A Great Escape, Part One

After a two-hour search, Izac assured Remy that the captain had gone down. Remy sent him below to put on warm clothing. Two days later, an intercepted message from an American destroyer read: “President Lincoln sunk. Survivors saved. A few missing.”

On June 1, around 5:00 p.m., U-90 lookouts sighted two American destroyers — the Warrington and the Smith — coming their way.

“Dive!” shouted Remy. The hatch closed, and the sub began a gradual descent to 200 feet.

Izac had been drinking kaffee in the wardroom. His “sociable” treatment by enemy officers and crew had surprised him. But now, as the destroyers closed in, he’d become an enemy of his country.

The U-90 had been easy to follow. Damage a week before had caused an oil slick. It was so “well-defined,” the captain of the Smith said later, it could have been a trail of bread crumbs.

Both destroyers readied depth charges. “Each ‘ash can,’” writes Messimer, “contained 300 pounds of TNT and had an effective radius of 70 feet. Any U-boat inside that radius was history. Any U-boat outside might take a hell of a pounding, but would survive.”

Shortly after the U-90 submerged, Izac felt a “dull concussion” rock the boat. “It was the first depth bomb.”

He was “in the wardroom with no companions but Hope and Fear: hope that they would ‘get’ the submarine and fear of that very eventuality.”

Six more depth charges trickled down in a string, from left to right. Five came so close, “the boat was shaken from stem to stern.”

Inside the U-90, no one said a word. The crew felt as fragile as a falling egg. The ground could come up at any second.

When a depth charge exploded about 70 feet away, the sub trembled “like a dog shaking a rat,” Izac recalled, “and it was anything but pleasant to be in the rat.”

By that time, Izac was torn: he didn’t “know which side I was cheering for.”

Captain Remy’s behavior impressed him. “He was one cool person.” Later, Izac asked him if being bombarded by depth charges was the worst part of his job. Remy said no. The worst was “passing through unknown mine fields.”

Fifteen minutes later, after 22 depth charges pulverized the ocean around them, a petty officer wearing headphones shook a raised hand: sounds of propellers receding, he announced. The destroyers — running low on fuel, Izac learned much later — were moving away.

A kind of normalcy settled in. The U-boat, it turned out, not only had a leaking oil tank, the radio could, or could not, transmit — no one was sure — and one of the periscopes had a broken spindle. As it sailed up the Irish coast, Izac “had the run of the ship.”

The captain talked freely about military matters. American ships, he said, moved in predictable zigzag patterns. And the Lincoln was part of his “regular cruising grounds.”

“The words nearly knocked Izac off his chair,” writes Messimer. “What the German was telling him was that Allied naval planners were pulling the escorts off the homeward-bound convoys too soon and picking up the inbound convoys too late.” The danger zone actually extended another 100 miles.

Izac had so much crucial information, he needed to escape. But how? They’d confiscated his pistol. When he took it back for cleaning, “I had only 20 cartridges and my captors numbered 40.”

The U-90 sailed up and around Scotland, down the North Atlantic, and entered the Baltic Sea. In a small bay, Izac could see lights on both sides: to his right, Denmark, to his left, Sweden — each roughly four miles away. Izac saw fishing boats on both sides. If he dove in, surely one would pick him up. If not, the life jacket would help him reach dry land before the Baltic waters froze his arms to stone.

Around 11:00 p.m., Izac and some officers went topside for a smoke. The summer sky at that latitude was “barely dusk.” He’d have to wait. Just after midnight, though it “was not so dark as I would have liked,” he had to make a move. An approaching German destroyer would draw focus from his escape.

Izac “casually wandered over to the edge of the deck and made ready to jump.” Captain Remy, who had shadowed him every step, grabbed Izac’s arm and ordered him to go below.

“Resistance was useless,” said Izac.

The next day he was back on deck. “I feel positive Remy never held it against me, my attempt to escape, and to this day” — he wrote in 1919 — “has not reported it.”

While on the U-boat, Izac gathered more vital information. He knew he must try to escape. But when the ship docked, “my joy-ride was over.” He’d have to break out of the POW camp at Villingen, in the German Black Forest. ■

QUOTATIONS

  1. Edouard Izac: “By means of the boats near us we were able to pull away from the sinking ship and tie together most of the life rafts.”
  2. Dwight R. Messimer: “The reappearance of the U-boat nearly four hours after it had disappeared was a cause of great anxiety among the President Lincoln survivors.”
  3. Rear Admiral Gene La Roque: “Even among Medal of Honor winners, Izac stands out as a particularly heroic figure.”

SOURCES

  • Edouard Victor Michael Izac: Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy,” Arlington National Cemetery website, arlingtoncemetery.net/evmizac.htm.

  • Crawford, Fred (interviewer), “Congressman Edouard Izac, at Buchenwald, Dachau, & Nordhausen,” Special Collections, Woodruff Library, Emory University, May, 1981.

  • Hadley, Michael, Count Not the Dead: The Popular Image of the German Submarine, U.S. Naval Institute, 1995.

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

  • McCarthy, Daniel, The Prisoner of War in Germany, New York, 1917.

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

  • Weiner, Herbert, and Beach, Edward, Iron Coffins, New York, 1998.

  • Zamichow, Nora, “Former Congressman, WWI Medal Winner Dies,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1990.

  • Articles in the San Diego Union and the San Diego Sun.

Read Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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