Oral History -- World War I Prisoner of War
November 13, 1918.
|Lieut. Edouard Victor Isaacs, U.S.N.
Secretary of the Navy,
|Subject:||Report on Imprisonment in Germany and escape therefrom.|
1. About sundown on 30th May, when sailing in convoy with the Susquehana, Antigone and Ryndam, and escorted by American and French destroyers, the signal was given for the escort to leave us and procede on duty assigned. We continued in line formation zig-zagging continuously, the Ryndam being on our left and the other two ships on our right.
About 1 a.m. the U.90 cruising at 5 knots speed sighted us distant about 2000 yards. As she found herself in the direct rays of the noon, she dropped back and trailed us until she had obtained our base course. She then made a wide detour and submerging, took up a position intercepting our base course and a few miles in advance.
At 9 o'clock on the morning of the 31st, I had gone off watch from my station in after-control and was just finishing breakfast when the ship was rocked by a double explosion. I immediately ran aft to my battle station, but before I reached it another explosion occured directly under No. 12 lifeboat. The submarine had fired three torpedoes at us at a distance at about 800 yards, the first two striking us forward near the bridge and the third one abaft the engine room. She was 100 yards directly ahead of the Ryndam when she fired at us, so she immediately submerged to a depth of 60 meters to avoid the Ryndam. At ten minutes after nine I received a report from the after repair party that No.5 and 6 holds were filled and the water approaching No. 2 deck. I reported this to the Captain over the 'phone, and at 12 minutes after nine I received orders to abandon ship. At 9.15, having made sure that all hands aft had abandoned ship, I stepped from the quarterdeck upon a life raft floating alongside.
All this time the ship had been settling steadily, but practically on an even keel. By means of the boats near us we were able to pull away from the sinking ship and to tie together most of our life rafts. At 9.30 the ship went down and from then on, top-masts and other debris were propelled out of the water amongst us in all directions. I was on the life raft until 9.45, when one of our boats picked me up.
About five minutes later the submarine returned to the surface and made its way through the nests of life rafts and boats. I lay down in the stern sheets and covered the stripes on my sleeves with my body but the ruse was probably discovered for the submarine approached to within 50 yards.
The Captain of the submarine put his megaphone to his mouth and sang out "Come aboard." We pulled alongside and I stepped aboard: as I did so a German sailor came behind me and took my gun. I made my way to the conning tower, where the captain asked me if I were the Commanding Officer of the President Lincoln. I told him, "No" but that I thought the Captain had gone down with the ship. He informed me that he was Captain Remy of the U.90, and that he had orders to take the Senior naval officer prisoner whenever he sunk a Navy ship; that I should remain aboard and point out the Captain to him, or it would be necessary to take me instead. Accordingly we cruised slowly amoung all the rafts and boats, and I sung out to different officers asking if they had seen the Captain. After two or three negative answers I turned to Captain Remy and told him that I was sure the Captain had gone down with the ship; whereupon he sent me below, where I was given warm clothing and was allowed to lie down in one of the bunks. I had previously been given a glass of sherry when I stepped aboard the submarine.
Captain Remy then turned away from the boats and rafts and cruised in a north-easterly direction at 5 knots speed on the surface for the rest of the day. When he sighted us the night before he was about 300 miles west of Brest on what he called his cruising ground, so the following day he was back in position again. This was June first.
Early in the morning we intercepted a radio from one of our destroyers stating that the survivors of the President Lincoln had been picked up and that a few were missing. That afternoon we sighted two American destroyers -- apparently the ones which had picked up the survivors. Captain Remy told me afterwards he thought that by putting on speed and running away he might avoid being seen. Accordingly he signalled "Full speed ahead" but was instantly seen by the destroyers, who gave chase. He quickly submerged and about three minutes afterwards we heard depth bombs exploding all about us. Twenty-two bombs were counted in four minutes; five of them were very close or seemed so to me for they shook the vessel from stem to stern. The submarine was making about 8 knots speed, zig-zagging, and apparently doubling back on its course. The petty officer at the microphones sung out continuously to the Captain who was in the conning tower whether the destroyers were getting closer or farther away, keeping him informed at all times as to their actions. Soon the man at the phones could no longer hear the propellers but we remained submerged at a depth of 60 metres for perhaps an hour longer. Then coming to the surface we continued our cruising up and down at 5 knots speed.
The following morning, June 2nd, another American destroyer was sighted, but so far away that the submarine was not seen. Captain Remy then told me he felt that things were getting too warm for him in that vicinity, and he intended to return to his base. I tried to find out which way he came and went, if he got through the Straits of Dover, if Ostende and Zeebrugge had been seriously damaged by the British, and other similar points of information. I found out the following:
1. That on his previous trip he had used the Channel and the Straits of Dover in going and returning.
2. That it was only recently the British had taken effective measures to close the Straits, which was simplified by the use of magnesium lights and the short hours of darkness which obtained in these latitudes during the summer months.
3. Furthermore he felt that it was possible for him to get back on this trip through the Straits; but it was very difficult and he did not dare to take the chance.
We accordingly left the West coast of France and headed in a north-westerly direction. We continued along the West coast of Ireland all that day and the next, and on June 4, early in the morning, they called me to go hunting. They had approached a
small island west of the Orkneys, called North Rona, where Remy was in the habit of stopping on each trip, weather permitting, and shooting a few of the wild sheep which were the sole inhabitants of the island. It seems that years before a hermit had come to live on the island and had begun the raising of sheep. After his death the sheep had continued to thrive, and on this day I was able to count at least 150 of them from my position on the deck of the submarine -- for after I had risen the Captain decided I was not to go hunting after all. He sent instead one of his officers and two men in the small bateau which he carried between the inner and outer hull of the submarine. They approached to within 100 yards of the beach, found a landing place, and a few minutes later were seen making their way up the side of the cliff. I watched from the deck of the submarine through my binoculars. They shot 9 sheep, one of which fell over the top of the cliff and into the water. Remy, telling me that he knew he was a fool to do such a thing backed the submarine to within three feet of the cliff where one of the sailors dropped a grapnel and caught the sheep which had fallen over the cliff. Apparently there was plenty of water there. A few hours later the sheep were aboard, and we were under way heading in a north easterly direction around the Shetland Islands.
