Lieutenant Pat O’Brien was one of the first Americans to fight in World War I and the first American-born pilot to escape as a prisoner of war during that conflict. As a young man, both fascinated with flight and determined that America was not entering the war soon enough, O’Brien travelled to Canada in 1916 to enlist as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. O’Brien was shot down over German lines in 1917 and spent a month in a prisoner of war camp before making a daring escape, after which he spent two months evading capture behind enemy lines before tunneling under an electric fence to rejoin his own forces.
O’Brien subsequently enjoyed a great deal of fame throughout Britain and America for his exploits. He wrote a popular book, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison (1918), about his experiences, was honored by King George V, toured America as a highly requested speaker, and appeared in a starring role in a silent film.
The following excerpts were selected from Pat O’Brien’s autobiography, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp.
“The car was full of smoke. I looked across at the guard. He was rather an old man, going home on leave, and he seemed to be dreaming of what was in store for him rather than paying any particular attention to me. Once in a while I had smiled at him, and I figured that he hadn’t the slightest idea of what was going through my mind all the time we had been traveling.
I began to cough as though my throat were badly irritated by the smoke, and then I opened the window again. This time the guard looked up and showed his disapproval, but did not say anything.
It was then four o’clock in the morning and would soon be light. I knew I had to do it right then or never, as there would be no chance to escape in the daytime.
I had on a trench coat that I had used as a flying coat and wore a knapsack which I had constructed out of a gas bag brought into Courtrai by a British prisoner. In this I had two pieces of bread, a piece of sausage, and a pair of flying-mittens. All of them had to go with me through the window.
The train was now going at a rate of between thirty and thirty-five miles an hour, and again it seemed to admonish me, as it rattled along over the ties: “You’re a fool if you do; you’re a fool if you don’t! You’re a fool if you don’t; you’re a fool if you do! You’re a fool if you don’t—”
I waited no longer. Standing up on the bench as if to put the bag on the rack, and taking hold of the rack with my left hand and a strap that hung from the top of the car with my right, I pulled myself up, shoved my feet and legs out of the window, and let go!
There was a prayer on my lips as I went out, and I expected a bullet between my shoulders, but it was all over in an instant.
I came to within a few minutes, and when I examined myself and found no bones broken I didn’t stop to worry about my cuts and bruises, but jumped up with the idea of putting as great a distance between me and that track as possible before daylight came. Still being dazed, I forgot all about the barbed-wire fence along the right-of-way and ran full tilt into it. Right there I lost one of my two precious pieces of bread, which fell out of my knapsack, but I could not stop to look for it then.
The one thing that was uppermost in my mind was that for the moment I was free, and it was up to me now to make the most of my liberty.”
After jumping from the moving train, Lieutenant Pat O’Brien spent the next seventy-two days evading capture while walking through Germany and occupied Belgium until reaching the border of Holland O’Brien ultimately tunneled under a nine-foot electric fence in between German patrols in order to cross out of enemy territory.