Thursday, May 9, 2013


John Huff Van Vliet Jr. was the son of Colonel John H. Van Vliet Sr. (USMA 1913), his great-grandfather was Stewart Van Vliet (USMA 1840) who fought on the Union side and was nominated general during the war. Many sources (including the CIA webpage, authored by Benjamin Fisher, entitled The Katyn Controversy) erroneously advise that ”our” Van Vliet was a fourth generation Van Vliet at West Point, however, after reviewing Cullum’s, as well as verifying with the Van Vliet Family, it is clear that he was the third generation Van Vliet.

John Junior was nominated to West Point by the Senator from Kansas, where the family was living at the time.  He graduated from the Academy in 1937 and was nominated an Infantry Lieutenant JG., and then served for three years in the 12 and 27 infantry regiments.  On June 12, 1940 he was appointed Lieutenant. 

Van Vliet was clearly considered to be particularly talented, since in September 1941 he was assigned to Temporary Duty Status in Operations, Plans and Training and was sent to the United Kingdom as a military observer, where he remained until December 1941.  Because his work in Great Britain was of a delicate nature he did not work in uniform, and because his work required interfacing with higher ranking officers he was ‘frocked’ as a colonel, and his official passport issued for that trip listed his rank as Colonel. His assignment was to determine the best sites for establishing US military bases, which would be needed once the United States entered the conflict. This, of course, occurred during a time when there was still much discussion in the US about whether the nation should enter the war.

After his return stateside, he most probably continued working on this, or a similar project – in any case there is a lapsus in the Cullum records until June of 1942, when he was assigned as an instructor at The Infantry School (TIS) at Fort Benning.  He served there for a short time, and by September was in the United Kingdom once again, from whence he was assigned to the North African Theater Operations – then known as NATO.

As Lieutenant Colonel, Van Vliet was the SAO in Oflag IX A/Z, most probably, he also utilized the knowledge and experience of the more “experienced” British POWs and presumably learned writing in cipher as well as preparing information for the POW radio, in light of which he became a “Registered Code User” or CU During his postwar testimony or other interviews, Van Vliet did not mention this aspect of his experience; it was only in the final 1995 recording made for the US Army Oral History Project that he diffidently mentioned his Oflag correspondence with his ‘girlfriend’ who turned out to be a cigar chomping US Army colonel.

But even that was not the entire truth – it is correct that in some cases the officers sent their coded letters to such a ‘girlfriend’, however, most of their letters were addressed to their families, and it was the fact that they were listed in a register that caused their correspondence to be reviewed by MIS-X – from whence the term ‘registered Code User’ arose.

Van Vliet was noted as a CU when he was transferred to Oflag 64 in Altburgund (Szubin) near Bydgoszcz, which occurred in June of 1943.  Van Vliet also attempted several escapes from Szubin (including from the camp brig) which brought him fame among his fellow prisoners.  However, what was more important but totally unknown, except to several other officers, was his second role, that of “Big X” or the head of the camp escape committee. 

It was under his orders that a tunnel was dug, which ultimately did not get used in an escape, but was otherwise used in January of 1945.

In May of 1944, the Oflag 64 Escape Committee headed by Van Vliet, sent a proposal to MIS-X which was the most unusual project that they had heretofore seen:  the proposal was for all of the prisoners in Oflag 64 to escape the camp, and then to be picked up by US planes which would land in nearby fields (with the assistance of the Polish underground). In the weeks before the proposal was sent, Van Vliet also requested and received two pistols which were sent in a package to Szubin    The flat fields above the camp which lay within 200 yards of the camp, and a tunnel which reached a wooded area, abutting a Jewish cemetery near the camp would probably have been used in such a case.  

General Clayton Bissell headed the group which was overseeing the plans for the escape.  Presumably, it was the start of Operation Overlord in June that forced the cancellation of the escape.

It is possible; that Van Vliet feared not only what their fate would be as the Wehrmacht retreated, but also what the approaching Soviet Army might do with the POWs.
As the presented facts document, Van Vliet was an outstanding officer and held significant positions in the camp hierarchy (both the official and the unofficial ones), but we need to once again emphasize that he was not the highest ranking US Army officer in the spring of 1943, to be held in German captivity.  For the German propaganda machine, this fact did not serve their purposes; if the Germans counted on getting some sort of statements that they could utilize for their purposes (or perhaps, if the prisoners were released in a neutral country and made appropriate reports for their command structure), the issue of the absent SAO – and one at that, who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – in some way managed to lessen the status of the “objective” delegation, which was being sent to the massacre site.

However, the most significant coded letters that Van Vliet and Stewart sent from the Oflag – would remain a secret until August 30, 2012 when they were located by me in the US National Archives. The officers had in fact written about Katyn.

© Krystyna Piórkowska