To Villingen--and Back
: Winning A Cause World War Stories
Very remarkable in the world struggle for liberty was the eagerness of
the Allied soldiers to fight and to make the supreme sacrifice if
necessary. The Americans, especially, brought cheer and courage to the
tired French, Belgian, Italian, and British hearts, so daring and high
spirited were they when going into battle. With a smile, a shout, or a
song, they went over the top to meet the Huns, ready for anything
t to be taken prisoners into Germany.
This was the one possibility dreaded by the soldiers all along the
front. They knew that the Huns were not a pleasant company to meet;
that they sang only when ordered to do so, and sang only what they were
ordered to sing; that they laughed most and shouted loudest when
cruelly torturing innocent, unprotected, and unarmed people. What life
must be in a German prison at the mercy of German soldiers, they dared
It is not strange therefore that our men wished rather to die than to
be prisoners. Nor is it strange that, having been taken, they made the
most desperate attempts to escape.
Naturally the easiest time to break away was while being carried from
the front to the rear of the German lines. Once thrown into prison,
the difficulties were much greater.
Often the captive was handed back from one company of guards to
another, being made to work for the enemy on his way. Private Donahue
was one who was sent back in this manner, after being captured in a
midnight skirmish near Chateau-Thierry.
He was dropped unconscious on the ground outside a German officer's
tent, and when he revived he found that all his belongings,--even
letters and snapshots from home,--had been taken from him. A German
stood over him and began questioning him, hoping to gather important
When asked how many Americans were at the front, the prisoner said,
Thirty-two American divisions and forty French.
Pigs! shouted the German lieutenant, and the cry was caught up by the
guards, who came at a signal and dragged Donahue away.
From early morning until nightfall, he worked with the camouflage men,
masking the batteries and cutting leafy branches for screening the
stores of ammunition heaped by the roadside.
The Germans gave him no blankets at night, and for food poured out for
him a sort of tasteless gruel and tossed him chunks of coarse black
bread to eat with it. Every day a different soldier took him in
charge. Each night he was closely guarded. He knew from the distant
sounds of the guns that he was being taken back into Germany.
On the seventh night, he lay on the ground with Germans sleeping all
about him. His guard sat beside him, leaning against a tree, his rifle
between his knees. Private Donahue wished that he were back in the
American lines, when suddenly in the moonlight he could see the guard's
head nodding and nodding. Now was his time to escape.
He stole away and began creeping through the woods. There were Germans
lying all around and he stumbled over several of them. But they only
grunted savagely, and he crept fearfully on.
Soon he reached the edge of the woods and crawled under a bush to think.
Above No Man's Land an occasional shell was bursting, by whose light he
could dimly see the American lines, eight kilometers away. He crept
along in the shadows, lying still whenever a soldier passed near him.
When morning came, he crawled into a grain field and lay down so that
no one might see him. Several times soldiers passed so close to him
that he could hear them talking. Once he was nearly trampled under the
hoofs of two horses, and twice a Red Cross dog threatened to disclose
his presence in the field. But he lay still as death and the dog went
That night he was creeping up the side of a ravine when he was
discovered by the sentry.
Halt! cried the guard.
Private Donahue had been fearing that he would hear that word. But now
he recognized it as spoken by an American voice.
I am an American! he cried joyfully, springing to his feet.
Soon he was sleeping inside his own lines, under two old potato sacks.
At dawn he ate a good breakfast at the field kitchen, then reported at
He had kept his eyes open during his seven days' journey through the
German lines, and had some important information to give at French
But many times the captives had no opportunity to escape before they
were locked in the prison camp somewhere in Germany. Then it demanded
every bit of Yankee ingenuity to get away.
One of the most elaborate attempts, involving the escape of a great
number of men, is told in the following story.
