You've probably heard of the WWII "Great Escape." Now comes the thrilling story of the "Grand Escape," which served to inspire the World War II getaway made famous by Steve McQueen, James Garner and company.
The WWI prison break is featured in a new book getting rave reviews and I had the great pleasure of speaking with its author.
The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascom is the story of British pilots shot down over German territory and captured,
then their resolve to escape and get back into the fight.
Digging only with spoons, over nine-months they forged a secret tunnel 60-yards long to escape the Germans' highest-security prison, Holzminden.
The prison was ruled by a brutal camp commandant, Carl Niemayer. Notorious for his temper, he didn't hesitate to have prisoners shot or beaten to death for lesser infractions than trying to escape.
The place was nicknamed "Hellminden" or "Hellhole" by those within its walls.
The photo below shows three organizers of the tunneling operation posed in their escape disguises. From right to left, are Royal Flying Corps pilots Captain Caspar Kennard, Captain David Gray and 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Blain.
Despite the risk of discovery and probable execution they found the strength to continue the grueling work for months. Starving and emaciated, disease-ridden and sleep-deprived, inch by inch they carved the tunnel in oxygen-starved darkness, directly under the feet of one hundred armed guards.
"There’s one kind of daring that is running out and knowing you might get shot," Author Neal Boscom told me. "Then another is digging in the tunnel, going in thirty feet, not knowing if you’re gonna have enough oxygen to breathe, not knowing if you’re gonna get out."
Bascom has written nine award-winning books for adults and teens, including Hunting Eichmann, Red Mutiny, The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Atomic Bomb, and The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes. One Goal. And Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It.
The Escape Artists is a young adult version of his earlier books The Grand Escape.
Bascom is driven to research and write about people who fascinate him and whose stories will inspire others. "I want know what drove them, what they feared, what stumbling blocks they hit."
In The Escape Artists, Bascom focuses on Davy Gray, the leader of the digging operation. Gray tried and failed to escape from five different camps in one year before Holzmiden.
Bascom was struck my the young pilot's determination and motivation for continually trying to escape. "He was driven by wanting to get back to his squadron and back into the fight. Less about being free, less about his own individual drive, but to get back into the fight knowing that he could be shot down again and killed."
The original conspirators had hoped to keep knowledge of the escape plan to a small group, but July 23-24, 1918, twenty-nine officers belly-crawled through the 16-inch high tunnel to freedom. Unfortunately some were recaptured, and just ten made their way to Holland and eventually Britain, including Gray, Kennard and Blain.
Bascom told me there are similar over-arching themes in every book he writes that stem from his teenage years. "I remember to this day sitting in classroom in 8th grade, the teacher wasn’t even talking about history, but she said. 'Never make a decision out of a fear of failure.' Defy the odds and keep going despite the fear of failure."
You can find out about all Neal's thrilling books here: www.nealbascomb.com
Huge shout out to the Austin Public Library Manchaca Road Branch for inviting me to speak in celebration of Veteran's Day.
Add a shout out to reader Keith Hunter for this Veteran's Day story. He emailed to share new information that surfaced recently about the American POW women featured in my book PURE GRIT.
The Wisconsin State Historical Society has posted scrapbooks online telling the story of Army Nurse Marcia Gates posted to the Philippines before the start of World War II and later captured POW by the Japanese.
The collection of two scrapbooks immediately reveals the desperation and hope of Lieutenant Marcia Gates' mother after the surrender of American forces to the Japanese attack in the Philippines.
Also named Marica Gates, the woman wrote letter after letter in an effort to discover if her daughter was dead or alive.
The War Department notified Mrs. Gates that Marcia was missing in action. She sought further information from the government, plus the Red Cross, the San Francisco Press Association, and television station WRG that had received tape recordings of American nurses who had escaped before the surrender. Nobody had any news of her daughter.
The family had received a letter from Marcia dated the day of Corregidor's surrender. I can't help but wonder if they believed the lies mixed with the cheerful optimism the young nurse sent to comfort her mother.
"Another short note to remind you again that I am safe and well and will be always, I'm sure. Now you must keep yourself the same. Sure am enjoying my work, plus plenty of food and rest.
The weather where we are now is ideal—evenings cool, days windy and dry. Now don't worry because that would be silly. It anything does happen to me it will to everyone here. Just think, I wanted adventure and I got it."
The Japanese attack on the Philippines cut right to the heart of the small town of Janesville, Wisconsin.
As well as Army Nurse Marcia Gates, ninety-nine men from the town were serving there. A week prior to the attack A company of the 192 Tank Battalion had arrived at Ft. Stotsenburg and Clark Field.
They became the first American tank unit to engage enemy armor in tank to tank combat during World War II.
Many were kids, some still in high school. Others had been in the National Guard for years, but most had never expected to see actual combat. Those who survived the fighting, faced the Bataan Death March and the horrors of prison camp until the end of the war. Known as the Janesville 99, only 35 of the men survived to come home.
Twenty of the survivors are pictured at left.
I'm fascinated to discover little-known history, stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
I also post here about my books and feature other authors and their books on compelling and important historical topics.
Occasionally, I share what makes me happy, pictures of my garden, recipes I've made, events I've attended, people I've met. I'm always happy to hear from readers in the blog comments, by email or social media.