In the waning winter of 1945, more than 25,000 American soldiers disappeared into Siberia. Very few made it back out.
Those are the words of Winter Springs’ Robert Miller, a former U.S. intelligence officer who has spent the last 15 years trying to find out the fates of men the U.S. government says don’t exist or were already dead. Sixty-seven years later, Miller said, some of them may still be alive.
In the last week of August, “America’s Abandoned Sons: The untold story of thousands of US soldiers murdered in the USSR” will open up those mysteries again. This time, Miller said, he’s hoping that they’ll be solved.
Names in a box
Consider it a personal matter, though for Miller there is no family connection to the missing men. He’s just been too close to the subject to look the other way, he said.
It started inside a briefing room filled with men shuffling through boxes filled with names of soldiers who were never found. Working as an intelligence officer in the wake of the Vietnam War, Miller was tasked to sort out the whereabouts of soldiers who had been captured or disappeared in Southeast Asia. That’s when he started noticing some files that were out of place.
“We’d see things that weren’t supposed to be there,” Miller said. “A guy in World War II who was captured. A guy in Korea.”
They were files on men who had disappeared decades ago, accidentally mixed in with recent prisoners of war (POW) and men missing in action (MIA).
“The things that weren’t in our brief were returned to a senior officer and weren’t ever seen again,” Miller said.
That’s when Miller started investigating it himself.
Miller’s manner is that of an odd tension between crushing severity under a sheen of laid-back affability. Born an American but raised in the Middle East, his living room mixes dusty Turkish antiquities with a leather-padded bar built from a Corvette’s wooden shipping crate. His intractable persona occasionally exudes Celtic pride when he puts on a kilt and marches in the Scottish Highland Games. The international politics junkie and former 11-year Winter Springs city commissioner also restores old cars on the side.
And then he writes books subjected to such compelling controversy that they’ve raised the eyebrows of his former employers in the federal government.
“America’s Disposable Soldiers,” published in 2002, investigated the causes and cover-up of more than 300,000 soldiers from the Persian Gulf War affected by Gulf War syndrome.
Now his newest book delves into more than 60 years of secrets deep in the gulag prisons of Siberia, where he said American soldiers were shipped to work in labor camps or be killed, taken by the Soviet Union as prisoners of three wars.
And it tells readers why it happened, and why it will likely happen again.
A shameful silence
“When added to the thousands still MIA in the Soviet Union from World War II, the story, if made public, threatens both the new Russian leadership and those in the United States who would prefer this saga never be publicly revisited,” George Rossbach wrote about the episode in the book’s forward. Rossbach helped Miller gather information for the book from inside Eastern Europe, helping tell a tale that had remained largely secret until the death of the Soviet Union.
In the months leading to the end of WWII in Europe, leaders from the U.S., United Kingdom and Soviet Union met in Yalta to discuss terms of the end of the war. The U.S. wanted the Soviets to declare war on Japan to help end WWII. The Soviets, who had detained American soldiers who were former prisoners of Nazi Germany, wanted the U.S. to pay them per soldier that they returned, ostensibly to help with the reconstruction of the war-torn Soviet Union. The Soviets were supposed to help bring the American troops back home. That didn’t happen.
“It became clear to us that we weren’t about to implement the agreements that were made with the Russians at Yalta,” Miller said. The United States succeeded in getting the Soviet Union to declare war on Japan, but the Soviets continued to hold the soldiers.
“For six months we couldn’t account for our POWs,” Miller said. “And that time we knew if we pushed too hard it might jeopardize things. We expected to lose almost a million troops defeating Japan. They’d fight to the death. That’s why we didn’t push Stalin too hard (to get American soldiers back).”
Then U.S. began receiving reports that Soviets were loading American troops onto trains and shipping them east to Odessa, in southern Ukraine, then to Siberia. It was intentional, Miller said, to send American soldiers to work camps.
“Stalin was an incredibly evil man,” Miller said. “He made Hitler look like a Boy Scout. He held them hostage, and he never told us he had them unless he had to, and he never had to, so he never did.”
It was a pattern that would continue as the Soviet Union failed to return soldiers as American families waited for years — the U.S. government usually told them that their loved ones had died. Then after the Korean War, it happened again.
“During the 1950s and 1960s, numerous reports stated that not only did Americans remain captive in North Korea, but also some Americans had been transferred to China and the Soviet Union and remained prisoners there,” author, former NATO spokesman and veteran war correspondent Laurence Jolidon wrote in 1995’s “Last Seen Alive: The Search for Missing POWs from the Korean War.”
In 1991 a series of congressional hearings, led by former soldiers in Congress, convened to find out what had happened to thousands of missing U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. That soon expanded to Korea and WWII, with a number Miller said exceeds 78,000. But congressional investigators found leads going cold as soon as they were discovered, just like Miller would.
He said a list of missing soldiers names laid buried in the ground by a woman too terrified to attempt to send it out of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t discovered until years later.
In the late 1980s, he said an American embassy was tipped off that a man in a town in the Ukraine had information about soldiers who had been imprisoned there.
“When they got to the town, the Russians explained that there had been a mysterious fire that had destroyed all the records, and incidentally nobody has any recollection of any American being here,” Miller said.
In 1971 around Christmas, a group of a dozen or so soldiers were spotted marching through the forest near another town in the Ukraine, Miller said. Down the road in Kirovs’ke a hunter found hastily buried bodies, their arms and legs sticking out of the snow. When he reported it, he was cautioned never to mention it and to forget he’d seen it.
In 1995, Miller said he was contacted by a man who wanted to see him in South Florida. He had some information about the POWs, obtained by an informant in Russia. Miller would have to go to Washington, D.C., to meet a secondary contact. But after a chain of phone calls led to a dead end, Miller said he contacted the mysterious South Florida man again, and the man denied ever talking to him.
A few years later, documents that Miller said he had pulled from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for research about missing soldiers began disappearing from the archives. The men’s names still fill those boxes, he said, but no one knows where they are.
That’s why he wrote his book, he said, to find an end to a mystery that began more than half a century ago and spanned three wars.
“That’s what I hope will come as a result of this,” Miller said. “We’ll acknowledge that we know who they are, we know where they were, and that we know that they never came back. That would close a chapter that’s very difficult to close.”
The families of more than 78,000 soldiers are waiting to know what happened when their sons went off to war, he said, and we didn’t bring them back.
“When I went into the military, it was told or at least understood that if you get captured, we’re going to get you back, we’re going to find you,” Miller said. “Why did I do it? I was assured that if I was lost or captured, they’d look for me until the end of time.”