There were seventy Americans among the prisoners in a German camp at
Villingen in Baden. Not all had arrived at the same time. Some were
newcomers, others unfortunately had been detained there for more than a
The prison consisted of a barracks for the men, surrounded by a large
stretch of land, all inclosed with two rows of high wire fencing,
completely charged with electricity. The second fence, which was six
or eight feet away from the first, was very strong and bent inward
toward the top, so that if a prisoner by any possible means succeeded
in getting over the inner fence, he surely could not climb the outer.
Moreover, guards were kept on watch between the fences, and outside,
sentinels were stationed about thirty yards apart. It seemed
impossible for the prisoners to get away by daylight, and at night the
barracks with their iron-barred windows were closely guarded.
The treatment of the prisoners, especially of those who had made any
attempts to escape, was shameful and often cruel. The food, in
general, consisted of sour black bread, soup made largely from tree
leaves, and some sort of drink made from acorns and called coffee.
Needless to say, the prisoners were half starved. Indeed, two American
girls who were in Berne, Switzerland, working among the released
prisoners, in a letter to America showed in what an awful condition
they found some of the men. Their letter read:--
We have gone to the station three times at four o'clock in the morning
to help feed the English soldiers who were on their way home after
being exchanged for German prisoners. We had the privilege of giving
some of them the first white bread they had had in four years. The men
who had been kept working behind the lines were in a pitiable
condition. One such man happened to be at my table,--for they are
taken off the train for two hours, given hot tea and roast beef and ham
sandwiches,--and the poor fellow began taking sandwiches, eating a few
bites, and stowing the rest feverishly away in his pocket. He couldn't
realize that he was in a place where he would be fed.
All of the seventy Americans at Villingen wished themselves anywhere
outside the prison camp, and most of all back on the firing line,
helping to win.
So much did they wish this that a few more daring than the rest had
twice attempted to escape together. Their attempts had ended in
failure, but that had only led them to spend months in making still
more elaborate plans to gain their freedom.
Not all could leave the camp, they knew. Many did not care to risk it,
while thirty of the seventy Americans were doctors and thought they
ought to stay and do what they could for their weak and sickly fellow
prisoners. But in the final plan, sixteen men were to try this break
One of the men was Lieutenant Harold Willis of Boston, an aviator in
the famous Lafayette Escadrille. He had been captured after a battle
in the air. Not even fourteen months in a German prison could kill the
daring spirit of this young lieutenant. Instead, the cruel treatment
of the prisoners, the daily contact with the stupid German guards, made
him long once more to cut through the clouds and bring down another
boche. Accordingly, he became a leader in carrying out the plans for
Lieutenant Edward V. Isaacs, of Cresco, Iowa, an officer in the United
States Navy, was another leader. He was crossing the Atlantic in the
big American transport, President Lincoln, when it was torpedoed by the
submarine U-90, on May 31, 1918. He went down with the ship, but came
to the surface again and crawled up on a raft where he stayed until one
of the lifeboats came by and the men took him off. But the boat had
gone but a short distance, when the guilty submarine pushed its nose up
through the surface of the water near by. Its commander ordered the
lifeboat to draw near and the helpless oarsmen had to obey. When asked
the whereabouts of the captain of the vessel, the men in the lifeboat
answered that, as far as any of them knew, he had gone down with the
Then the commander, probably noticing his uniform, singled out
Lieutenant Isaacs, demanded that he come on board the submarine, and
informed him that if he did not find the captain, he would take him
instead to Germany.
Two days later, the U-boat carrying this American officer was sighted
by two American destroyers. Immediately the destroyers made for the
submarine and tried to sink it.
The U-boat quickly submerged and floated far below the surface while
the destroyers circled about for several hours dropping many depth
bombs, five of which exploded not three hundred yards from the
submarine. So great was the shock of these explosions that, in telling
of his experiences afterward, Isaacs said it seemed as if the ocean
shook the boat much as a dog shakes a rat.
During this time not a word was spoken except by the watch officers,
who were at their posts like the rest of the crew, and reported to the
commander the directions in which the bombs were falling, thus enabling
him to move the boat about in a safe course. The bombing continued
until nightfall. Then the commander thought he was safe. But the next
day, another American warship appeared, and the U-90 made for its home
port as fast as possible.
