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Colonel Van Vliet on the Katyn massacre (continued)

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.

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.