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

hardly imagine.

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

military information.

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

for liberty.

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

not work.

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

have recovered.

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

an accident.

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

opposite direction.

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

the sentry.

After several hours they reached the water's edge, about two o'clock in

the morning.

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

before them.

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.