The following day we rounded the most northerly point of the Shetlands, his sight giving him 61.10 N. I was surprised that he did not attempt to go through between the Shetlands and the Orkneys, but I found out a few days later from a French naval officer captured a few days before by the U.35, that had Captain Remy done so he would have had to cut through the patrol which is maintained there, and which the U.35 had actually penetrated and passed through submerged with only his periscope showing.
From this point on, Captain Remy requested that I question him as little as possible because of the confidential character of the information I would be likely to desire. However, on the 6th of June we were passing along the coast of Norway as near as I could find out, all the time trying to get into communication with Kiel.
On June 7th, we got in touch with another U-boat which was running short of fuel. I could not find out its number. The captain came aboard the night of June 7, talked awhile with Captain Remy, and then returned to his boat lying a few hundred yards away. It was rather rough so he did not take on fuel, but said he would try to make it into Kiel with what he had.
The following morning, June 8, we passed to the north of Jutland into Skaggerrack, hugging the Danish coast. That morning we fell in with another U-boat and for three hours both submarines manoeuvered at high speed up and down past a lighthouse
and a fixed buoy. I took a bearing of the two objects and found the fixed buoy bore 139 degrees and the lighthouse 169 degrees as close as I could observe.
About noon time we continued on apparently into the Kattegat. I had asked Remy if he ever rested on the bottom, so that afternoon he submerged and rested on the bottom for about three hours. He told me that the submarine which was short of fuel had finally run out and had asked Kiel for instructions. Kiel replied by sending 4 submarines which were apparently in that vicinity to give him oil. Remy intercepted these radio calls and went himself to the assistance of the submarine. After resting on the bottom in the afternoon he came to the surface after dark and gave them the fuel they needed.
On June 9th when I awoke we were under way and continued so until about 9 A.M. We then submerged until about noon time, making probably 5 knots speed. About noon we came to the surface for a few minutes only when we again submerged and remained so, making about 5 knots speed until 11 P.M. About 7 o'clock we approached the surface when Remy promised us a smoke on deck; but through his periscope he must have seen something not to his liking for he immediately submerged again, and we remained thus until after dusk. It was then about 11 P.M. I went up on deck to smoke and found myself in a little bay with the lights of Sweden on one side those of Denmark on the other. I think this is in the vicinity of Helsinger. We were probably four or five miles from land and remained in the centre of this bay cruising at six knots speed on the surface. The sun had long since set but it was still twilight. There 1s practically no night there at this time of the year -- at least no real darkness.
I had been on deck about 5 minutes when about a quarter of a mile away I saw another submarine come to the surface. Fifteen minutes later still another submarine emerged making three of us in all. The three submarines continued under way at low speed, moving backwards and forwards apparently using up time. Finding that I was finally at their rendezvous and that I was not far from a neutral country, I determined to try to make a getaway.
I had my life jacket which had never been taken from me, and I waited around on deck hoping it would get dark enough so that when I was in the water I would not be seen and picked up again. However, it was 12.30 and would apparently become no darker so I decided now was the time to jump. While I was moving over towards the side of the platform abaft the conning tower, a German destroyer was sighted bearing down on us from the east at high speed. She was also making the rendezvous in order to escort us through the sound. Just as I was going over the side, Captain Remy, who was never more than two yards from me, caught me before I could jump. He ordered me below. Just before I passed through the hatch in the conning tower I took one last look around and saw that the destroyer was placing herself at the head of the column, the 3 submarines were following and we were heading westward through what appeared to be a small channel into which I had seen several small fishing boats sailing half an hour earlier. All the ships in these waters -- and there were several that passed us at a distance of a few miles -- were burning their running lights. I was up early on the morning of the 10th, and was allowed to go up on deck. I found that we had passed into the Baltic and were heading in a south westerly direction. There was no sign of the destroyer nor of the other submarines, though later in the morning I saw one proceeding towards Kiel distant from us about 2 miles. We ran past the island of Fehmarn and on to Kiel at about 12 knots speed.
Before reaching Fehmarn we passed the battle cruiser Hindenburg and two other battle cruisers apparently of the same type, holding individual maneuvers; also 4 other armored cruisers. All the morning the crew were busy taking out the breech blocks, cleaning the guns, taking the shell cases out of their tanks from the racks in which they are stowed on deck, shining brass work and preparing the ship in all respects for port. I noticed that several of the tanks were not watertight, for upon taking the
shells from the tanks, a large quantity of water was usually found inside. I sat out on deck with my binoculars and observed all the movements of the ships in the neighborhood. We passed three or four steamers apparently on their way to Danish or Baltic ports. They must have come from Kiel.
We entered Kiel Harbour, which was protected by a net, at 3 P.M. on June 10th. We tied up at the landing near the entrance to the canal and I was allowed to go ashore for a few minutes walk with one of the officers. I noticed that there were probably a dozen destroyers of rather small type outside the net and in the harbour. Also tied up alongside docks were about 9 armoured and light cruisers. There were probably 8 submarines in port or manoeuvering outside the net, all of the same type as the U.90; but there were also two large submarines probably 350 feet long each mounting a 6" gun forward and painted a dark green, lying in the harbour. Remy told me that they were the new minelayers -- a fact which I had previously heard mentioned by one of the petty officers to some of the men, for I had learned several German words during my time on board the U.90. Later in the afternoon another submarine tied up alongside us, but I could not find out its number. The Captain appeared to be a friend of Remy's, and later on Remy told me that this friend of his had sunk the Celtic and one other large transport the name of which he had forgotten. At 7 o'clock we shoved off and in company with this other submarine proceeded down the Canal. I turned in about midnight, and we were at that time about one hour from Brunsbuttel. We had made approximately nine miles an hour down the canal.
