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The Most Remarkable Prisoner of War Escapes in History

Throughout history, prisoners of war have sought their freedom by fleeing from their captors, intent on returning to their homes and their duty. Most have been unsuccessful in their attempts, but that lack of success has not deterred others from risking their lives in daring escapes. Some have escaped from captivity thousands of miles from their homes and succeeded in reaching safety.

Many escapes have become famous, such as the 1944 Great Escape from the German Stalag Luft III in Sagan, now in Poland. Colditz Castle, in Germany, gained fame for the many daring escapes from its supposedly unescapable compound during World War II. Here are ten escapes, lesser known, which required considerable daring and determination on the part of the escaper.

10. Continental Navy Captain Joshua Barney escaped from a prison in Britain

Joshua barney circa 1800

To say Joshua Barney was precocious as a youth is a gross understatement. At the age of ten he informed his father, a successful Maryland farmer, that he had learned everything they could possibly teach him in school. He then went to sea, learning his trade so well that in 1775, at the age of 16, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the new Continental Navy. In 1776 he was captured by the British, held prisoner on a prison hulk until paroled, and eventually exchanged.

Captured again in 1780 after numerous adventures at sea, Barney was imprisoned in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. As an officer, Barney was afforded privileges which included his being allowed to purchase clothing. He hired a tailor to make him a new uniform coat, which he had trimmed in the style of a British naval lieutenant. He then paid a guard to look the other way as he went over the prison wall, wearing his new coat under another, nondescript coat, and made his way to London. There he swaggered about as an aristocratic British officer, acquainting himself with the officials in the London dockyards.

From there, Barney escaped to the Netherlands, then France, and finally with the help of Benjamin Franklin, to America. Though the land war had by then ended, Barney found action at sea, including a stunning victory over a British man-of-war many times more powerful than his own ship. He later served with equal distinction during the War of 1812. His escape, during which if recaptured he could have been hanged as a spy, was one of the most remarkable of the 18th century. After his long and distinguished naval career he faded into obscurity.

9. Simon Kenton demonstrated stunning endurance and fortitude during his escape from the British

simon kenton

Woodsman Simon Kenton was already legendary on the Kentucky and Ohio frontier when the Revolutionary War reached that region. A friend of Daniel Boone and one of the early settlers in Kentucky, Kenton was well-known to the Shawnee of the Ohio Valley. After several years of hostilities between the Shawnee and the White settlers of Kentucky, Kenton was captured by the Indians in 1778. The Shawnee decided to render to Kenton the “honors” they accorded their greatest enemies. These included various forms of torture, including running the gantlet.

The gantlet consisted of two rows of Indians, including women, armed with clubs, sticks, and leather straps. Kenton was forced to run between them, enduring the beatings he received while unable to resist. He ran the gantlet several times, in some accounts up to nine, before the Shawnee decided he had been honored enough, and marched him to Detroit, where their British allies paid a ransom for the prisoner. Kenton made the journey to the British base in the winter months of 1778-79, traveling on foot.

In July of that year he escaped from his captors. The British decided not to pursue him, since well over 400 miles of hostile country populated with Shawnee and numerous other tribes were between Kenton and home. The British assumed they would either see Kenton or his scalp again soon. They were wrong. It took Simon about 30 days to cover the distance between Detroit and the Falls of the Ohio (present day Louisville), eluding the Indians who eagerly pursued him. Kenton went on to adventures too numerous to recount, becoming one of the legendary frontiersmen in American history.

8. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s daring Civil War raid led to an equally daring escape

800px Gen. John Morgan cropped

John Hunt Morgan was a Confederate cavalry commander who led an 1863 raid across the Ohio River into Indiana and Ohio, terrorizing the local populations. His raid was conducted against the orders of his commanding officer, Braxton Bragg, but nonetheless electrified the South for its daring. But it was for naught, Morgan’s Raid ended in defeat in Ohio, with most of his men either killed, captured, or on the run as deserters. Morgan was captured, along with several of his officers, and held as prisoners of war in the notorious Ohio State Prison in Columbus.

Using spoons and a fireplace poker, Morgan and several of his officers dug an opening through the stone walls of their cells into the prison yard. On November 27, 1863, they left their cells, used a rope made of blankets to go over the prison’s exterior wall, and escaped into the darkness. They boarded a train in Columbus bound for Cincinnati, jumped from it before arriving to avoid federal troops in that city, and crossed the fields in the dark to the home of a known Confederate sympathizer. From there they made arrangements with a boatman to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky. Additional Confederate sympathizers guided them through the Union lines to Tennessee and safety.

Despite having lost a valuable cavalry regiment by disobeying orders and conducting his raid, Morgan was returned to command. In 1864, Confederate authorities removed him from command, concerned over the criminal nature of some of his raids in Kentucky and Tennessee. He organized a band of irregulars and continued to raid independently until he was killed by Union cavalry in September, 1864. Morgan and his men were among the few to successfully escape the Ohio State Penitentiary during its 150 years of operation.

