Another must, Izac assured his cohorts, was quality shoes. Interrogators had ripped the soles off his and nailed them back in a shabby manner. “In escaping, a solid pair of shoes was a strict necessity, and we considered a hundred dollars a small price to pay for them,” even for shoes with wooden soles, since leather was scarce in Germany (soldiers and peasants all wore wooden-soled shoes). Izac and Willis bribed a guard and secured proper footwear. They paid full price.
“It was our experience that anyone in Germany could be bribed,” says Izac, “provided you negotiated with him when he was alone.” Some coffee or tea, or a can of meat could work wonders. Soap was supreme. “We used to say, ‘Give me a bar of soap and I will buy the Kaiser’s daughter.’”
Prisoners went on “parole” walks outside the camp. A German officer would escort 10–50 Allied officers. They usually toured the countryside, one hour out, one hour back. To prevent them from running, German officers had the officers sign “word of honor” cards: “I will not make any attempt to escape.” They handed these cards to a sentry at the main gate on their way out.
Runners would be shot. Being officers and gentlemen, no prisoners had tried to escape while on a walk.
Willis would. Using a set of watercolors and a magnifying glass, he forged parole passes for himself and Izac. They read: “I will now make an attempt to escape.” This way, if they got caught, they wouldn’t have lied.
Two days before the scheduled escape, a Russian prisoner went over the wall. Three hundred German soldiers and packs of wolfhounds chased him down. After that, the authorities doubled the interior guard once again. They put 200-watt bulbs in the lamps and constructed a 20-foot-tall wire fence.
They also made an unannounced search of the American barracks. Luckily for Izac, he’d hidden wire chains and screws in the chimney and the ashes of the stove. Others were less fortunate. Guards found maps, compasses, and tools (a file, saw, and wire cutters — together — could cost up to $225). They also noticed that wooden bed slats, used for making ladders, were missing. So they made a thorough search of the entire camp.
Izac and Willis abandoned their scheme. “For the first time I was discouraged,” writes Izac. “We lived a lifetime of hope and fear in the making of [our] plans, and to see them fall one by one was truly disheartening. At this time my fortunes reached their lowest ebb.”
But rather than despair, Izac, Willis, and others planned a major escape. From previous attempts, they’d learned what not to do. They were “experienced veterans in the escape game.”
They would need six teams. Team one: Izac would construct an 18-foot bridge from slats and wooden markers for the tennis courts. He would throw these across the ditch and over the fences. He would also cut the iron bars from his windows.
A second team would use wire-cutters on the fences. A third would throw a ladder over the wire.
Willis’s group, the fourth team, would dress like German soldiers, holding wooden guns painted black. During the escape, when the guards would stream out of the guardhouse, Willis and the others would join them and run through the main gate.
The fifth team would throw weighted chains over the wires and short-circuit the lights. The “circuit men” studied each wire. When the time came, and the signal given, two per wire would kill each one. This was crucial, since a blacked-out camp meant more prisoners could escape detection — and rifle-fire.
A sixth team — which, like the fifth, had no chance of getting out — would load tin cans with rocks and stuff them in large bags. They’d hurl the bags at the walls. The ruckus would create a diversion.
On October 5, Izac learned that all Russian prisoners were to be shipped to other camps in two days. This change would allow the guards to fix their attention on the Americans.
On October 6, Izac announced to his cohorts, “We’ve got to get out tomorrow night. The new moon will be up. Everybody get ready!” ■
- Harold Willis: “The Commander of the Camp was a perfect type of Prussian colonel, who believed in the iron fist in every sense of the word.”
- Edouard Izac: “German soldiers always sang when they marched by the camp, even at 2:00 a.m. ‘They sing,’ said a French prisoner, ‘to forget their hunger.’”
- Dwight Messimer: “There is no question that [Izac] was the unchallenged ringleader of all the escape plans…. He was, essentially, a one-man escape committee.”
- Dennett, Carl P., Prisoners of the Great War: Authoritative Statement of Conditions in the Prison Camps of Germany, Boston, 1919.
Issacs, Edouard, Victor, Prisoner of the U-90, Boston, 1919.
McCarthy, Daniel J., The Prisoner of War in Germany, New York, 1917.
Messimer, Dwight R., Escape, Annapolis, 1994.
Articles in the New York Times.
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