During the time I was on deck I noticed that at every 2 or 3 kilometers along the length of the Canal there was a guardhouse with several sentries and patrols walking along the bank every few hundred yards. The Canal is well lighted and has bollards about every 200 yards on both sides. There is no debris or rubbish of any kind in the canal, and no impediment to navigation except a few bridges with a high arch, and every few kilometers a little ferry. In most places the banks are cemented for at least part of the way up the side of the steep slopes. Where there is no cement there is a gravelly shingle.
When I came on deck the morning of June 11th we were in the German Bay (Heligoland Bight). I noticed a Zeppelin hanging probably 2000 metres above us apparently patrolling. We entered the mouth of the Jade River and could see Wilhelmshaven, where we arrived at 11 o'clock in the morning. About 9 o'clock we had passed a division of battleships, of whom two were the Grosser Kurfuest and Konig II; the other one was probably a sister ship. They were sailing north at high speed escorted by four large destroyers. Everywhere along the river and in the German Bay there were destroyers, repair ships and tugs. The channel is well buoyed so we had no pilot.
Both at Wilhelmshaven and at Kiel we passed through locks in a very good state of preservation and with everything in ship-shape order. After passing through the locks at Wilhelmshaven the Captain asked me to go below, where I stayed until we had tied up alongside the mother ship Preussen. He apparently did not want me to see the shipping in the harbour: however, when I went to the flagship two days later I passed by several of the docks at which were tied ships of all kinds. As soon as we were tied up to the mother ship I was sent aboard and put in a room with a barred port, the door locked and an armed sentry placed outside, although we were lying in some backwater from which it would have been impossible for me to escape to the mainland; even had I done so I would have had to pass through the "most intensely guarded city of Germany," as they call it. One of the German Officers told me it was practically impossible even for him in uniform to get out of Wilhelmshaven without passing through an enormous amount of red tape.
The U.90 is a submarine built in 19l6, approximately 200 feet long, carrying two 10.5 c.m. guns -- one forward and one aft of the conning tower. Captain Remy boasted that he could make 16 knots speed on the surface, and that he had demonstrated the superiority in speed that German submarines have over the American submarines when, sometime previously, he had had an encounter with the A.L.4; that they had manoeuvered in trying to get a shot at each other; that both submerged two or three times; and that finally he was able to fire a torpedo at the American submarine after getting into position owing to his superior surface speed; that just as he was firing the A.L.4 dove and his torpedo passed a few feet over her. While I was aboard we never submerged to a depth greater than 70 metres, although Captain Remy told me he could go to 100 metres. That last day while passing through the Kattegat when we were submerged for over 10 hours, we travelled most of the time at a depth of 70 metres. He seldom made more than 8 knots speed submerged -- I doubt if he could make much more. He carried a crew ot 42 men and 4 officers. Another officer, Captain Lieutenant Kahn, was aboard for purposes of instruction, having had his request granted to command a submarine of his own. While I was at Wilhelmshaven Kaptain-Leutnant Kahn came to see me in prison and told me he had just received orders to proceed to Kiel and take command of one of the new submarines.
Of the crew of 42 men, two were warrant officers -- one the navigator, the other the machinist. The Captain's three assistants were Lieutenants corresponding to our grade of Ensign. One was a Naval Academy man who entered the navy in 1913 -- he was a deck officer; another was a reserve ensign from the merchant fleet by the name of Wiedermann, who spoke English very well having been in America and England in peace times on various steamers; the other officer was
a regular who had gone to their school for engineers and who was responsible for the efficiency of the machinery -- he did not stand deck watch. The watch on deck was stood by the navigator (warrant officer) and the two ensigns (Leutnants). The Captain, Kaptan-Leutnant Remy, took the conn when ships were sighted and in passing through narrow waters. He had entered the navy in 1905 and had travelled considerably, having been to America in 1911 on a cruiser which put in at Charleston, South Carolina, and into New York, in both of which places he had been hospitably entertained. He liked America but could not understand why America had entered the war. He believed as all Germans are taught to believe by the governmental propaganda, that our entry into the war must have as its motive the rendering safe of the millions we loaned to France and England earlier in the war.
When I was captured the Germans were nearing Paris. On the submarine we received radio reports every day and it did look bad for the Allies. Remy and his officers were absolutely confident that the war would be over in a few months, and would end in a big German Victory, for as they said:
"France will soon be overrun by our
"armies and there will be no place for
"the American troops to land. Besides
"you are coming over so slowly that the
"war will be ended long before you have
"a sufficient number of troops in
"Europe to affect the result."
The U.90 carried 8 torpedoes. At the beginning of this last cruise she had sunk two other ships, both of them of about 2500 tons and apparently had used one torpedo on each ship. I believe she had three torpedoes left when we arrived at Wilhelmshaven. They seldom fire their torpedoes at a range greater than 1000 metres, and if possible they approach to within 500 metres of their prey.
Remy would not admit it, but had their torpedoes been as good as ours he would probably have torpedoed us, or at least one of the ships of the convoy, when he fell upon us in the darkness of early morning on May 31st, for he told me that he could not have been at a greater distance from us than 2000 metres.