7. Winston Churchill escaped from his captors during the Boer War

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In 1899 Winston Churchill traveled to South Africa as a correspondent for Britain’s Morning Post. In October, the armored train in which he was traveling was shelled by Boer troops. The train derailed, and Churchill survived the wreck to be captured by the Boers, who confined him as a prisoner of war in a camp in Pretoria. Churchill, then just shy of 25, would have none of it. In December he made his escape from the camp. He had planned to escape with two others, but circumstances changed, and Winston found himself outside the camp, having climbed over the wall hidden by a latrine, alone, and uncertain of his directions to safety.

Churchill walked to Pretoria, hopped a train by hiding in a coal car, and rode it through the night. During daylight hours he hid near the railway, returning to jump on another train in the darkness. When no trains came by he walked. Each day for over a week he traveled in such a manner, eluding searchers on the trains by burrowing deeply into the coal. Eventually, he reached the safety of the British occupied territory, where his escape brought him considerable acclaim and notoriety. The Boer’s had searched thoroughly for him, in part because of his own audacity prior to his escape.

Churchill had left behind a note to his erstwhile captors. In it he questioned their authority for holding him, a non-combatant, as a prisoner of war. Addressed to the Boer Under-Secretary of War, Churchill somewhat brassily wrote, “…Regretting that circumstances have not permitted me to bid you a personal farewell, Believe me, Yours sincerely, Winston S. Churchill”. The reports of his escape made him immediately famous on both sides of the Atlantic, and helped boost his political career.

6. French aviator and athlete Roland Garros escaped from the Germans in World War I

roland garros

Today, Roland Garros is known primarily for the tennis stadium which bears his name, and serves as the site for the French Open. Pre-World War I Garros was an automobile salesman, a cyclist, and a dedicated early aviator. During World War I he attached wedges to the propellor of his aircraft, allowing him to fire a machine gun through the propellor without damaging it, and became the first aviator to shoot down an enemy aircraft by firing forward from the fuselage.

Garros downed three German airplanes before his own aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire in April, 1915. Captured by the Germans he was sent to a prisoner of war camp. He was transferred from camp to camp over the ensuing three years, until in 1918 he and a fellow prisoner escaped by donning German uniforms and walking out of the camp. They gradually worked their way across Germany, sleeping in cemeteries and blending into crowds, rather than avoiding them. Eventually they reached the Netherlands, then went to London, and finally, back to France.

Garros returned to duty with the French Air Service in late 1918. Scarcely a month before the Armistice took effect he was shot down and killed in the Ardennes. The man for whom the French Open, officially known as the Roland Garros Tournament in France, had little to do with tennis, other than having maps of Germany smuggled to him in prison in the hollowed-out handles of two tennis rackets. The maps facilitated his daring escape in 1918.

5. Gunther Plüschow escaped a POW Camp in Britain

Plueschow 1

Gunther Plüschow was a world-famous aviator, serving in the German Army in Tsingtao, China, when World War I began in 1914. He traveled to the United States and boarded a ship to Italy, but bad weather and damage to the ship forced it to stop at Gibraltar, where the British took him prisoner. By May, 1915, he was held in a prisoner of war camp in Britain, Donington Hall. In July he escaped from the camp and traveled to London. At first he mingled with crowds, including visiting the British museum as a tourist, taking souvenir photographs. When British newspapers began running stories about the escaped German officer on the loose, including a description of the fugitive, he donned shabby clothes and began to haunt the London docks.

Plüschow eventually boarded a Dutch vessel, either by stowing away or through bribing members of the crew. The Netherlands being neutral at the time, he should have been interned upon arrival there, but somehow he managed to elude the authorities and make it back to Germany, where he was arrested and held as a suspected spy. After he managed to convince the German government the tale of his imprisonment and escape was true, he was treated as a hero, and the Germans flaunted his escape for its propaganda value. Plüschow published the story in 1916.

The Germans kept him out of the war, despite his skill as an aviator, and after the war he gained further fame as an explorer in South America. He was killed on an expedition to Patagonia in January 1931. Plüschow was the only prisoner of war to escape from a prison camp in Britain and make it back to Germany in either World War.

4. American Merian C. Cooper escaped from a Soviet prisoner of war camp

merian cooper

Following World War I, American troops and volunteers served in the Soviet Civil War and the Soviet-Polish war. Among them was Merian C. Cooper, an American pilot of Polish descent. In July, 1920, Cooper was shot down behind Soviet lines, captured, and sent to a prisoner of war camp. It was the third time he had been shot down during the war. His captors found him a handful, and after at least one failed escape attempt they sent him to a forced labor camp outside of Moscow.

After being lined up to be executed by firing squad, which may or may not have been a Soviet bluff, he decided to escape. He joined with two Polish prisoners to escape again, after nine months in captivity. They managed to work their way to Latvia, over 430 miles, and were in that nation when the war ended. During his captivity, Cooper read Russian fairy tales, including one entitled The Crocodile, in which appears a wild gorilla which captures a young girl.

