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  • Commander Izac about a year before his death in 1990
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Daylight

The lights at Villingen shut off on schedule. Edouard Izac, Harold Willis, and 11 others would become the only Americans to try a mass escape from a German POW camp during World War I.

Then the lights flicked back on. The weighted chains prisoners had thrown on the wires had failed to kill the circuits.

All the preparation was for nothing: four teams, a raucous diversion, a ladder and an 18-foot bridge made from battens and wooden slats; acquiring wire cutters and false keys, fake civilian clothing, sturdy shoes, maps, a compass; planning different escape routes through the Black Forest to Switzerland. Zero hour — 10:45 p.m., October 6, 1918 — and nothing.

Assembled in four barracks, the teams hit an emotional low. This was the night to escape. In the morning, the Germans were shipping all Russian prisoners to another camp. That way, guards could give the Americans their full attention.

Lights started blinking. “This continued,” said Izac, “for perhaps ten seconds that seemed like ten hours.” Then the camp blacked out.

“Go go…GO!” shouted team leaders. Izac kicked the iron bar out from his window. He and two others launched the 50-pound bridge through the opening, over a ditch, and to the top of a barbed-wire fence. First out: Lieutenant Rowan Tucker crept along the wobbly wooden battens, made it to the fence, and dropped down outside the camp.

Izac followed. Unlike Tucker, he scrambled across the swaying and sagging bridge as fast as possible. As he did, Russian prisoners at the far end of the camp banged tin cans filled with stones. Amid the diversion, a rifle cracked: a bullet shot past Tucker.

An alarm sounded. German reserves, sleeping in a compound, woke and assembled outside. Harold Willis and two others, wearing overcoats and fake German caps and carrying wooden rifles, joined the soldiers. The tin-can racket worked as planned. It was so loud, said Willis, the guards didn’t recognize the escaping Americans. One guard “was so excited he kept loading and firing his gun into the air.”

About 50 half-awake Germans and the three Americans rushed through the main gate together.

A third group, led by Lieutenant George Puryear, cut through a wire fence, also on the southwest side of the barracks, and scrambled into the night.

Izac dropped to the ground next to two guards. In pitch darkness, one shouted, “Halt!” His rifle fired so close to Izac, “the flash almost scorched my hair.”

Izac zigzagged toward the top of a slope 300 yards away. Halfway up, a volley of gunfire punctured the night. All reserves must now be in pursuit. Bullets pocked the rain-soaked ground around him. “But as we were only a little blacker than the darkness, we soon blended with the surrounding obscurity.”

After Willis trotted through the gate with the guards, he slowly edged away. An officer saw him and shouted. “I dropped all pretense,” said Willis. He threw away his fake rifle “and ran off at top speed,” which wasn’t all that fast, since each wooden-soled shoe, caked with mud, “seemed as if it weighed ten pounds.”

Most of the volleys Izac heard were at Willis. “But,” said Willis, “their aim was poor.”

Only 5 of the 13 Americans escaped.

From atop the slope, Izac gave a quick look back. He watched the camp flood with light. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the hillside. At least 300 soldiers from the nearby garrison were mustered at the gate. As rain fell, dogs began to bark.

Izac turned and ran.

The escapees would work in pairs. Izac and Willis chose three sites for a possible rendezvous. Izac made it to the first: Der Magdalenenberg, a huge mound where Attila the Hun had buried one of his generals. As Izac hid in the bushes, rifles popped down below. Five minutes passed with no Willis. “I could wait no longer, for even now the battalion might be on my trail, and their hounds would lead them unerringly.”

Willis must not have escaped. Avoiding roads, Izac moved along the edge of the forest to their second meeting point. As rain thinned to mist, he hid in a clump of bushes. Not too far away, boots sloshed on fallen leaves. The shadowy figure looked like a German guard, “at least he appeared to be” — but German guards didn’t wear raincoats.

Izac voiced a whisper that could cost him his life: “Izac.”

The figure spun left into bushes a few yards away, but didn’t answer.

Izac whispered again. The voice replied, “Willis.”

“Willie!”

Izac jumped up. He grabbed Willis and hugged him. “I was never before so elated over meeting a fellow human being.”

They jogged south, and a little west. Down below, the headlights of cars and bicycles search-lit the countryside. Packs of hounds barked.

Izac and Willis only stopped to shake pepper on the trail, since a dog would refuse to follow after sniffing it. (“This is why pepper was considered contraband by the Germans and denied all prisoners.”)