The submarine rolled a little in the Atlantic though we had no very rough weather. In the North Sea the choppy seas seemed hardly to affect it; and under the surface there was no sensation of being in motion. The air inside the submarine when we were submerged on the last day for 10 hours was becoming disagreeable. However, several tanks of Oxygen were carried which Remy told me he would use in case of necessity. The watertight doors between the different compartments were kept closed at all times after entering the North Sea. The officers and crew smoked in the conning tower or on deck, but nowhere else. The wardroom was about 6 feet wide and 7 feet long. Here we ate at a small table, and in the lockers along the bulk head the wardroom food was kept. Here also they installed hammock hooks and swung a hammock for me to sleep in alongside two bunks used by Kahn and one of the other officers.
Just forward of this room was a smaller compartment known as the captain's cabin, in which he had his desk and bunk -- with scarcely room for either. Forward of this cabin was a sleeping compartment for the men, and forward or this was the forward torpedo
room. I was never allowed in the torpedo rooms. Abaft the wardroom on the starboard side was a small cabin about 4 feet wide and 6 feet long occupied by the other two officers. Across the passage on the port side was the radio room. Abaft these two small compartments was the control room. Here there were always two men on watch. Abaft the control room was the other living compartment for the men. Here the food was cooked and the men ate their meals. Abaft this was the engine room and then the after torpedo room. The men slept in hammocks and on the deck. They were very dirty for there was no water to wash with. In the wardroom we had enough to wash our hands and faces every day, but that was all. A little wine was carried for the officers, who also had eggs two or three times while I was on board. They had sausage at every meal, canned bread and lard, which they called marmalade and used on their bread. Remy told me however that the people on the submarines were the only ones who had an unlimited amount of meat and the like. We had practically four meals every day; at 8 A.M. breakfast, at 12 o'clock noon dinner, at 4 P.M. what they called "Kaffee," and at 8 P.M. supper; but practically every meal was the same, at least until we had the fresh mutton shot on North Rona Island. "Kaffee" at 4 P.M. apparently corresponded to our tea, but the sausage (or, as they call it, "Wurst") was placed on the table every meal. After supper every night we played cards, sometimes Bridge and sometimes a new game with the secrets of which I was soon acquainted. Captain Remy tried in every way possible to make things pleasant for me, and when I asked an impossible question he invariably told me he did not think he ought to answer, so I have great confidence that what he did tell me was the truth.
The U.90 and most of the other German submarines were out usually not more than five or six weeks, and then in port about three weeks. The service was not severe for Remy got leave as often as he cared to have it, and indeed it was deemed the height of good fortune by regular officers to be assigned to a submarine. The crew seemed happy and well fed. After making I think three round trips, they were entitled to the Iron Cross and to leave, which leave covered the duration of the stay of the submarine in port. They receive extra money and they get the best food in Germany; besides which, for every day that they submerge, both officers and men receive extra money. For all of these reasons
it is a popular service. On this trip of the U.90 she arrived back at Wilhelmshaven the thirty-third day after leaving Kiel.
On the trip we received the news of German submarines being in American waters from the Radio Press. Remy was chagrined that he had not been allowed to go to America with the U.90; he told me he had previously requested 1t.
I was in my prison room on the Preussen two or three days. Twice I saw the Commanding Officer who brought me a tooth brush and a comb. Remy came to see me twice before he went on leave and gave me cigarettes. He also changed into German money a $5 bill which I had found on my clothes. I had him get me some tooth paste and a few other toilet articles.
After the two visits from the Commanding Officer of the Preussen I saw no more of him, and he apparently left my rationing and entertainment to my guards. Sometimes they brought me food and sometimes they didn't. Practically all the time I had only sour black bread which was almost impossible to eat, and some warm water coloured with Ersatz Kaffee which we afterwards found out was made of roasted acorns and barley.
Two other submarines came alongside the Preussen in the next two days -- the U.91 and the U.101. I found that the Preussen was the mother ship of about 6 or 8 submarines. One day I was taken in a launch to the Chief of Staff on the Kaiser Wilhelm II and questioned. He, like Remy, could not understand why America had entered the war. He belittled the result of our entry into the war, and while he was very courteous he showed by his manner that, were it in the power of the Navy, America would one day regret that she had cast in her lot on the side of England. "Why," he said, "We expected you to enter on the side of Germany." Finally he asked me if we knew what we were fighting for, and why we had entered the war. I told him in a few short and concise sentences, and in a way that made his ears burn, why America had entered the war. I asked him if he thought America would ever forget the Lusitania, or would ever consider becoming an ally of a nation which had adopted the famous "Hymn of Hate." After a conversation which lasted about an hour I was sent back to the Preussen. On the way we passed many ships. I saw tied up at the docks probably 6 or 8 ships of the type of our three stackers; also about 20 or 30 destroyers apparently
partially manned but with no steam up.
The following day I was taken to the prison on shore, to what they call the Commandatur. I was escorted through the streets by a warrant officer wearing side arms and a guard of about 4 men. We landed from a launch and walked rapidly through the streets for about 45 minutes. At the Commandatur I was placed in a room which opened off a corridor. There was a guard in the corridor outside of my door, the door was kept locked at all times, and there was another guard outside my window. The guards were armed with rifles which I noticed they kept loaded. Here they searched me and took my identification tag. They also took my gun and left me my binoculars. Up to this time I had had my gun. On board the submarine I cleaned, oiled and loaded it, keeping it on Remy's desk. I could have reached it at any time, but I had only 20 cartridges. The crew consisted of 42 men so resistance was useless.
I was in the prison at Wilhelmshaven two days. A naval officer visited me twice and questioned me. My food was the same as it had been on the Preussen. At 5 o'clock the morning of the third day a young naval officer and two men came for me and took me to the station where we boarded a train for Karlsruhe. It was then I realized how fortunate I was to have the $5 bill, for I had nothing to eat on the trip except a sandwich which the officer gave me from his lunch. However at the station in Hanover he allowed me to buy a meal when he found that I had some money. We came by way of Hanover, Frankfort, Mannheim, to Karlsruhe. Near Wilhelmshaven there were large herds of Holstein cattle apparently for the fleet. Those were about the only cattle in any numbers that I saw in all Germany.
