th Div recognized that my report was one of interest to both the State and War Depts and provided transportation to Hq VII Corps in Leipzig. General J. Lawton Collins then commanded the VII Corps.

Gen Collins (who has known me since I was a child) discussed the matter with me and set the necessary wheels in motion to get me back to the Pentagon with all haste.

In Paris I stayed with Gen Barker and at his suggetion discussced the matter with a full colonel (whose name I have forgotten) connected with War Crimes Investigations. He decided it was a matter for for the War Dept and the State Dept and took no action.


4. CONCLUSIONS: I believe that the Russians did it. The rest of the group that visited the site stated to me that they believed that the Russians did it. (Capt, now Major, Donald Stewart, FA, can be asked to verify this. I dont know his present address. He is regular army.)

5. Discussion:

At the beginning of the newspaper publicity concerning KATYN [in 1942] I believed the whole thing to be one huge, well managed, desparate lie by the Germans to split the Wester[n] Allies from Russia. I hated the Germans. I didnt want to believe them. At that time, like many others, I more or less believed that Russia could get along with us. When I became involved in the visit to KATYN I realized that the Germans would do their best to convince me that Russia was guilty. I made up my mind not to be convinced by what must be a propaganda effort.... [Col Van Vliet goes through the arguments that might show German guilt.]

It was only with great reluctance that I decided finally that it must be true; that for once the Germans werent lying; that the facts were as claimed by the Germans. I have thought about this a lot in the past seven years, and freely admit that there never was presented to me any single piece of evidence that could be taken as an absolute proof. But the sum of circumstantial evidence, impressions formed at the time of looking at the graves, what I saw in peoples faces--all forces the conclusion that Russia did it.

The uniforms on the bodies were obviously of the best material and tailor made. The footwear appeared to be of the best and included many pairs that wer obviously made to order. The uniforms and footwear all were obviously well-fitted. This convinced me that the bodies were truly those of Polish officers. The degree of wear on the clothing and particularly the wear on the shoes led me to believe that these officers had been dead a long time, otherwise the shoes and clothing would show much more wear [disintegration]. This was a point that was not called to our attention by the Germans. It is one of the strongest arguments by which to fix tne date of the killing.....

/signed/ John H. Van Vliet Jr
LT COL., 23d Infantry.

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Poland's Daughter

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