• The Tiffany Medal of Honor” awarded to Commander Izac.
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Trial and Terror

“Very few prisoners of war try to escape,” writes historian Dwight R. Messimer, “and very few of those who do, succeed.”

When a German U-boat sunk his ship, Lieutenant Edouard Izac became the only American naval officer taken prisoner in World War I. He had to escape, but not merely for himself: he’d gathered intelligence essential for the war effort.

The U-boat docked at a backwater near Wilhelmshaven, a port on the North Sea. Because it was a prime military target, says Izac, Wilhelmshaven was “the most intensely guarded city in Germany.” A warrant officer and four armed guards took him to the commandatur, a cluster of buildings surrounded by a high wall.

During an interrogation, the officer, who spoke perfect English, exploded: “Why has America entered the war? It is none of her affair.” He expected America to join with Germany, adding that “all this talk about making the world safe for Democracy is a lot of bosh!”

“This was news to me,” said Izac. But “I heard these same ideas expressed by each German I met.”

Three days later, Izac was on a train to Karlsruhe, a city in southwestern Germany near the French border. As the train passed railroad stations, Izac watched people on the platforms: “nothing but sorrow…in their countenances, and a certain lack of noise and activity that was appalling.”

At Karlsruhe, soldiers escorted Izac into what had been a cheap hotel. The Spartan rooms had windows sprayed with gray paint. Most had wood shavings for beds. During the initial interrogation, when an officer asked how long the war would last, Izac said at least five years. (“That always hurt their feelings; they were hoping for peace in a few months.”)

They put Izac in a room with seven French officers and some tables and chairs. One of the few officers with a razor decided to shave. He unhooked a small mirror from the wall. Another noticed thin scratching where the mirror had hung. The message read: “Beware of the Dictaphones.”

The officers found other versions of the message etched on plaster in English or French. “No wonder,” Izac wrote later, “this place was called the ‘Listening Hotel.’”

A quick search found a Dictaphone in a crevice. Now aware of eavesdroppers, the prisoners raised their voices. They made up blockbuster scenarios about legions of Allied troops set to swarm across Europe. They called the Germans “Bosche” or “Huns,” names their captors detested. “They were running a greater risk than they realized,” writes Messimer, “because the Germans regularly punished prisoners who used these terms.”

The next day, Izac went to a different room with three British officers. Izac was at the “hotel” three days. In that time they found three Dictaphones, in light fixtures and embedded in a wall, and destroyed them.

Izac learned later that the hotel had a system: strand a newcomer in solitary confinement until he’s anxious to talk; then put him with people who speak the same language. “Sometimes the officers he is placed with are spies.” By the end of the war, he adds, the idea prevailed among prisoners that “all ‘companions’ are enemies.”

On the fourth day, soldiers took him a few blocks away to the POW camp. Earlier in the war, an Allied squadron had bombed the city. A stray exploded in the Zoological Gardens, killing over a hundred people at a circus. The Germans built the camp in the gardens, says Izac, “as a safeguard against further bombing.” Prisoners served as human shields.

The camp was a lush, expansive garden surrounded by hotels in a major metropolis. The prison looked like a barn: four rooms, eight beds each — more wood shavings — and most of the captives wounded. The camp was actually a way station, since prisoners came and went, transferred to more permanent sites. Izac was the only American. They strip-searched him at the main gate.

Izac felt his captivity more than ever and looked for a way out. “I had information which I was anxious to get back to the Navy,” he told his roommates, “and I proposed to escape at the first opportunity.”

They spoke of failed attempts and of how, because Karlsruhe was one of Germany’s intelligence hubs, the carefully guarded compound had informants everywhere.

Three fences surrounded the camp: an inner, wire fence; then boarded walls; then an outer, wire fence. Over several nights, the prisoners loosened staples to a post, and boards on the second fence. They bribed a Swiss guard, who had friends in town, to give them a place to stay.

Near midnight on July 3, Izac and the others met near the wire fence. They had maps, food, and compasses. Noises in the darkness caught their attention. Germans had nabbed the friendly Swiss guard. The Germans found the letter, yanked the Swiss guard away, and disbanded the prisoners. After that, the guards doubled inside and outside the walls.

Twenty-four hours later, the Germans had relocated all the officers in camp, except for Izac. He befriended a French aviator and planned another escape. “One of the lessons that recaptured escapees brought back was the importance of working with a partner,” says Messimer. “Men who escaped alone took greater risks and made more dumb mistakes than those who went in pairs.”

Tall trees loomed over the camp. In a corner of the compound, a sturdy limb and branches extended above all three fences.

Izac decided that he and the aviator would shimmy up the tree before “Taps”: 11:00 p.m., when the sentries ordered everyone inside the barracks.

The plan: climb the tree and hide in the thick foliage until about 1:30 a.m. “Then crawl to the end of the limb, make fast a line, and slide down outside.”

Izac found an insulated electrical wire that could hold his 150 pounds. He and the aviator made knapsacks from an old shirt. Just after dark, Izac wrapped the wire around his waist. Wearing stolen German caps and blankets that looked like officers’ cloaks, they climbed the tree and waited.

Read Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

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Catbird March 20, 2012 @ 9:34 p.m.

Can't wait to read the next installment!


desertbear March 23, 2012 @ 10:28 a.m.

Jeff has such an interesting writting style to compliment his deep, intense research history that shows in this and his past presentations to the "reading public". Thanks Jeff and please keep them coming.


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