Visit to Poland by Families of the US Army officers–witnesses to the Katyn Massacre
Press Release (EN)
Visit to Poland by Families of the US Army officers–witnesses to the Katyn Massacre - April 2015
- Madden Committee – first attempt at a neutral assessment of the Katyn Massacre
- Coded Letters and an oath of secrecy
Centrum Polsko-Rosyjskiego Dialogu i Porozumienia (the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding) in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MSZ), the Ministry of Defence (MON) and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (MKiDN) has invited the Families of the US witnesses to the Katyn Massacre on a journey to Poland. This is a project to commemorate the persons of Col. John H. Van Vliet, Jr. and Col. Donald B. Stewart. Both US Army officers were POWs in May 1943, and as such they were among the first neutral witnesses to this crime. While held POW, both sent coded letters in which they advised the US Army and Military Intelligence (G-2) about the Katyn Massacre, most specifically, their opinion that responsibility for the crime lay with the Soviets. In the post-war period, they testified at length before a Special Committee of the US House of Representatives, thus ensuring a widespread and public disclosure of these events, including the fact that under international law the USSR was legally responsible for this unprecedented war crime.
On April 8th, 2015 the President of the Republic of Poland will posthumously award the Officer’s Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland to Colonels Donald. B. Stewart and John H. Van Vliet, Jr. Concurrently, President Komorowski will award the Gold Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland to Krystyna Piórkowska, an American historian of Polish heritage, and author of a book documenting the history of the English-speaking witnesses to Katyn, her dedication and researcher’s resolve resulted in the discovery of this heretofore unknown thread of the Katyn Massacre and its introduction to both the Polish and world-wide community.
This project, including the first visit of the Families to Poland, occurs during the 75th anniversary of the Massacre and forms one of the central aspects of this year’s observances.
Ten members of the US Army officer’s families have arrived in Poland at the invitation of the Centrum; this group includes sons, daughters and grandchildren who are accompanied by Krystyna Piórkowska. During their stay in Poland, they will be received by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, National Defence as well as Culture and National Heritage. During the latter portion of the week they will travel to Szubin (Kujawy-Pomorze), where Oflag 64 (Altburgund, German-occupied Poland) was located and where the two US Army officers were held. It is at that site where, thanks to the efforts of the Rada Ochrony Pamięci Walki i Męczeństwa and local officials, that a plaque commemorating the efforts of these officers in sending out the truth about Katyn and fighting the Katyn Lie will be unveiled. The group will visit Kraków and the Podlasie area. The Families will also participate in various Katyn observances in Warsaw and the major observances in Bykownia (Kiev, Ukraine).
Lt. Col. John Huff Van Vliet Jr. and Capt. Donald B. Stewart were taken POW by the Germans in February 1943 after the battle of Kasserine Pass (Tunisia) and were transported to Oflag IX A/Z in Rotenberg am Fulda (Germany) a primarily British camp, at the end of March 1943, where Lt. Colonel Van Vliet served as Senior American Officer.
In May 1943, as members of a group of seven English-speaking POWs and one civilian internee of various nationalities, they were taken under duress to Katyn, where on May 12-13 they witnessed the exhumations of the Polish officers who had been murdered by the Soviets in 1940. After their return to the camp they transmitted information about what they had seen to the government of the United States via letters which were mainly sent from Oflag 64 in Altburgund (Szubin) where they were transferred by the Germans in June of 1943. After occupying the area near Katyn (Smolensk region) the Soviets created a sub-group, which was to study Katyn and is known as the Burdenko Commission, of the already existing Soviet Commission named the Extraordinary State Commission to Ascertain and Investigate the Crimes Committed by the German Fascist Invaders and their Associates. The NKVD had already ‘massaged’ the gravesite and then invited Western journalists to visit it; which they did in the company of Kathleen Harriman and John Melby (3rd Secretary US Embassy), these two then submitted reports to Washington in which they blamed the Germans. Coded letters were then sent to Oflag 64, concerning the Katyn Massacre, which were responded to by Lt. Colonel Van Vliet and Captain Stewart and they reaffirmed their position as to Soviet guilt. These letters, sent both in the summer of 1943, and the spring of 1944, allowed the US government to verify the information it possessed on this matter and to confirm Soviet guilt for the Katyn Massacre.
