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THE AIRMAN'S ESCAPE
BY GEORGE W. PURYEAR
It was in the afternoon of September 15 that we arrived at Villingen. The prison camp was n't at all attractive from the outside, but it proved much better and more comfortable than it looked. It covered an area of about 1000 metres by 250. Barracks were built around the outer edges, with an open court in the centre, in which were a tennis-court, volley-ball court, library, reading-room, and assembly hall. Around these, inside the line of barracks, was room for us to walk or run for exercise. This had been a Russian officers' camp, but it was being vacated for American officers. There were still two hundred Russians there, and at that time seventy Americans.
The American Red Cross had bulk supplies, both of food and clothing, at Villingen. Food was issued every Monday. The German food here was nothing but the old vegetable compound. Once a week we got a little slice of very poor meat. The Russians, who had to live largely on this food, looked awfully pale and underfed. We were not bothered with any formal breakfast at all. Instead, they issued us twenty lumps of sugar a week, which pleased us much better. I never ate any of my sugar, but saved every piece of it for rations on my escape.
The Germans took a picture of each of us, after which we could, if we chose, go out of camp for walks, on our word of honor.
We could not walk about at our pleasure, of course, but were allowed to go out at a certain time every other day (the weather and convenience of the Germans permitting), in a group of not less than ten, or more than fifty. A German non-commissioned officer went with us as a guide, and we were subject to his orders. We would be out an hour or two. As we went out we would give our written word of honor not to try to escape, accompanied with our picture; and when we returned, we would take it up again.
The defenses of the camps were as follows. The outer windows of the barracks were barred. Where the barracks did not join, a blind fence with wire on top connected them. A few feet outside the line of barracks and fence came the main barrier, which went all around. This was, first, a low barbed-wire fence; just outside that, a ditch about four feet wide, filled with barbedwire entanglement; and at the outer edge of this came the main fence, of woven barbed wire, about nine feet high, with steel arms on top of the posts, curving toward the interior about two feet, thus making the top of the fence lean toward the inside, so that it was impossible to climb from that direction, even with nothing else to bother you. Just outside this was the outer guard patrol. This patrol was doubled before dark every night. There was also a line of electric lights a few feet outside, which burned all night.
The weather was already growing cold, and I realized that the time for making the attempt, without hazard
ing the winter weather, was getting short. In spite of my effort to keep myself in condition, I found that my confinement had softened as well as delayed me. I walked miles and miles inside the camp in order to harden myself. After a few rainy days it cleared, and I went out on the first honor walk. I learned from the Russians that a few weeks of good weather might be expected. The moon was dark. It would be much more dangerous to go in moonlight, and it would be winter before the next dark of the moon. All these things indicated that now was the time.
I talked to Lieutenant H. C. Tichenor, better known among us as “Tich,” and found him of my mind, willing to go any length to try it. We shook hands on it and went to work. It was then Thursday, October 3. Monday we would get a new food-issue, and we determined to be ready to break Monday night. We proposed to go right out of our window and over that barrier some way; get as good a start on the guard as possible, and chance the rest.
The bottoms of our beds were made of planks running lengthwise. These were strong boards one inch thick, eight inches wide, and seven feet long. From these I thought that we should be able to construct some means of scaling the barrier. Tich was a good engineer. We could not drive nails, of course, nor could we make any large show of work for the interpreter dropped in on us every hour or two, and his eye was keen; therefore we worked out and drew our design on paper. We took the boards out one at a time, while someone stood watch for us; bored the necessary holes and did the necessary cutting on each; and replaced them under the beds,
where they remained until the last moment, when we took them out and quietly put them together with wire, like putting up ready-made wooden barracks. Albertson, who was good at map-drawing, drew the map I used. From a Russian officer I bought a Russian overcoat and cap. I considered this a fair disguise, as well as necessary cover, because the silhouette at night would be the same as that of the German uniform. Also, if I should accidentally be seen in the daytime, a Russian prisoner at liberty is common enough in Germany not to attract suspicion if he does not act suspiciously. Again, in the guise of a Russian prisoner I would not be expected to speak German.
There was in camp a Russian who, by ways and means known only to himself, could produce anything you wanted if you had the price. I went to him for a compass. Tich had a good one, but I though that we should both be fully equipped. I also bought a big springback knife and a twenty-mark bill. For the twenty marks in German money I gave thirty marks canteen money.
There were several other men who were planning to escape, and knowing that, when one escaped, there would be an inspection which would catch those preparing, we determined to make our break all together. Willis and Isaacs had discovered a means to short-circuit all the lights of the camp. We planned to put them all out, and as this was done, to break at once at our different points. They certainly could not stop all of us. Isaacs, Battle, and Tucker were to break out of one window, Tichenor and I another, and a third bunch still another. All three of the windows were along the
southern side of the camp. Willis, Wardle, Chalmers, and some others, disguised as Germans, were to slip into the quarters of the guard and await the alarm raised by our escape, and then, as these guards were turned out to chase us, they would rush out the open gate with the Huns.
Sunday morning we learned that all the Russians would be sent away Monday. We knew that this would cause an inspection of quarters, and our plans would be discovered. We therefore determined to make the break Sunday night. Having expected to leave Monday night after the food-issue, several of us were short of food-supplies. I had traded off so much of mine for my compass and other equipment, that I had practically none. We could not wait, however, and as it turned out, it was probably a good thing that I was no more heavily loaded, even with food. I had my sugar, however, and from the other boys I got four boxes of hard-tack and one opened can of hash. The lights inside our barracks were turned out every night at ten-thirty. Our plan was to short-circuit the others a few moments after that; and the putting out of the outside lights would be the signal to go.
Sunday night, before ten-thirty, Tich and I had cut loose the bars in our window, had taken the prepared slats from our beds and put them together, making a strong and solid run-board fourteen feet long, and were ready.
At ten-thirty the lights in our quarters went out. I put on my Russian cap and overcoat, pinning up the tail to prevent its catching on the wire, and slung on my haversack with my small food-supply and so forth.