This Day in History: An American sailor, captured by a German submarine
On this day in 1918, a Navy lieutenant is held as a German prisoner. Edouard Victor Michel Izac had been captured just a few days earlier, when an American troop transport was torpedoed by the German submarine U-90.
After launching its torpedoes, the German submarine circled back around to confront the crew of USS President Lincoln, still floating in the water. The Germans wanted the American captain!
The Navy sailors did not intend to give up their captain, of course. One after another, they told the Germans that their captain had gone down with the ship. But the Germans wanted someone. They pulled Izac into their submarine. He was the only person that they could identify as an officer.
“Good-bye, men, it is all in the game,” Izac waved to President Lincoln’s crew as he was taken aboard U-90. He was trying to keep spirits up, of course, but he surely knew the dangers that faced him.
Oddly, one of the first tests that he faced was from an American ship, which dropped 22 depth charges on U-90 the day after Izac had been captured. Izac later recounted that five of these bombs “exploded so close that the boat was shaken from stem to stern, and I fully expected to see the seams open and the water rush in.”
And yet it was just the beginning.
The young officer soon learned a lot about the workings and strategies of a U-boat crew, and he determined to get free. He had to deliver the intelligence he’d gathered. An early attempt to jump from the deck of the submarine was easily thwarted, but Izac wasn’t done yet. He would try again later, after he’d been transferred to the control of the German army.
One opportunity came as he was being transferred to a new prison on a train.
“The train was making about forty miles an hour . . . . The guns of the guards were still pointed toward me and they did look ugly,” Izac wrote, “but the window near our seat was open and I was sure that I could reach it at a bound.”
You guessed it. Izac jumped out of a moving train! He might have escaped, but he hit his head and injured his knees as he fell. The train screeched to a stop and the guards were soon upon him, bashing him over the head and pummeling him until he fell unconscious. Upon awakening, he was forcibly marched the five remaining miles of the trip, enduring constant punishment along the way.
He earned two weeks in solitary confinement for that stunt.
“With almost my first breath of fresh air,” he wrote, “I vowed that I would surely escape the next time.”
It wasn’t easy. Izac hatched—and then had to discard—several escape plans before finally hitting on one last effort. He and several others decided to attempt their escapes simultaneously. Four small groups each had a different plan to get past the barbed wire. The first group out would draw fire from the sentries, giving the others more time to escape.
It worked. Miraculously, Izac managed to escape, crossing southwestern Germany on foot and sneaking past German guards at the Rhine River.
Izac delivered his intelligence about the German U-boats, but by then the war was already coming to an end. Nevertheless, his extreme bravery and determination to deliver information, even at the risk of his own life, was recognized with the Medal of Honor in November 1920.
Izac would go on to serve as a Congressman for the State of California. He lived for nearly an entire century before passing away in 1990.
Edouard Victor Isaacs, Prisoner of the U-90 (1919)
James H. Willbanks, America's Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (2011)
John Wilder Jenkins, Our Navy's Part in the Great War (1919)
Josephus Daniels, Our Navy at War (1922)
Obituary: Edouard Izac Dies at 100 (Washington Post; Jan. 20, 1990)
Medal of Honor citation (Edouard Victor Michel Izac; World War I)
Nora Zamichow, Edouard V. Izac: WWI Medal of Honor (L.A. Times; Jan. 27, 1990)