At Oflag 64, Colonel Van Vliet served in the clandestine camp organization, as head of the Escape Committee, Van Vliet was known as Big X. He was fully conscious of the fact that if the Oflag was occupied by the Soviets, there was a risk that his and Stewart’s involvement in the visit to Katyn would be discovered by the Soviets and that they would locate the photos and notes both had retained, which would most certainly involve the transfer of the two officers into the Siberian depths, if not immediate execution … by the NKVD, and he began to plan the escape of the entire camp. In early 1944, he sent a coded message requesting hand guns, which were delivered to the Oflag in a package, sent by one of the fictitious support organizations created by a special unit of MIS-X (Military Intelligence POW unit). The bold escape plan involved escape from the Oflag and transport on planes which were to have landed in fields above the camp. However, delayed as the request was, by May of 1944, the British determined that they had other priorities.
By the end of January 1945, there were some 1,600 officers in the camp and the Germans ordered them to evacuate the camp. A number of officers hid in a tunnel, which was to have been used in earlier escape plans, and after the camp was taken by the Soviets, these men became Soviet prisoners for a number of months. The officers were marched out were led by the Germans in the direction of Usedom, the route took two months and a number of men did not survive this journey. Once they arrived at Usedom, the group was divided into two – the healthy and the ill. In order to increase their chances for survival the officers decided to split up – Captain Stewart marched out with the healthy group which ended up in Hammelburg, while Van Vliet, as Senior Officer of the second group, remained with the sick; who were transported to in open train wagons to Luckenwalde.
Lt. Col. Van Vliet, after the Luckenwalde Stalag was occupied by the Soviets, again feared that his life was at risk, therefore he escaped from the camp and located the 104 Infantry Division which was then stationed near Duben, and on May 5th he reported to the G-2 Intelligence officer assigned to the Division. He was then transferred to HQ of the 7 Corps, stationed in Leipzig, where he met with General Lawton ”Lightning Joe” Collins, whom he informed in detail of what he had witnessed in Katyn.
En route to the US, he was sent to Paris, and there on May 10, 1945, Colonel Van Vliet submitted sworn testimony, which was prepared in four copies, he was deposed by Richard Hoffman, an officer of the US War Crimes Unit. In this deposition, he listed not only the names of the other four witnesses (whose names are generally known) but also the names of the three Other Ranks and the name of a Polish Officer, Wacław Ksieniewicz, who had been murdered in Katyn as well the names of Soviet camps about which the Western Allies had not known (Putywyl and Starobielsk). This deposition, never mentioned in any other document or testimony, was announced to the world in January of 2014, after it had been discovered in the US National Archives in November of 2013 by Krystyna Piórkowska.
After his return to Washington, Van Vliet submitted a report in the offices of Military Intelligence (G-2), where on either May 22 or 23, he met with General Clayton Bissell. This report, just as the sworn deposition had, disappeared. After five years, Van Vliet was asked and proceeded to partially recreate the report. In October 1951, Captain Stewart, appearing before the Madden Committee, testified under oath and confirmed the information he had earlier transmitted in the (unmentioned) coded letters, and his testimony was corroborated by Colonel Van Vliet in the succeeding hearing, held in February 1952. At that time, in his appearance before the Madden Committee, Van Vliet also confirmed the information transmitted in the coded letters, as well as in the sworn deposition (both remained unmentioned) and in the recreated report. In later years, Van Vliet wrote a lengthy article for a monthly magazine, and until his death he gave interviews, which were recorded as film, audio and video material. In his last video statement, recorded in 1995 as part of the US Army Oral History Project, five years prior to his death, he confirmed what he had written 55 years earlier and for the first and only time acknowledged that he had been a registered code user.
After concluding his career military service, Colonel Donald B. Stewart continued to counter the Katyn Lie, both by writing an article for the Chicago Tribune and speaking at National Conventions of the Polish American Congress, he also participated in aural and film recordings which were made about Katyn. The first aural recording (Waters – also with Van Vliet) has disappeared, but the second filmed interview recorded by Roy L. Towers, Jr., remains as the longest description and discussion between these two English-speaking witnesses to the Katyn Massacre.
Donald B. Stewart died in 1983 in San Antonio (TX), while John H. Van Vliet Jr. died in Atlanta (GA) in 2000.
