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.
A sentry strolled over, stood guard directly under them. At 11:00 p.m., another sentry relieved him, then another at 1:00 a.m., and another at 3:00 a.m.
“For some unknown reason,” says Izac, “they all refused to leave that spot. We could not move for fear of making a noise.” At sunrise Izac and the aviator snuck back down.
A few days later, Izak was on a train to Villingen, a high-security POW camp in the Black Forest. While the usual ratio was about one guard for every seven prisoners, Izac had two, with “equally foul” tempers.
Izac was in a foul temper himself. Before he boarded the train, soldiers had frisked him for contraband. Another tore the soles off his shoes, then hammered them back on just firmly enough to secure them while also making them flap. Plus, the train was moving in daylight. At Karlsruhe, the captives had all agreed that night was best for escape.
Nonetheless, Izac decided he must jump the train in daylight.
“We were in a fourth-class carriage filled with German soldiers. They obstructed the passageway and thronged around the door.” One guard sat next to Izak; the other faced him on an adjoining bench. Each pointed a gun at Izac, who “took pains to see that the guns were loaded.”
Suddenly, the train, a small locomotive with six cars, sped up. Thus far, it had been rising slowly in elevation. Now on a downgrade, it clacked along at 40 miles an hour. The increased speed made jumping much more dangerous.
Izac noticed that the window across from their seats — maybe 18 inches wide and 24 inches high — was open. Deep ditches filled with rainwater flanked the track on both sides.
About five miles from Villingen, amid close quarters and warm, musty air, one of the guards dozed off. When someone asked the other guard a question, Izac saw his chance. He shot up and dove through the window.
Almost. His head and shoulders made it through. His lower body got stuck. Guards flocked behind him, grabbing for his feet; manic shouts rang in his ears. He kicked and squirmed himself forward. There was nothing to grab outside the train. So he pushed off and fell head first.
And “all went dark.”
When he came to, his head felt split in half. It had smashed into a rail on an adjoining track. His body ached from hitting crushed rock and rolling over and over before he finally stopped. Three hundred yards ahead, the train screeched.
When he tried to stand up, he “made a terrible discovery. He couldn’t bend his knees. They “had apparently struck the tie next to the one that damaged my head. My body was all bruised, and my hands and arms had small pieces of rock ground in.”
The only good news: “no bones broken.”
Years later, Izac swore that if his knees hadn’t been so damaged, he could have run away. Instead, as he tried to stand up, the guards hopped from the train and ran toward him, “firing as they came.”
As bullets pinged around him, Izac felt nailed to the ground. Every movement exhausted him. He tumbled over and tried to crawl. He grabbed fistfuls of grass and pulled himself forward. Three bullets came close. Then one zinged between his ear and shoulder “and buried itself in the ground in front of me.”
Guards were 75 yards away and closing. Gaunt from weeks of bad food, in pain from head to toe, Izac decided to surrender.
“I just had time to turn over, raise myself into a half-sitting, half-lying posture and elevate my hands above my head.”
The first guard ran up, grabbed his rifle-barrel with both hands, and smashed Izac on the head with the butt end. The blow knocked Izac out. His body flopped like a rag and rolled down the slick embankment into the ditch. The guards slid down after him. While he was still unconscious, they pummeled Izac.
Izac came to just as one of the guards, “cursing in broken English,” kicked him hard in the back. Izac sprawled facedown.
When he looked past the mud-caked boots of the guards, Izac saw a strange sight: “Many of the people from the hayfields nearby had gathered to watch the fun. Not one bystander showed compassion. And these were the best people of Germany, the pious, church-going Baden peasants!”
An old man came forward shaking a pitchfork: if the guards needed any help, he’d gladly lend a hand.
Every time Izac tried to stand up, the guards beat him down. One blow came from behind, striking Izac behind the left ear so fiercely it snapped the gun in two.
“All this time I had not even tried to protect myself. Had I done so, it would have given them the opportunity they wanted of shooting me.” The people were witnesses.
They might have reacted differently, Izac surmised, to a “cold-blooded murder.”
“Things like that were common enough behind the lines where there were no civilians to tell the tale and where many dark deeds could be done under the plea of military necessity.”
Izac passed out again. When he came to, the train was gone. The guards dragged him to a nearby station to find out when the next train would arrive. On the way, they bought bread and milk from a peasant. They made Izac stand at attention while they ate.
No trains for hours. So they decided to walk the five miles to Villingen. They prodded Izac — broken, bleeding all over, stiff-legged — with bayonets. “Occasionally, in a burst of rage, one would knock me down with a blow from his gun or fist, probably when he would remember how close he had come to losing me” — which would have earned the guard at least two weeks of solitary confinement.
Somehow Izac made it to Villingen. “I shall never know how I bore up under that torture.” What strengthened, with each painful step, was his resolve to escape and enact “vengeance on the German people.” ■
- Karlsruhe may have been the model for Washington D.C. In both cities, streets radiate from a center, and L’Enfant, who planned D.C. was quite familiar with Karlsruhe.
- Dwight Messimer: “Men who escape are not deterred by things over which they have no control. Those situations simply have to be dealt with as they develop.”
- Edouard Izac, on missing prisoners of war: “What a multitude of sins is covered by that one word ‘missing.’”
- 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.
Moynihan, Michael, Black Bread and Barbed Wire, London, 1978.
Puryear, George W., “The Airman’s Escape,” Atlantic Monthly, January–June, 1919.
Articles in the New York Times.
Read Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4