A Great Escape, Part Four

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

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.

Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Comments

Another great story, well told.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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