Lieutenant Isaacs, more fortunate than many U-boat prisoners, was
treated well by the officers and crew. He messed with the officers and
heard them most of the time discussing why the United States entered
the war. They told Isaacs that the only possible reason was that the
United States had loaned so much money to the Allies that she was
obliged to enter the war to make sure of being repaid.
But Isaacs had no intention of remaining in the U-boat. As it entered
neutral waters about four miles off the Danish coast, it began running
along above the surface.
Isaacs secretly left his room, hurried to the deck, and was just about
to dive over into the water, hoping to swim ashore, when Captain Remy,
the commander, caught hold of him. He had suspected Isaacs and had
followed him from below. Stupid fool, he exclaimed as he drew him
away from the side of the boat and ordered him below.
On landing at Wilhelmshaven, Isaacs was questioned by German
intelligence officers, and then sent to Karlsruhe where he was again
examined with the hope that he would give out information which would
be valuable to the Germans. Here with several other prisoners, he was
held for three days in a listening hotel where dictographs had been
strung about the room. The German officers hoped that, left without
guards in the room, the prisoners would talk over military matters, not
knowing that the dictographs were there to record all that was said and
thus reveal all to the Germans. But the prisoners expected some trick,
discovered the dictographs, and pulled out the wires so that they would
Isaacs remained in Karlsruhe for some time, then was placed on a train
with several officers and started for the prison camp at Villingen in
Baden. At Karlsruhe he had been shamefully treated and he determined
he should never arrive in Baden.
On the train he was put in the charge of two guards and so closely was
he watched that he despaired of having any chance to escape. But
within five miles of his destination, he noticed that one guard became
drowsy, while the other had his attention on the passing landscape.
Then it was, with the train running forty miles an hour, that he jumped
to his feet and dived through the little car window. He landed on his
head and knees on the opposite track. Although badly stunned, he
struggled to his feet and began to run. By this time the train had
been stopped and the guards were pursuing, firing as they came on.
Isaacs went some distance but could hardly run for he had badly injured
his knees. A bullet whistled by his ear and he dropped and let the
guard come up to him.
Mad with rage the German kicked him, and beat him with his gun until he
broke it. The rest of the guards soon came up. Then they made Isaacs
walk the five miles into Baden, beating him now and then on the way.
On reaching the camp he was first taken to the officers' quarters and
threatened with death if he tried again to escape. After being
plastered with paper bandages he was put into solitary confinement for
three weeks. So poor was the prison food that had it not been for the
nourishment furnished by the American Red Cross, Isaacs never would
He had been threatened with death if he tried again to escape, but he
began at once to make plans and would have gained his liberty much
sooner than he did, had not the Russian prisoner attendants each time
betrayed his plans before he could try them. And now he and Lieutenant
Willis with fourteen other men decided to try again for freedom.
The prisoners were sometimes permitted to take walks with the guards
about the country. In this way the men who were to escape were able to
learn about the roads and the best hiding places. They managed to
secure maps and compasses by bribing some of the Russian attendants.
But these would only be of help when once outside the camp, and how to
get out was a serious question. Some believed that the best way was to
get past the guards through the big gate. To climb over the two wire
fences, so heavily charged with electricity, seemed entirely impossible.
But Isaacs discovered a way across that barbed wire.
He had seen two of the prisoners marking out the whitewashed lines on
the tennis court where the German officers played each day. The lines
were made by the use of two narrow wooden boards, eighteen feet long,
fastened together by crosspieces, allowing a small space of about two
inches between. While the boards seemed very light, they were so
fastened together that they were really quite strong. They could be
made even stronger by nailing on more cross-pieces. Then they would
form a sort of bridge over which the men could crawl from the barracks'
windows to the outer fence, where they could drop to the ground and run
from the sentinels.