They ran through fields and forests, “one eye on the compass, the other on the ground.” Rain-soaked clothes and water-filled shoes slowed them, as did ravines and rivers “at times up to our shoulders.” Often, in the dark, a tree would terrify them — it looked like a sentinel — or the ground would drop away. “We had many bad falls, but had to keep going as distance that first night was vital.”

The plan: move southwesterly through the Black Forest, then cross the Rhine River to Switzerland. “We expected to swim the Rhine at a point 40 miles in a straight line from Villingen,” said Izac. But since the terrain was so rough, they knew they’d have to cover more than 100 miles.

They could have taken shorter routes — straight south to Waldshut, for example. But those would be heavily patrolled. Instead, they took “the hard but sure way.”

By October 7, though they’d walked 25 miles, they were only 12 miles from the camp.

They hid during the day. Outside the village of Unterbrand, children gathering firewood came near. “All during our trip, we worried ourselves gray over the children,” said Willis. They “would have delighted to turn us over instantly to the authorities.”

As if to attest to these fears, during the escape Willis’s hair turned from brown to almost white.

Around 1:00 p.m., hounds barked on the far side of the village. Aching and fatigued from their trek, Izac and Willis were in no shape to flee. The yelping came closer, made eager by each fresh scent.

Then baying changed to “baffled whines.”

The dogs had lost the trail. It could have been the pepper, or where Izac and Willis had scaled down a steep cliff. Either way, the hounds never bothered them again.

Moving always at night, they made their way through the Black Forest. They avoided valleys and high plateaus for fear of detection. To their modest supply of sausage and chocolate, they added cabbage, turnips, and potatoes stolen from the fields.

On the fourth night, their map ran out. From here on, they had only a compass and a second map that proved useless.

They got lost. At one point, they were heading north in a gorge instead of south. Another time, they climbed down a vertical cliff in darkness, only to find that they had to climb back up. For a second compass, they relied on the sounds of trains near the river.

“Every morning we would be so exhausted from the hard walking and lack of proper food that as soon as we had found a hiding-place we would drop down where we stood and immediately be in a deep sleep.” But, said Izac, “the cold would awaken us after an hour or two.”

One morning, a strange babbling woke Izac. “I found to my horror that Willis was delirious…and seemed to have a high fever.”

Willis was mumbling an unknown tongue rapid fire in his sleep. After all they’d been through, the planning and precautions, Willis’s incoherent raving could give their position away. Izac woke and talked him down to silence. After a few hours, “he was almost normal.”

Later that day, they ate their last bits of sausage and chocolate. “Had we not been in excellent health, [we] would never have survived this terrible trip. And the hardest fight was still before us.”

On the seventh night, they reached the Rhine. They had traveled at least 120 miles and slept no more than 10 or 12 hours total. They could see the lights of Switzerland — freedom — on the other side.

Of all the phases of an escape, writes Messimer, “the border crossing was by far the most difficult. Security was very tight, and escapees were nearly always in a weakened condition.” Seeing the end in sight, they would often relax, miscalculate, or take desperate risks.

Izac and Willis threw away their shoes and all their clothes, except their pants. They put socks over their hands, so they wouldn’t be “conspicuously white.” To fight the near-freezing water, they greased their bodies with lard, then donned short tights and jerseys and blackened their faces with dirt.

Germans patrolled every path and trail. At the railroad tracks running parallel to the river, guards stood within sight of each other. Izac and Willis crawled through wet grass for hundreds of yards, but couldn’t find an opening to the embankment.

As they continued eastward, they came to a wall. They climbed up but a dense fog prevented them from seeing across the way — or that they were 60 feet above a road with German guards nearby.

They retreated from the river until they came to a mountain stream. A new plan: wade down the center, with only their heads above water, to the river. Flowing sounds would mask their movements.

They only had to wade for half a mile, but it took two hours. Sharp rocks slashed their feet. The pain barely registered, since the water “felt like ice.”

“Besides the physical torture,” said Izac, “the mental strain was terrible. Every instant we were in the gravest danger of discovery; we knew the sentries were but a few yards away, and a single misstep would mean capture.”

They reached the river at 2:00 a.m.

A cold wind drove the dense fog away. They could see their destination, about 700 feet from where they stood. But in between: a swift current, near-freezing water, and eddies and whirlpools caused by streams emptying into the river.

Izac wanted to discuss where they should swim to, but Willis was gone.

“Without a word of warning, he had disappeared from where he stood within a foot of me, as if the earth had opened up and swallowed him.”