When we arrived at Karlsruhe I was taken to what prisoners call the "Listening Hotel," and there turned over to the Army Authorities. The procedure in this hotel is as follows; An officer is placed in a room alone; the doors and windows are locked; he cannot see outside, and he is in communication with no one. After a day of this he is placed with an officer who speaks the same language. In this room there are dictaphones hidden under tables, in chandeliers and in similar places. In this way the Germans try to get information of military value.
My second day at this hotel I was placed with 8 Frenchman in another room, and on the third day in a room with three British officers. While we were there three dictaphones were found by the officers, and little time was lost in tearing them out and destroying them. The first day I had been questioned by one of the Intelligent Department. He had typewritten sheets of questions which he put to me and filled in the answers I gave him. I tried to make him believe that I was giving him very much valuable information, but our Navy would have to be increased to a permanent strength of at least a million men in order to mann the ships I claimed; and as for the troops we had brought over the battle line would have had to be extended to hold them all.
On the fourth day I was sent to the Officer's Camp in the Zoological Gardens at Karlsruhe. Here I found about 20 Italians, 10 Serbs, 100 French and 50 British Officers. Among this number were one French Naval Officer by the name of Domiani and a British Warrant Officer. From them I got some valuable information which checked up the information I had picked up on the U.90. Domiani was captured by a submarine which sunk his tank steamer west of Brest and arrived at Wilhelmshaven about three days before I did. They proceeded after the sinking of his ship to the mouth of the Channel where they fell in with another submarine, who, being senior, ordered him to patrol the waters to the North, probably Bristol Channel and St. George's Channel. After two or three days of this they proceeded to the West of Ireland and fell in with another submarine to the north of Ireland; So Domiani thinks that the Germans probably have one submarine always patrolling the west end of the channel; another just to the north guarding the southern approaches to the Irish Channel, and a third one to the north of Ireland guarding the northern approach to the Irish Channel. His submarine came through between the Orkneys and the Shetlands, across the North Sea into the Skaggerack, the Kattegat and the Sound. He also rendezvoused with three other submarines at some place in the vicinity of Copenhagen he thinks and then were escorted by a destroyer through Danish waters into the Baltic. He also came through the Kiel Canal, but on the way to Wilhelmshaven stopped at Heligoland and put off 5 torpedoes. Domiani was told that the number of the submarine was U.235, but he found out it was U.35 and that the Germans were in the habit of putting a "2" in front of their numbers, probably to pretend they had a greater number of submarines than was actually the case.
He also said that in the Cattegat the Captain of the submarine told him he would have to waste a day for he had orders to look for a British minelaying submarine which they had heard was laying mines in the Cattegat.
The British Warrant Officer had been in command of a trawler armed with a small gun, on duty mine sweeping north of Ireland. In accordance with orders he always escorted convoys out, but as he could only make 7 or 8 knots the convoys usually left him behind. On his last trip he lost the convoy during the night; they had drawn far ahead of him so he put back to port. About daylight the U.101 intercepted him and commenced firing at him with his forward gun at a range of about three miles. He answered with a small gun until he and two others of his crew were wounded and the rest killed. He then surrendered. The U.101 came through practically the same waters as the U.90 as far as I could find out, although this British Warrant Officer was not so well informed as Diomiani. He recognized, however, that the little bay I described to him as the rendezvous of the submarine on which I was, was the same place where his submarine was joined by another, and the two then escorted through Danish waters by a destroyer.
All of this information checked with mine and strengthened me in my determination to escape at all costs. I was the only American at Karlsruhe, but the British and French treated me as one of themselves, and when they heard I intended to escape they provided me with maps, a compass, money and food. For two weeks I worked on plans for my escape. Two plans failed; the third (in which I was associated with some British and French Officers) failed when a letter written by one of the French officers to a woman in Karlsruhe fell into the hands of the Commandant of the camp. The aviator had been in Karlsruhe before the war and had many friends there. Through one of the guards he had communicated with one of these, a woman, and she had assisted in our plans. When the Commandant found the letter he suspected a big camp delivery, so Berlin was notified immediately.
The following day orders came from Berlin to clear the camp of all officers. In the forenoon all the British left except the aviators; these were followed in the afternoon by all the aviators and the French Officers. There then remained only a few Italians (who I believe have never been shifted, for they were undoubtedly Germanophile, and were so considered by all the other nationalities) some Serbian Officers, two British Generals and myself.
I found the Generals real live wires, and with one of them I made plans for a fresh attempt. We could not try that night, and anyway it looked as if we were to be left there indefinitely and so could wait for a better opportunity. The following morning at 6 o'clock one of the interpreters woke me and told me to be ready to
leave the camp in half an hour. I dressed and hid my compass and maps as best I could in the short time, and passed through my search without any thing being found.
Upon entering and leaving a camp each officer is searched thoroughly. If any suspicion is aroused the officer is required to take off all his clothes, and each garment is separately inspected, kneaded to see if the rustle of paper can be heard, and finally the hems are ripped open, gold stripes and insignia cut off to see if a map or some other contraband is secreted within. Even the soles and heels of the shoes are cut off in their search -- as happened in my case.
I had no regret in leaving that camp for I felt that I could not be much worse off, and I might possibly find conditions better at the next camp. Besides we considered a journey the best time for attempting to escape. At Karlsruhe we had no breakfast. At noon we had soup made out of leaves, and a plate of black potatoes or horse carrots, or something similar. At night the same kind of soup again, and that was all, except the 240 grammes of black bread which we received every day.
