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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.

Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Fred Williams March 29, 2012 @ 9:43 p.m.

Another great story, well told.

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


Jeff Smith March 30, 2012 @ 10:09 a.m.

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.


Prosperina April 1, 2012 @ 10:02 p.m.

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.


Jeff Smith April 2, 2012 @ 10:31 a.m.

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


surfib April 16, 2012 @ 10:08 a.m.

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


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