Friday, May 10, 2013


 The second US Army officer brought to Katyn was the Michigan born artillery captain, Donald Boyle Stewart (1915-83). Like Van Vliet, Stewart was a career officer and a graduate of the USMA (1940).  Prior to attending West Point, Stewart had worked to help support his family, and only after several years did he decide to apply to and was accepted, thus he was several years older than his classmates.

As soon as he was appointed an officer with the 17th Artillery Regiment, and together with it – now as battery commander and in the rank of captain, he served in Tunisia.  He was taken prisoner in mid-February 1943, in the same battle near Sidi Bin Soud, in which Drake and Van Vliet were also taken prisoners.  Just as they were, he was transported to Tunis, then to Capua and finally by rail to Germany, where both he and Van Vliet were sent to Oflag IX A/Z in Rothenberg.

It is difficult to determine what the officer’s relationship was this early in their imprisonment, nonetheless, Colonel Van Vliet, given the possibility of personally selecting the officer who would accompany him, selected Captain Stewart as the other US Army officer on the trip to Katyn.  It appears, however, that this was a conscious and premeditated choice.  The reasons for the choice are made apparent in the Madden testimony.  Stewart, similarly to Van Vliet, was a career officer, and Van Vliet noted this in his testimony concerning his decision:
I felt that anything that came of this, later would perhaps be better in the knowledge of someone who was in the Regular Army rather than someone who might return to his civilian occupation, and who might be critized by his fellow civilians for having taken part in a political or propaganda move.

Equally as important, was the fact that Stewart and Van Vliet were both graduates of West Point.  The fact is that Stewart was a bit younger, and the two future officers had concurrently attended the Academy for only one year, nonetheless the common ethos and traditions formed a certain bond between them – and Van Vliet believed that neither of them would break under the stress, which other soldiers might not handle in a postwar period. 

West Point holds a central place in the lives of the wartime officers, as well as in the postwar studies of the Katyn massacre – mainly due to the fact that each of the US military (with the exception of two individuals) who were either direct or indirect witnesses to Katyn had attended West Point.  In a much smaller US Army, which existed at that time, most of the officer corps had graduated from West Point, and they knew each other.  It is apparent that Van Vliet clearly analyzed the circumstances and accepted the following premises – that the two of them would survive, the Allies would win, the POWs would regain their freedom and that they would be able – or rather would be obligated to give an account of what they had seen in Katyn.

What Van Vliet also mentioned as influencing his decision, was their joint service in North Africa (which always creates additional bonds between soldiers) and the fact that they had been taken prisoner during the same battle. 
What one must remember as well, is that prior to the Katyn trip, the witnesses selected for this compulsory trip knew it could end tragically, and since Capt. Stewart was a career officer, he too was prepared for the possibility of death in the time of war, which possibility did not end when he was taken prisoner.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Captain Stewart, at least by June of 1943, when they were in Oflag 64, was a ‘registered Code User’, and his letters, just as those of Van Vliet, immediately upon delivery to the States, were transferred to MIS-X. If the information gleaned in Katyn would require rapid transmittal stateside – the fact that both officers, who were sent to Katyn, were in a position, to independently of each other, transmit the essential materials in ciphered letters, could be of great value.   In this manner Van Vliet exponentially increased the probability that the news would reach the West. 

One must reflect here on the fact that Colonel Van Vliet did not discuss another aspect of the matter: in a worst case scenario, it would be more difficult to keep civilians silent, while officers could be held in check.  This point was confirmed by the certificate that each liberated officer had to sign as part of their debriefing process.

Ultimately the reality differed from the plans. In his testimony to the Madden Committee, Stewart (then a Lt. Colonel) related that he had never made a ‘formal written report’.
Madden: Did you ever make an official report to your superiors about this trip to Katyn?
Stewart: (...) I found that Colonel Van Vliet had already checked in. He had gone to Paris, so I did not say anything about this.  I knew that he would make the report.

   * * *
However, Stewart was not questioned about whether he had informed his hearing officers during the debriefing each POW was subject to post-liberation, or whether he had presented an ‘informal’ report.  The officers who were registered code users were debriefed by MIS-X upon their return to the US and sanitized versions of their statements can be found in the National Archives.  As of now, no report for Stewart has been located.

It should be noted that Stewart was the first witness to be heard by the Madden Committee, and that he was the first to identify Lt. Col. Van Vliet as the SAO, without noting whether this was solely in Oflag IX A/Z or in all the German Oflags.   It is clear that this was a willful omission presumably ordered by the Army Counsel.

© Krystyna Piórkowska