For months the men gathered their necessary materials together. Many
of the prisoners, who were not to try to escape, were let into the
secret and helped as much as they could. They drew the screws out of
the doors and windows, and brought strips of wood from broken provision
boxes with which to finish making the bridges.
Best of all they secured three pairs of wire cutters, one from a
Russian prisoner, and a second from a Russian attendant. The third
pair was made by one of the prisoners.
This secret collection was a constant source of danger, as the
prisoners were searched nearly every day. It is said that one prisoner
was given solitary confinement because a map was found sewn in the seat
of his trousers. Therefore, much of the work, such as bringing the
boards into the barracks and nailing the bridges together, was left
until the last. A month before they were to escape, they were
suspected and the guard was doubled. Still they worked on and hoped on.
Their plans were nearly completed when it was suddenly announced that
the camp at Villingen would be used in the future as a prison for
Americans only. All other nationalities would be transferred at once
to some other camp. This, the prisoners knew, would mean first a
thorough searching of every corner and crevice in camp. Thus it seemed
necessary to break away at once before this careful inspection should
be made, or they probably could not escape at all that winter.
For two days they worked steadily and carefully. Night was their best
time to escape, but somehow the electric lighting system, as well as
the electric current in the wire fences, must be shut off. To do this,
it was necessary to find strips of wire for making short-circuiting
chains. A few of these strips they cut from the fencing back of the
tennis courts. Most of them, however, were taken from the steep prison
roof where they were used to hold the slate tiles in place. Nearly all
of these wires were drawn out, so that if a whirlwind had suddenly
swept across the country, that roof would have been scattered in every
All this had to be done very quietly. One or two would work at it
while others attracted the attention of the Germans by creating some
excitement in distant corners of the camp.
The night before the camp was to be inspected, the break was made. The
sixteen men were divided into four groups of four each, one in each
group acting as a leader.
The first group, with Lieutenant Isaacs leading, was to get over the
two fences from the windows by crossing on the bridges. The second
group, led by Lieutenant Willis, was to cut its way through the wire
fences. The third had ready some ladders made of strong rope, by which
they hoped to climb over the fences. The last group intended to rush
out with the guards when they ran through the gates to catch those who
were jumping from the bridges.
At 10:30 that night, a signal was given and everything followed like
clockwork. One of the prisoners short-circuited the wires, shutting
off the electric lighting system and the current in the wire fences.
There was no moon, and the camp was left in utter darkness.
At first the guards did not suspect anything, thinking the affair just
But immediately Isaacs began cutting away the bars at the window. When
this was done, the prisoners helped him and his companions to throw
over their bridges. The first man got out upon this flimsy bridge and
when he was half way over, the inner end of the board was pushed out
farther and farther until it touched the outer fence. Reaching the
end, the man sprang to the ground, the inner part of the bridge was
drawn back in by the prisoners at the window, and another man crawled
out. This was continued until the four men had gone. It had been
decided that the lightest man in the company would try getting over the
bridge first, and Lieutenant Isaacs being the lightest led his group
When he dropped to the ground, he landed on his hands and knees not six
feet from two German sentries, both of whom fired but did not even
touch him. Without waiting for the others he ran into the woods to a
spot two miles from camp which he and Lieutenant Willis had chosen for
a meeting place, if they should get away safely.
Unprepared, as always if taken by surprise, the Germans when they
realized the meaning of the disturbance rushed wildly about, one
officer shooting frantically straight up into the air.
Willis had started cutting a way through the wires; but when his group
was fired upon, they decided to change their plans and dash through the
gate with the last group as best they could. Willis knew that in the
darkness he might easily pass for one of the guards, so carefully had
he disguised himself. He wore an old raincoat, decorated with German
insignia and numerals, and a large belt-buckle, all cut out of a tin
can. He carried a dummy wooden gun, bundles of food, maps, and a
compass; and he wore a German cap.
He expected that the gates would be opened at once, but they remained
locked while the patrol went into the guardhouse to report. But as
they marched back again, the gates were thrown open and Willis and the
other men dashed out.