At Karlsruhe I spent about three weeks and in all that time the soup was never changed. It was absolutely tasteless. It was hardly possible to exist on that ration, but the British and French Red Cross committees had enough food to considerably ameliorate conditions. The French committee had orders from France to take care of Americans, and while they had very few supplies I was given what they did have in like manner to their own countrymen.
The morning I left Karlsruhe, I noticed that all the Serbians and about 20 Frenchmen who had come in the night before, were also leaving camp. They were guarded by four sentries. I had two. I was marched through the town to the station and on to the train. The guards then told me we were bound for Villingen and would get there about 3 p.m. I saw a time table and planned to jump from the train at the first opportunity, but preferably as far south as possible in order not to have so far to walk to reach the Swiss frontier. But never once had I the least opportunity of breaking from the guards. They sat on either side of me with their guns (which were loaded) pointed at me all times. Finally we were only a few miles from Villingen, the train had already reached
and passed the crest of the mountains and was on the down grade making good speed. I knew it had to be now or not at all. So watching my chance I caught one guard half dozing and the other with his head turned in the other direction, and jumping past them I dove for the window. It was very small probably 18 x 24 inches. On the outside of the car there was nothing to land on so I simply fell to the ground. Just as I disappeared, the guards who had been wondering what it all was about, jumped to their feet with a shout and pulled the bell cord. The train was making about 40 miles an hour and came to a stop about 300 yards farther on.
In the meantime I had landed on the second railway track. The ties were of steel and in falling I struck my head on one and was stunned for a few seconds. But the injury that did the damage was to my knees which struck another tie and were cut so badly that I could not bend them. I struggled to my feet and tried to shuffle off towards the hills and forest a few hundred yards away. But by this time the guards were out of the train and firing at me. I kept on going as long as I could, and then turned around and found that the guards were only 75 yards away, so I held up my hands as a sign that I surrendered. One of the guards had just fired. The shot passed between my hat and shoulder, and had they continued firing they must surely have hit me. When I turned they were on me in a few seconds. The first guard turned his gun and grasped it by the muzzle, and struck me over the head as I half lay and half sat on the side of the hill. I remember rolling downhill gaining additional impetus from their boots. They kicked me until I got up, and when I was up they knocked me down again with their guns. I noticed many people working in the fields who came over to look on. Finally in knocking me down the seventh or eighth time one of the guards struck me across the back of the head and his gun broke in two at the small of the stock. Villingen was about five miles away. They marched me down the road at as near double time as I could make shuffling along. They were beating and kicking me continuously. We finally arrived at the prison camp and I collapsed on the Guardhouse porch. I was greeted by the Commandant, a porkish looking individual, and typically Prussian, who bellowed at me in German that if I attempted to escape again I would be shot. An interpreter told me what he said. They sent for the German doctor and he bandaged me from head to foot with the paper bandages they use.
Then I was put on a bed in one of the guard house cells.
For three days I could not move and the vermin that infected the place made it almost unbearable. Later when I had recuperated enough to move my arms and upper body, I was able to keep most of the vermin away while I was awake. My body was covered with large red eruptions, for the German fleas are as poisonous as German propaganda.
About my sixth day in the cell, I was given a court-martial or at least I would call it such. There were three officers; and after questioning me they decided that I should be given two weeks solitary confinement in my cell. They never stopped the food and books that the American officers sent into me, so I was not so badly off as I might have been. When I came out of the cell however I weighed only 120 pounds -- I had lost 30.
Thereupon I began to consider fresh plans for escape. Thanks to Red Cross food I built up and got myself in good physical trim. Three plans failed due to treachery. There must have been some spies among the Russian Officers who gave our plans to the Germans. We were very much handicapped there because all the orderlies were Russian and the Russian officers themselves included every variety from the Regulars captured in 1914 to some Bolsheviki. We could trust no one. Our own officers included more than 25 combatants, about 20 doctors and 5 merchant officers taken by the raider Solf. Among the combatant or line officers there were a few live wires, but most were content to sit back, eat the food that the Red Cross sent, and after 18 months (as they hoped) be interned in Switzerland for the duration of the war. This lethargy was very disappointing to me for I found it entirely lacking among British and French Officers with whom I came in contact. I did not wish the Navy any hard luck, but I could not help wishing for a few Navy Officers whom I knew could be depended upon to set a good example to the Army. I was senior officer at the camp for some time, and I assured the officers in no uncertain terms what their duty was. Some had been in the trenches as long as three days. Of course they were not regular army officers and knew nothing about their duty, their privileges, their right, and so forth as prisoners of War. I tried however to make it clear to them that they were a potential asset to their country as long as they were prisoners and tried to escape, but once interned they became instead a burden. The British airmen told me they had regular lecture courses covering their conduct if taken prisoner, as to what their duty was, and in what their rights and privileges consisted. Americans could profit by some of the same instruction.
At Villingen the food was practically the same as at Karlsruhe, probably a little better. At least we did not notice that it was so bad because we seldom ate it, having instead our
regular parcels from the Red Cross.
The people of Baden being principally of the agricultural class have more food than most of the other people of Germany. At the same time, as I learned from different guards I had bribed, practically the only food their families had was the produce out of their own gardens which they were able to hide from the officers who came around once a week to collect their harvest. They have no lard nor butter nor grease of any kind. The bread is rationed (as is practically everything else) and that forms their chief article of diet. They make a soup of some kind of herbs and grow immense quantities of cabbage and similar vegetables. The few guards who were friendly to us assured me that they were heartily sick of the war, as were all the people of Baden. Every month they expected to see the end of the war. They had finally passed the stage where they expected to win, and some appeared eager to see Prussia properly chastised. The people as a whole, however, are the most submissive race that I have ever seen. They go on the assumption that if the Kaiser says a thing is true, it must be true. They would never dream of questioning any orders emanating from the Government. They appeared to me like an oppressed race, ground down under the heel of their rulers for so long that finally they got a certain amount of pleasure out of this condition, and looked for nothing better. The faces of the women all looked drawn and careworn. I seldom saw a woman smile, and even the children seemed to have forgotten how to play. The country is overrun with children, the size of the families being immense, but they do not play as other children do, and even the sixteen year old lads in training never scuffled and romped as American boys do. They had at an early age already acquired what we call the Hindenburg scowl.
