A Great Escape, Part One

Edouard Izac
  • Edouard Izac

Capture

“I rather expected to be wounded or killed or even drowned,” writes Navy lieutenant Edouard Izac. “It was only natural that…the [USS President] Lincoln would finally be torpedoed….But never once had the thought of being taken prisoner entered my mind. Worse still, [I was] the only United States Navy Officer captured by the Germans during the war.”

Izac wrote for the Union and later became a Democratic congressman from San Diego (1937–1947). He won the U.S. Medal of Honor and the Croce di Guerra of Italy for valor in World War I.

On May 31, 1918, the young lieutenant was on the USS President Lincoln. It was sailing home from France and supposedly beyond the danger zone for German U-boats. A ten-year-old ocean liner converted to a man-of-war, the Lincoln could carry 5000 troops and 8000 tons of cargo to Europe. Said to be the Navy’s most useful transport, the ship had six masts, making it easily identifiable, since only two steamers in the world had that many.

For this return voyage — its fifth round trip — the ship had a crew of 685. Many were “green” sailors, writes Izac, “who eight months before had never seen a man-of-war.” The Lincoln was part of a four-ship convoy. Though past the danger zone, they still ran a zigzag pattern at night with the lights off.

At 8:00 a.m., Izac, an assistant gunnery officer, was coming off his watch. As he went down to the mess for breakfast, the forward half of the Lincoln rocked as if dynamited.

Then a second explosion, seconds later. Alarms rang: general quarters, fire!

Izac raced aft to his battle station on C deck. As he did, a blue-white wake ghosted toward him. The torpedo hit the hull like a volcanic eruption. A lifeboat, suspended over the side by davits, spun into the air and crashed ten feet in front of Izac. He was unharmed, but a geyser of near-freezing water drenched him to the bone.

“Holds five and six flooded,” Izac heard at his station. “Water’s approaching number one deck!”

The ocean bullied into three gaping holes on the ship’s port side. A fire broke out in number two hold. Then coal in number three began to burn. Steam sprayed from ruptured safety valves.

Izac relayed information to Captain Percy Foote. Since damage reports came from all quarters, Foote ordered his crew to abandon ship.

As lifeboats lowered, and rafts flopped downward, the Lincoln listed ten degrees to port. Waves washed the main deck with whitewater. One by one, sailors, wearing lifejackets over rainproof Mackintosh coats, jumped ship. They didn’t have far to fall.

Izac and Chief Boatswain’s Mate C.D. Altman stayed on the quarterdeck until all the others hit the water. Then Izac stepped onto a nearby raft. As he did, the ship lurched hard to the left. The bow rose and the stern began to disappear.

“Pull away from the ship! Away NOW!” — the shout went from boat to boat.

The Lincoln went down at 9:30 a.m., twisting as she sank. Antennas and wires rolled over the side. A mini-whirlpool, spinning where the bow had been, sucked down swimmers desperately stroking to break free. In its wake, boxes, spars, and topmasts punched up through the surface like breaching submarines.

“There was a great danger of these striking us,” said Izac, “but fortunately none found a mark.”

Using various objects as oars, sailors formed clusters of lifeboats and rafts. Izac climbed aboard Lifeboat #10 and took charge. He waved six rafts his way and ordered them lashed together. Although the weather was clear, with a slight breeze and haze on the horizon, Izac noticed he was shivering — not from the chaos of the last hour, but from the cold water. He’d lost his cap and had only “an old blouse under my life-jacket.” The rolling swells made many sailors seasick, Izac among them.

A half hour after the Lincoln went under, a dark mass appeared on the horizon about three miles away. An American destroyer? Cheers went up around the makeshift armada.

As it approached through the haze, the shape evolved into the 12-foot conning tower of a German U-boat. Cheers ceased, writes Dwight R. Messimer, because American sailors “recalled tales about U-boat skippers machine-gunning men in the water. Others wondered if the Germans intended to run them down.”

Sailors told Izac his officer’s uniform made him a target. Others nearby had already shed theirs, including Captain Foote, who sat on his skipper’s jacket and wore the white cap of a coxswain.

Izac refused. As the sub approached “all ahead slow,” Izac folded his arms. Teeth chattering, and numb from the waist down, he said, “It’s the fortunes of war.”

The sub came up from behind. A German sailor threw a thick rope across the debris to the lifeboats. No American would touch it.

Sensing the defiant gesture might also be deadly, Izac whispered, “Do anything they tell you.”

A second line pulled his lifeboat to the sub. The captain, around age 35, appeared on the tower with a megaphone. In crisp English, he said, pointing to Izac, “Come aboard, sir.”

When Izac rose and stepped on the gunwale, sailors tried to restrain him. He pushed their hands away. On the conning-tower ladder, he saluted the German officer.

“I am Captain Remy of His Majesty’s U-boat 90. I have orders to take prisoner the senior surviving officer whenever we sink a Navy ship. Are you the captain of the President Lincoln?”

“No,” Izac replied. “First lieutenant. I believe the captain went down with his ship.”

“You will remain onboard,” said Remy, “and point out to me the captain…if we don’t find him, I will take you instead.”

The U-90 drifted within 30 yards of two lifeboats off its port side. captain Foote was in one, disguised as a sailor pulling an oar.

“Have you seen the captain?” asked Izac from the conning tower.

“No, sir,” replied Ensign Clinton Black, who feared that, if the Germans discovered the lie, he’d receive “the full due in Berlin.”

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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