1. The Green Beret founder of SERE training used a math problem to trick the Viet Cong.
In the grand scheme of things, the Vietnam War tends to get the short end of the stick when it comes to great stories of war — maybe it’s too recent or painful an event to be remembered with the nostalgia associated with WWII.
Regardless, the story of James Nicholas “Nick” Rowe is one that deserves a spot in the limelight, and might be one you haven’t heard before. Not only was Rowe a Green Beret during Vietnam, he would also create the Army SERE course, a grueling training course detailing methods of “survival, evasion, resistance, and escape” when captured by the enemy. One of the training’s more notorious tasks is learning how to drink snake blood to keep up your calorie intake, so it’s safe to say Rowe was a pretty hardcore guy.
But even the best of the best can get caught by surprise. While on a mission supporting South Vietnamese irregulars against the Viet Cong, Rowe and his fellow Green Berets walked into an ambush. The men fought valiantly, but after exchanging fire they were overpowered and taken as prisoners. When they reached the POW camp they were separated and locked in cages, entering a living hell that they would endure for the next five years.
It only got worse for Rowe. The Viet Cong knew he was the leader of his unit, and suspected he had information. They were right. Rowe served as the captured unit’s intelligence officer, and possessed exactly the kind of information the Viet Cong desperately needed. As a result, Rowe had to endure near-constant torture, on top of the already deplorable conditions of the prison. At one point Rowe confessed his “true” position, claiming he was just an engineer, but the VC weren’t going to let him off easy.
They cut the torture to give Rowe engineering problems to solve. Amazingly, despite the fact that he was starving, living in a cage and was not an engineer, he completed it correctly. His torturers were satisfied, and Rowe thought he could rest easy thanks to West Point’s mandatory engineering courses.
He was wrong. Around the same time, a group of American peace activists were on a mission to visit American officers in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. The goal of the excursion was a little fuzzy, but they essentially wanted to prove that the North Vietnamese’s prison methods were above board. Rowe’s name was on their list of officers to visit, along with the fact that he was a Special Forces intelligence officer.
When the Viet Cong discovered the lie, they forced Rowe to stand naked in a swamp for days on end, leaving him ravaged by mosquitos and dizzy with lack of food or water. They were fed up with this phony engineer and his multiple escape attempts, and decided enough was enough. They gave Rowe an execution date, eager to rid themselves of his antics.
When the day finally came, Rowe was led far away from the camp, when suddenly a group of American helicopters thundered overhead, rustling the jungle trees and giving Rowe the split second of time he needed to break free, fend off his captors and sprint after the helicopters. Amazingly, one of the choppers noticed Rowe waving like a maniac in a clearing, and was able to rescue him from his scheduled death.
2. The British soldier who escaped The Gestapo’s “unescapable” castle
Escaping a prisoner of war camp is no easy feat, and many who have made it to freedom recount plotting their escape plans for months, even years, to execute it right on the first try. This, apparently, was not Airey Neave’s style. Instead of biding his time, the British soldier escaped his WWII POW camps whenever he could, undeterred by failed attempts.
Finally, when he and his friend were caught in Poland after escaping German POW camp Stalag XX-A, he was collected by the Gestapo, who sent him to Oflag IV-C, AKA the castle of Colditz, AKA the last stop for all troublemaking POWs.
It may look like a summer home fit for the Von Trapp family, but don’t be fooled, this place was no joke. If you’re doubtful you can read up on some accounts of the “escape proof” castle here.
The castle’s prisoners weren’t as confident in its “inescapable” qualities, and instead just came up with ridiculously complex plans of escape.
Failed attempts included the construction of a small wooden glider, a network of underground tunnels, and prisoners sewing themselves into mattresses to be smuggled out with the laundry. Tempting as these flashy failures were, Neave decided to take a more theatrical approach to his escape.
After he secretly acquired pieces of a Polish army uniform, he painted the shirt and cap green to resemble a German officer’s ensemble. Then he put on his new duds and strolled out of the prison like a Nazi on his way to Sunday dinner with his girl. What he didn’t anticipate, however, was how reflective the paint would be; once outside, he lit up like a Christmas tree under the guard’s searchlight passed over him. It didn’t end well.