Across the road from the Prison camp was the caserne of the Training battalion. The Villingen newspaper called it the Ersatz battalion. Early in September most of the boys forming the battalion (which we understood were the 1920 class) left for the front to the number of 500. They were accompanied to the station by the townsfolk with flags waving and bands playing. The Caserne was immediately filled with a younger class of boys apparently 16 years old, and their military training was begun. Our guards at the camps were made up of these boys (who however were never placed on important posts) and older men back from the front for recuperation. There were about 150 Russian officers in our camp and 75 Americans. The Russians were not guarded because they were called "friends" by the Germans. Therefore the guards were kept for the Americans only. We had between 65 and 70 guards in
the camp, and their regular tour of duty was two hours on and four hours off.
The Germans had finally decided to make Villingen an exclusively American camp. On October 7th all the Russian officers were to be shifted to the north of Germany. We knew that meant a thorough search for the following day. Once before we had undergone a search but fortunately the Germans were deceived by the exemplary conduct of the men in my barracks, and passed us by. I had a complete set of tools, over 100 large screws taken from all the doors in the camp, and four long chains made out of wire, which, a few days previously, had enclosed the tennis court. All these things were necessary in almost any plan of escape that we might devise, and I could not afford to lose them. In the other barracks they found several compasses, maps and other contraband. On one aviator they found a map sewed inside the double seat of his trousers. This cost him six days solitary confinement. But we had suffered one disaster in this search; that was the loss of our material for ladder building which we had prepared out of bedslats after prolonged efforts.
On Sunday, October 6th, the day before the Russians were to leave camp, I called a meeting in my barracks of the 12 other officers whom I knew were interested in getting away. I insisted that we go that night. Our plan was to try and go over or cut through the fences in different parts of the yard simultaneously. We divided up into four teams, I had the first team, consisting of two aviators and myself; Major Brown the second team, consisting of one of the aviator and two infantry officers; Lieutenant Willis of the Lafayette Escadrille the third team, consisting of three other aviators; the fourth team was composed of two aviators who decided to go at the last minute.
The defensive works of the camp consisted first of the barred windows in the barracks which ran along parallel to the outer fences; then a ditch filled with barbed wire and surmounted by a 4 ft. barbed wire fence. This was about 8 feet outside the line of barracks. About 7 feet outside the ditch was the last artificial defence -- a barbed wire fence about 8 or 10 feet high with top wires curved inward out of the vertical plane of the rest of the fence. This was to prevent anyone from climbing over, which would have been simple with a fence straight up and down. Outside the outer fence was a line of sentries about one for every 30 yards, and inside the yard there were two sentries who patrolled at their discretion.
The plan of the first team was to cut the iron grating of the window in my barracks and launch a bridge through the opening out to the top of the outer barbed wire fence. We were to then crawl along the bridge and drop down outside the wire. The second team had wire cutters and were to cut through the outer wire. The third team were to go out of the main gate with the guard off duty when it rushed out in pursuit of the other teams. The fourth team were to build a small ladder and climb over the outer fence.
At 10:30 the barrack lights were turned out as usual. Shortly afterwards the signal was given and a team consisting of doctors threw the chains and short circuited all the lighting circuits in the camp.
I have never been able to find out how the other teams fared, except to know that Willis of the third team and one of the fourth team got out of the camp. My team were more successful. The night before one of the officers and I stole out to the tennis court and brought into my barracks the two long wooden battens used as markers. We hid them under the beds. They were about 2 1/2 inches wide, one inch thick, and were 18 ft. long. I had had my eye on them for a long time because they were the only things in the camp to reach from the window ledge to the outer barbed wire fence. They were very light and of course would not hold any weight, but I had a plan to remedy that. Two Army officers who did not care to go were to launch the bridge through the window to the outer fence, leaving the three foot over-lap on the inboard side. When we crawled over the bridge they would then put their weight on the ends that overlapped and this would neutralize the great bending moment at the middle of the span.
I had stolen Red Cross food boxes and with the boards from these I made little slats which when screwed to the long battens (nailing would have attracted the guards) would make a very passible bridge. In the afternoon one of my team and I cut and filed the grating in my window. It had to be done when the guards were at the end of their beats outside, but we finally finished by dark. After last muster at 7 P.M. we began on the bridge and finished it by 10 o'clock. I then blackened it with shoe blacking so it would not appear white in the darkness.
As the lights went out the bridge was thrown across and the smallest in the team of three crawled out. I was second and the heaviest man third. When the bridge struck the outer fence, the nearest guards ran to the spot singing out: "Halt-Halt." As the first man reached the end of the bridge and dropped to the
ground outside, I was beside him before he could straighten up and coaching him I dashed past the guards who were then within a few feet of us preparing to fire. As we passed them they fired, and the flash of the gun on my right almost scorched my hair. Then I heard the third man jump to the ground. We continued to run directly away from the camp and the whole side opened fire. It was a starlight night, but so dark they could not see to fire so although the bullets were singing all around us, we were not hit. By our thus drawing the fire, the other teams had a fine opportunity to cut their way out.
A few minutes later the guard of about 40 men sleeping in the guard house rushed out of the main gate in answer to the firing, and Willie came out with them, was fired on, but finally kept his rendezvous with me about two miles away. Knowing that in a few minutes the battalion of at least 300 men together with hounds would be on our trail we headed across country and put several miles between us and the camp. We continued thus for six days and nights, walking mostly in the night time, never on roads and bridges, which are patrolled, but through the rivers, fields and mountains, and finally on the 7th night we came to the Rhine.