They sped past the camp toward the dense forest. Willis darted off
across the fields to a steep hill up which he ran, the guards firing
continually at him.
As he reached the summit, he turned into the forest and hastened in the
direction he had agreed upon with Isaacs. He soon met him, and
together they started off toward the southwest, guided by the compass
they had brought with them. They did not see any of the other men,
with the exception of one whom Isaacs had heard puffing and grunting
past him as they ran from camp. In the darkness he had not been able
to recognize him.
That night they traveled about twenty-five miles. Hidden in the brush,
they slept by day and traveled on again at night. It was a perilous
trip through the forest, lasting eight days. Often they could only
push their way backwards for long distances, through the terrible
thickets. It rained and they were cold and wet. But on the eighth day
they found themselves on the top of a dizzy precipice just above the
Rhine. There they lay hidden until nightfall, although they were in
constant danger of being discovered by German sentinels and townspeople
who passed near them. When darkness came, they crawled about for two
hours, seeking to find a trail that would lead them down to the river.
If only they could cross the river, they were sure of safety. But
wherever there was a possible way of reaching the river, there was a
German sentry. Once Willis kneeled on a dry twig which snapped. In a
trice a German sentinel flashed a bright pocket searchlight--but in the
The hearts of the two men sank in fear lest having nearly gained their
freedom they should again be captured. Then they decided that they
must creep down by one of the little tributaries flowing into the
Rhine. So they stepped into the little stream and crawled down it,
feeling for loose stones that might rattle and attract the attention of
After several hours they reached the water's edge, about two o'clock in
The water was freezing cold, as the streams flowing into the river come
from the mountains where snow and ice are found nearly the year around.
As they stood knee-deep in the water and looked across to the other
shore, they doubted whether they could swim the long distance. Here
the Rhine is about seven hundred feet wide. Moreover, there are many
whirlpools in the river and the current itself is very swift. The men
besides were tired and weak from lack of food. But they could not
think of turning back, and there was no other way of getting across.
So they removed their shoes and outer garments.
Isaacs stood talking softly with Willis, when suddenly there was no
answer to one of his questions. He moved toward the spot where Willis
had been standing, but his feet went from under him and he was carried
by the current out into the river. Then he knew that the same thing
must have happened to Willis, and that he had not called to him for
fear of being heard by the sentry.
If the water was cold near the shore, it was colder in the river
itself. The men had to fight hard against the current.
When about halfway across, Isaacs was caught in a whirlpool which spun
him round and round until it left him nearly exhausted. Just as he was
thinking that he would have to give up, he made one last mighty effort
and reached the shore.
When he could gather himself up he discovered that he had landed on the
Swiss shore, near Basel. Soon he found a family willing to get up in
the middle of the night to give him food and a warm bed. One of the
men started out to find Willis, but met a messenger who had been sent
by Willis to find Isaacs. The messenger said that Willis had succeeded
in reaching the Swiss shore, although some distance from the spot where
Isaacs landed. The next day the men went on and finally walked into
the French lines.
They received a welcome that would warm the coldest heart, and learned
that another aviator, Lieutenant George Puryear, who was also one of
the men to make the break with them from the prison camp, had arrived
They told of the awful conditions in the German camps, of how the
officers themselves did not seem to favor Prussia, and of many serious
strikes which had occurred in that country, about which the Allies knew
Isaacs had been treated so badly and was so exhausted that he was soon
sent to London to rest, and later to his home in the United States
where he landed on the day before the armistice was signed,--the first
U-boat prisoner to escape.
Willis was anxious to get into actual service again and make up for
lost time, although he was joyfully informed that peace at last seemed
near. He was obliged to wait in Paris until certain formalities were
attended to, before he could fight once more. He then went to the
front to study the latest improvements that had been made in airplanes
during his absence, in order to take his place again in the fighting
which, however, was drawing rapidly to a close.