3. Madden Committee – the First Attempt at a Neutral Investigation of the Katyn Massacre
The Select Committee to Investigate and Study the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre was formed in 1951 after the passage of a House of Representatives motion in order to study the Katyn Massacre. Congressman Ray Madden (1st District, Indiana) served as Chair of the Committee.
The Committee met for over nine months, and during that period analyzed materials found in the US National Archives, materials of the US Army and the Nuremberg Tribunals, further it heard testimony from 103 witnesses. The Committee approached various governments, two of them - the Polish Government in Exile (London) and the German Federal Republic did aid the Committee with documents, while the Communist authorities in Poland and the Soviet government not only did not aid the Committee, but instead criticized the Hearings (the USSR in a statement dated February 29, 1952 and Poland in an article published in the party newspaper Trybuna Ludu, on the following day, March 1, 1952). The committee held hearings in Washington, Chicago, Frankfurt, Berlin, London and Naples.
In December of 1952, the Committee announced its Final Report (commonly referred to as the Madden Report) in which it called on the US Congress to pass a resolution which would recommending that the President of the US present a formal resolution to the United Nations calling for the formation of an international committee to study the Katyn Massacre. Concurrently the Committee confirmed that full responsibility for the Massacre lay with the leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The report was voted upon and passed in Congress.
From a formal point of view the Investigation of the Madden Committee was the first neutral analysis of the responsibility for the Katyn Massacre, which was, ultimately, to have been used in a determination of international legal responsibility of the Soviet Union for this massacre, by the United Nations. The Cold War stood as a formidable hurdle in bringing this matter to a conclusion binding upon all nations. Nonetheless, the work of the Madden Committee, forms and continues to form a milestone on this road, while ultimately, fifty years later, led to the formation of the special International Tribunals at the Hague, which have adjudged cases on the crimes committed in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
4. The Coded Letters of the American POWs - An Oath of Silence
During WWII, both British and US POWS transmitted information to Military Intelligence of their respective nations through the use of several methods – mainly via coded letters as well as (in the British case) via short burst radio messages. The Germans supplied the POWs with aerogrammes (in compliance with Geneva Conventions) and the US officers utilized the aerogrammes to write letters, which by means of a numbered code could be deciphered. The letters were sent to family members, but were intercepted and immediately copied by MIS-X, which then proceeded to forward them on to the families, which were completely unaware of the coding. Additionally, if necessary, letters were sent to specific individual POWs from pseudonymous individuals, who were actually MIS-X staffers.
MIS-X, also known as the ‘Factory’, was the special unit of US Military Intelligence which was also responsible for POWs - sending packages which contained maps, compasses, radios and other materials. It also handled the coded correspondence and supplied the specific US Post Office handling POW mail, with a list of names, whose letters were to immediately be pulled when they arrived. This then was the registry of code users, generally officers who, in the first days learned their codes from British POWs. Colonels Van Vliet and Stewart were two of these code users.
Colonel John H. Van Vliet, Jr and Captain Donald B. Stewart, just as all the other POWs who were code users, were obliged, upon their return to the US and prior to any R&R, to sign an oath that they would never disclose the existence of the correspondence, the packages or any communications from the ‘Factory’.
After the war Colonel Van Vliet and Colonel Stewart found themselves in a quandary – on the one hand as Active Duty Career Officers they could not discuss the coded letters even as they related to the Katyn Massacre, and even after they left Active Duty, when they could discuss the Katyn Massacre, they still could not mention that the US government knew as early as the summer of 1943 that this crime had been committed by the USSR.
Acting in accordance with their oath they never disclosed this matter – and it took until the late 1980’s when a book was published which discussed the ‘Factory’ and the coded letters, only after that, did Van Vliet very carefully mention his role as a registered code user in his statement to the Oral History project – this minute trace allowed Krystyna Piórkowska to start her tedious search in the US National Archives.
 LEGAL NOTICE. Centrum Polsko-Rosyjskiego Dialogu i Porozumienia, (Center of Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding) is the owner of copyright for this information as well as its versions in other languages. Centrum grants to every user a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sub licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media, on condition that the source reference must be attached to the content.
 Resolution 290 dated September 19, 1951 allowed for the creation of the Committee and the conducting of hearings in the US, while resolution 539 dated March 13, 1952 expanded its authority to holding hearings in Europe and contact with foreign governments.