Friday, March 1, 2013

St. Louisan, John Franklin Hardesty, Led Plot to Free Americans From German Prison

Villingen, Germany  Prison Camp Identification Card
John Franklin Hardesty (1887-1953) was born in Winfield, Lincoln County, Missouri. He earned a Bachelor of Science and doctorate of medicine degree from St. Louis University in 1914. In June 1917, Hardesty entered the U.S. Army Medical Corps and volunteered to serve as a surgeon with the British Army during World War I. Hardesty transferred to the 51st Division of the British Army, or the “Seaforth Highlanders” and was captured as a prisoner of war at Amiens in March 1918. He was imprisoned at Ratstatt and Villingen Prisoner of War camps for eight months. Shortly after Hardesty’s capture, his parents received a letter from Major Johnson of the British Forces. Hardesty had been serving with Major Johnson's Battalion when he was captured. An excerpt from the letter is below.

“On 22nd inst. This Battalion was heavily attacked by the enemy. Your son, who had just returned from a few days’ leave in Paris, was on duty in his aid post in our trenches. There was severe fighting and of course your son was kept very busy with many wounded. In their final attack the Germans came on in overwhelming numbers regardless of loss and what was left of the battalion had to give ground a bit. This meant the enemy captured the trench in which the aid post was situated.”

Villengen, Germany - prison camp - 1918 Robert H. Jeffrey, John F. Hardesty (seated) Harold B.Willis and Eduard Victor Isaacs 

While in prison at Villengen, Hardesty and several other prisoners developed an elaborate escape plan. The plan was multilayered and required several phases. These phases were described in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch article “St. Louisan Led Plot to Flee from German Prison,” dated June 11, 1919. The article provides a detailed description of Villigen. "It was surrounded by two barbed wire fences and a ditch and at night was brilliantly illuminated by powerful electric lamps.” As a result, the first phase of the plan was to figure out how to put out the lamps. The lamps, which were located outside of the prison grounds, were inaccessible to the prisoners. However, the electric feed wires to the lamps were easily accessible to them. The prisoners decided to throw chains over the electric feed wires to short circuit them and burn out fuses. Hardesty supervised the creation of the chains which were made of scraps of tin and wire. It took two months of tedious and secretive work to make the five 30 feet long chains.

The second phase of the plan was to figure out how to create a diversion to distract the guards from the areas that the lights were to be short circuited. To solve this problem, a second group or prisoners was organized to strategically throw tin cans and other objects over the barbed wire fence.

On October 6, 1918, Hardesty stationed his men and then gave the signal for the operation to begin. He dropped his handkerchief and picked it up three times in quick succession. As planned, the metal chains caused all the lights to go out and in all of the confusion the prisoners made their escape. Of the thirteen men who attempted to escape, only two of them are known to have been successful. They were Lieutenant Harold B. Willis of the Lafayette Escadrille, and Lieutenant. Edouard V. Issacs of the U. S. Navy.

Lt. Isaacs had already made a daring escape prior to his imprisonment at Villingen. Details of his harrowing escape can be found in the comic strip Dare-Devils of Destiny which also discusses his and Willis' escape from Villingen. (See below) Isaacs was captured on May 31, 1918 by the German submarine U-90 when the ship he was traveling on, the USS President Lincoln was sunk. After three weeks at the German Prison Karlsruhe he was transferred to Villingen. On the train trip to Villingen, Isaacs jumped through the window of the train which was going 40 miles an hour. He was badly injured and as a result was quickly recaptured.

After escaping Villigen, Willis and Isaacs reached the Allied lines after a week long 120 mile trek over the mountains. Once at the Swiss border they eluded German sentries by crawling on their hands and knees for hours. They then swam 200 meters across the freezing Rhine River to reach the Allied lines. After being debriefed in London, the pair returned to the United States.  They were in Washington D.C. less than a month after their great escape.

Hardesty and the remaining prisoners were released at the end of the war. Hardesty returned home and resumed work in his private medical practice, where he was a specialist in diagnosis and treatment of the eye. He became an instructor, and later the department chair, of ophthalmology at St. Louis University. Hardesty's research also provided valuable information on treatment of glaucoma.

Hardesty’s role in the prison escape was not revealed until Harold B. Willis visited St. Louis in June 1919. He was touring the country lecturing in support of the Victory Loan and sharing the details of his escape, when he visited St. Louis to give a lecture. During his lecture, Willis thanked Hardesty and stated that he owed the success of his escape to him and to the “unselfish work of a team of fellow prisoners working under Hardesty." He went on to describe that "these assistants had no hope of escape, since their part was to give the signals and provide the diversions…They were risking their lives… for if their part in the plot had been discovered they probably would have been killed by the Germans.”

Rocky Mountain News Sunday Magazine,October 22, 1939

Read from left to right - should be four comics per line (these two seperate pages form one large page)


Hardesty, John Franklin Papers, Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center

US People - Eduard V.M. Isaacs, Lieutenant Commander,USN (Retired)