A Great Escape, Part One

Edouard Izac
  • Edouard Izac


“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.”

Read Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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