The fairy tale evidently impressed him. In the 1930s, rather than writing about his no doubt harrowing escape from the Soviet Union and Bolshevik troops, Cooper produced and directed the epic film, King Kong, released in 1933. Cooper wrote an autobiography while in Soviet custody which was published in 1927, though the following year he had all known copies of the book purchased and destroyed. He later served as a staff officer with the famed Flying Tigers in China, and with the Fifth Air Force in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

3. Henri Giraud, a French officer, escaped from German custody twice

800px Henri Giraud 1943Jan19

During the first month of World War I, Henri Giraud, a career officer in the French Army, led a detachment of Zouaves in a bayonet charge, during which he was severely wounded. When the French withdrew they left their leader behind on the field, presumed dead. The Germans captured him, treated his wounds, and sent him as a prisoner of war to Belgium. He escaped after months in custody, hid by disguising himself with a traveling circus, and with the aid of Edith Cavell managed to make it back to France through the Netherlands. Cavell was later executed by firing squad by the Germans for aiding Allied prisoners to escape.

Giraud remained in the French Army throughout the remainder of the war and during the interwar years. When World War II began he held the rank of General and commander of the 7th  Army. Captured by the Germans on May 19, 1940, Giraud was sent to Konigstein Castle, under high security conditions, where for the next two years he carefully plotted and prepared for his escape. He used code to inform his family of his plans, they in turn arranged for contacts within the Resistance to aid him. He altered his appearance by shaving his distinctive mustache, crafted a handmade rope, and surreptitiously acquired a map of the area.

On April 17, 1942, Giraud used his rope to escape down the side of the mountain upon which his prison was located. Making contact with the Resistance, he obtained the necessary papers and disguise to allow him to travel by train to the Swiss border, which he crossed on foot to avoid Gestapo border guards on the lookout for him. He surrendered himself to the Swiss, and later returned to Vichy France, where Heinrich Himmler tried to have him assassinated. Giraud successfully escaped from the Germans once in each of the World Wars, each time demonstrating considerable daring and courage.

2. German Franz von Werra escaped from a prison camp in Canada

Franz von Werra was a successful German fighter pilot over Poland and France before falling victim to the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Held in various British PoW camps, von Werra made several unsuccessful escape attempts before being shipped to Canada, arriving there in January, 1942. The prisoners were sent by train from Montreal to a destination north of Lake Superior. Von Werra escaped from the moving train by jumping through a window into the wintry Canadian night. He then walked about 30 miles to the frozen St. Lawrence River, and crossed it above Ogdensburg, New York, where he surrendered to American authorities. He then contacted the German Consulate, the United States then being neutral in the war.

The Canadian’s demanded extradition, but the German consul paid von Werra’s bail, and then helped the German officer escape to Mexico, also neutral. Von Werra then traveled to neutral Brazil, from there to Spain, then to Fascist Italy, and finally to Germany, where he returned to active duty in 1941 as a national hero. His escape made national news in the United States. He scored a confirmed 21 aerial victories, against the French, British, and Soviets, 13 of them following his escape from Canada.

Van Werra’s airplane crashed into the sea during a flight on October 25, 1941, probably due to engine failure. His body was never found. He was the only German prisoner of war to escape from British/Canadian custody and successfully return to Germany during the war.

1. German Georg Gartner escaped from an American POW Camp in New Mexico

georg gartner

Georg Gartner was captured by the Americans in Tunis in 1943, and sent to a prisoner of war camp in New Mexico. He actually escaped from the Americans in September, 1945, after the war had ended. He was motivated by the fact that his hometown in Lower Silesia had been occupied by the Soviets. Rather than facing repatriation into the hands of the Red Army, Gartner chose to take advantage of the relaxing post-war attitude of his American guards. He escaped from the camp by crawling under the gates and hopping a train of which schedule he had observed during his time in custody. The train carried him to California.

Gartner kept on the move, performing odd jobs, and gradually creating a new identity. He obtained identification as Dennis Whiles, which included a Social Security card, despite a nationwide manhunt for the escaped prisoner by the FBI. The FBI held him on their Most Wanted List for 18 years, and distributed his wanted poster nationwide. Nonetheless, he continued to hide in plain sight, eventually settling in Boulder, Colorado, where he worked in the construction industry. By then he was married, with two adopted children. Eventually, the marriage led to his downfall, in terms of maintaining the secret of his past.

His wife was disturbed by his refusal to discuss his life prior to 1945, and eventually he revealed his secret to her. She insisted he reveal his secret and in 1985 he did, publicly, including an appearance on NBC’s Today Show. The US government declined to arrest or deport him, and in 2009 he became an American citizen. Before that, he returned to Germany in the 1980s, after which his wife divorced him, and eventually he returned to America. He died in 2013 in Loveland, Colorado, 68 years after escaping from American custody, the last German prisoner of war of World War II in the United States.

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