But Neave still thought the idea was pretty awesome, and pulled the stunt a second time a few months later, with an updated “uniform” of cardboard, cloth, and more Nazi-green. He also had a partner in crime this time, another prisoner named Anthony Luteyn, who was also sporting a mock German getup.
During an all-inmate stage production that the prison sponsored and put on, Neave and Lutyen quietly slipped off stage, crawled underneath the floorboards that held the dancing inmates and right above the guard’s headquarters.
From there the pair dropped into the room from the ceiling and acted natural, strolling about and exchanging pleasantries in German as if they were simply visiting officers. Once they had ensured no one was suspicious, they calmly made their exit. Once outside of the prison, they threw away the homemade German uniforms and pretended to be two Dutch workers on their way to Ulm from Leipzeg, with (fake) papers to prove it. Unfortunately, the phony documents ended up getting the two stopped by German police, but they bought the disguises and sent them to the foreign aid office, believing they were just confused immigrants.
Despite this and other close calls, Neave and Lutven continued their journey — all on foot — until they made it to Switzerland and were finally free. Neaves would later work to ensure there were quality escape lines for other POWS in Europe, and would also serve on the Nuremberg Trials.
3. The three-prong tunnel system that led 3 POWs to safety
While the above escapists have steered clear of the old tunnel-digging prison cliche, it’s still an effective method. In fact, U.S. airmen Roger Bushell took the wartime tradition a step further by constructing a system of three tunnels in a German Air Force POW camp at the height of WWII. The tunnels, nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry,” were each 30 feet deep. This way, Bushell hoped, they wouldn’t be detected by the camp’s perimeter microphones. Each tunnel was also only about two feet wide, though there were larger sections that contained an air pump and a space full of digging supplies. Pieces of wood were used to ensure the stability of the tunnel walls.
Electric lighting was also installed and attached to the prison’s electric grid, allowing the diggers to work and travel by lamplight 10 yards under the ground’s surface. The operation even advanced far enough to incorporate a rail car system into their tunnel network, which was used to carry tons and tons of building materials back and forth during the 5-month construction period.
Just as the “Harry” tunnel was completed in 1944, the American officers who had toiled over the escape route were moved to a new camp. The rest of the prisoners attempted an escape about a week later on March 24, but they had unfortunately miscalculated where their tunnels would end. Initially believing the secret tunnel would dump them inside a forest, they emerged to realize that they were short of the tree line and completely exposed. Still, over 70 men crawled through the dark, dank tunnels to the other side, rushing to the trees once they surfaced. Tragically, on March 25th, a German guard spotted the 77th man crawling out of the tunnel, leading to the capture of 73 of the men, and later the execution of 50 of them. Only three would survive and make it to freedom, but the escape had gone down as one of the most elaborate in history.
4. Bill Goldfinch and Jack Best’s plan to fly the Colditz coop
You didn’t really think we were going to just breeze by that wooden glider story, did you? There have been plenty of wacky escape methods, but none as bold or sophisticated as literally building yourself a two-man wooden plane to peace out in.
At least, this was the plan. Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch were similar to Neave in their can-do, slightly certifiable approach to escape. The men were pilots, and decided that the best way to bust out of the German castle was to do what they do best: fly. Or, more accurately in this case, glide. The Colditz castle was built atop a large cliff, perfect for launching a secret and probably highly unstable aircraft off of.
Goldfinch and Best began building the glider’s skeleton in the attic above the prison chapel, figuring the height would give it enough time to glide across the Mulde river, which was situated about 200 feet below the building. To keep the Germans from walking in on the construction, the pair built a false wall out of old pieces of wood, the same stuff they constructed the glider out of. The plane was mostly made up out of bed slats and floor boards, but the men used whatever material they could get their hands on that they thought the Germans wouldn’t miss. Control wires were going to be created from electrical wiring that was found in quieter sections of the castle.
Though the operation was deemed moot before it could ever be carried out (the Allies released the prisoners before it could be flown), we felt this almost-escape deserved some recognition because by many accounts, it would have worked. In 2000, a replica of the Colditz glider was constructed for a documentary entitled “Escape from Colditz”, and was actually flown successfully at RAF Odiham. It gets even cooler, though. Best and Goldfinch were able to watch the whole thing go down, and witness their “escape” firsthand.