Izac had no time to mourn. He had to move. He’d only stepped a few feet into the river, when the current knocked his feet out from under him and speared him downstream. What looked powerful from shore became a fearsome surge.

So the guards wouldn’t hear him, he swam the breaststroke. As he reached the center of the river, his legs felt like they would cramp.

“Then the fight began.”

Like a runaway canoe, he raced atop a headlong flood. No matter what stroke he tried, it didn’t work, and “the exertion took the last of my strength.” Along with fighting the torrent with an undernourished body, Izac felt hypothermia setting in.

To the south he saw a high point, where the river made a bend. He had to reach the other side before the bend, which would throw him back to midstream.

The thought gave Izac incentive. He made a “final effort and succeeded in passing through the worst part of the center.” But the attempt exhausted him 30 yards from shore.

He gave up. He rolled onto his back and “commended my soul to God and closed my eyes. Instantly, my feet touched the rocks.”

As he sought the proper words for a prayer of thanks, he slowly dragged himself out of the water. It took five attempts to reach the top of a slippery railroad embankment.

When he made it — on Sunday, October 13, 1918, at 2:30 a.m. — Izac looked down at his bloody feet, as the wind howled around him.

“I was free at last — so what mattered if a few sharp rocks cut into my wounded feet?”

Willis had also made it across the Rhine. The next morning he and Izac were reunited at an inn. They, and Lieutenant George Puryear, left for France on October 17 — the only Americans to escape from Villingen.

Izac was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1919. He returned to his home in San Diego. After working as a reporter for the Union, he was a member of the House of Representatives from 1936 to 1946. He died in 1990.

QUOTATIONS

  1. Edouard Izac: “We never coughed from the moment we left the camp until we were safely in Switzerland.”
  2. Harold Willis: “The Rhine at this point was very much a wild swift river with a temperature so low that few people could withstand it for more than a few minutes.”
  3. Dwight Messimer: “A total of 4480 Americans were captured by the Germans during the war. Of that number, 44 made at least one escape attempt. Thirteen of them attempted the escape from Villingen, and of that group, only Puryear, Izac, and Willis were not recaptured.”

SOURCES

  • Dennett, Carl P., Prisoners of the Great War: Authoritative Statement of Conditions in the Prison Camps of Germany, Germany, 1919.

  • Issacs, Edouard Victor, Prisoner of the U-90, Boston, 1919.

  • McCarthy, Daniel J., The Prisoner of War in Germany, New York, 1917; “Oral History — World War I Prisoner of War,” Department of the Navy, Navy Historical Center, November 13, 1918.

  • Messimer, Dwight R., Escape, Annapolis, 1994.

  • Moynihan, Michael, ed., Black Bread and Barbed Wire, London, 1978.

  • Puryear, George W., “The Airman’s Escape,” Atlantic Monthly, January–June, 1919.

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Comments
5

Another great story, well told.

Jeff, what happened to the prisoners left behind who provided the diversion?

March 29, 2012

Thanks Fred Thirteen tried to escape. Three made it (the other was Lt. Puryear). The others, Izac says, were "probably recaptured." If so, they got solitary confinement for two or three weeks. If they made it back alive. In their accounts, Izac and Willis don't mention the Russians who created the diversion - except to thank them. Just a guess: they were relocated the following day, so maybe nothing? Or... The movie The Great Escape is based on Izac's story. Three escape, and the Germans round up 50 prisoners and shoot them.

March 30, 2012

my father fought in WWII, Korea and, eventually Vietnam -- and he had stories, but he never shared them with us as kids, and only once did he give one to me as an adult. Terrible events he saw and experienced. Just the bare minimum of detail, but we could fill in all the surroundings, and all the faces for ourselves. I think it's because of story-telling like this -- details without grinding out the horror -- helps the rest of us understand a little of what soldiers endure, what thoughts they must keep to themselves and which they should tell. This is one of those stories that helps not only us civilians try to grasp those events, but also to help other soldiers who are as gifted at telling their stories. This has been a difficult series, not because it's not a good story, but because of the subject matter. Difficult is not necessarily a bad thing -- and in this case, it's a great thing. Thanks for delving into this exciting and terrible story for us.

April 1, 2012

Thank you Prosperina. Izac knew horror. As a congressman he was part of the original delegation sent to the concentration camps after the war.

April 2, 2012

What a wonderful story. Thanks for it Jeff !!!!!

April 16, 2012

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