We had travelled about 120 miles, although the distance as the crow flies is perhaps only 40 miles. We had a little food in our pockets, but lived mostly on the raw vegetables in the fields. When we came to the Rhine we spent about four hours trying to get past the sentries, and finally had to crawl the last half mile on our hands and knees down the bed of a mountain creek.
About 2 A.M. Sunday, October 13, we were crouching in the water at the mouth of this creek where it flows into the Rhine. The hardest fight was still before us. In whispers we discussed the next move and then took off most of our clothes. As we steeped farther out, the current caught us and swept us away. The stream at this point is 200 meters wide and has a current of 12 kilometers an hour. The water was like ice and when I had been carried to the center of the stream I couldn't get out. After fighting for ten minutes, I made one last effort and managed to get past the worst of the center, and then just as the last of my strength had gone my feet touched the rocks.
I was then in Switzerland. After a rest I crawled up the bank and in a few minutes found a house where I was taken in and put to bed. The next morning I was turned over to the gendarmes. They had also located Willis in a house about three miles further down where he found himself after his swim.
The Swiss were elated when they heard we were Americans. They look us to Berne and turned us over to the American Legation on October 15th, where we were provided with passports. While there, we were interviewed by the American Commission for the exchange of prisoners of war. We borrowed money from the American Red Cross and proceeded to Paris and there awaited orders from October 18th to 21st. I was ordered to London where I had asked to be sent, arrived October 23rd, and reported to Vice Admiral Sims to whom I gave my information in the form of a detailed report. The British Admiralty asked for me for three days and it was November 2nd before I left England, being then ordered to report to the Bureau of Navigation, Washington, D.C., where I arrived November 11, 1918.
In my many plans for escape, I had primarily before me the desire to accomplish something in the way of checking the activities of the German submarines. In the First place I wanted to recommend that convoys in crossing the war zone should frequently change or zig-zag the base course itself. Second, that each ship have two depth bombs in a power boat, which upon the approach of the submarine after the sinking of the ship could be dropped alongside. I would have had an ideal opportunity to sink the U.90 had I known before my capture what I know now. Unfortunately the President Lincoln had not a single power boat, although we had fought for one for six months previous to this. Third, that steps be taken to set a "plane" guard at North Rona Island to attack U.boats when they visited the island, and Fourth, to plot the path of the submarine and identify the rendezvous which I was sure I could find again were I able to get back and lead one of our own submarines over the same ground.
It seemed to me that the Straits of Dover were to[o] well guarded for submarines to get back that way -- that the North Sea around Heligoland was so well mined that there was no longer a
safe entrance there, and that the one way left was through Danish waters; either the Great Belt, the Little Belt, or the Sound. When I was sure it was the Sound, I felt if we could effectively plug that up, we would have them contained. My confidence in the correctness of this estimate of the situation was such that I did not hesitate to risk my life in getting back with the information. My only regret is that it has taken me so long to accomplish my purpose.
SUPPLEMENTAPROPOS OF THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
The French and the British have an agreement with the Germans covering the treatment of prisoners of war. A British officer who feels that his treatment is not in accordance with what he is entitled to, insists upon his rights, and usually gets them. The Americans, however, appear to have no rights which the Germans are bound to respect. For any infraction of the German rules of discipline we were punished as they saw fit. For example, one Infantry Officer was given six days solitary confinement for having written the word "Boche" in his diary while lying wounded in a German hospital. Another who had tried to escape by jumping from the train and had been recaptured before he had gotten more than 100 yards away, was beaten by guards with their guns until he was safe again on the train. The officer in charge of the transport watched the proceedings with a smile on his face. Several aviators who were caught after trying to escape were locked up in solitary confinement for two or three weeks, until their punishment was awarded by the Munich Government; and although it called for only 8 days solitary confinement, and they had already served more than their sentence, they were held in their cells eight more days. Two aviators who were suspected of having the intention of escaping were put in cells and kept there until after nine days of threatening and letter writing to the Danish, Swiss and Spanish Embassies, they were released. The Germans fear nothing but reprisals. They know no law but that of force, and like all bullies they were easily bluffed when we threatened like punishment to their prisoners -- especially when the Allies were winning.
Up to the first of August their arrogance was intolerable. They destroyed my official letters, written as by the Senior Officer at the camp to the Red Cross and to the Spanish Ambassador; at least the letters were never received, and we had reason to believe that they were destroyed. They refused us every request. We had no Chaplains, but they would not allow us to go out to the church in Villingen although we gave our parole. They gave us Russian soldiers as orderlies, although we asked for American, British or French, who were just as easy to get, and with whom some of us at least could talk. No one of course could speak Russian. They gave us only one latrine, which was also used by the Russian orderlies, some of whom were so ill with disease they could hardly walk. This latrine was the filthiest and most insanitary place I have ever seen. The barracks in which we lived had 20 officers in each room and the fleas thrived in spite of all our efforts to get rid of them. We asked the Commandant and finally the doctor to give us sulphur or cyanide or something to act as a disinfectant, but they paid no heed to our requests. They stole some of the food and clothing out of our Red Cross parcels, and even refused to give us the wooden boxes in which the food was sent -- we needed these badly as firewood to cook up the little food they allowed to reach us. All these may seem mere trifles, but they were affairs of considerable magnitude to us in our struggle for existence.
I have mentioned only a few of our troubles. It would be impossible to enumerate the thousand little annoyances the Germans practiced on us. But this will give some idea of our condition there as prisoners of war and will partially explain why every prisoner of war will be the avowed enemy of Germany and everything German to the day at his death.
Note: A photocopy of this document is located in the Navy Department Library's WWI Vertical File. The original document has not been located.