Lt. Edouard Victor Michel Isaacs was having quite the bad day on May 31, 1918. In addition to bearing a long and hard-to-spell name, he found himself suddenly quite wet as his ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Instead of crying about his wet clothes and saltwater stains, he gathered a bunch of intel, made at least four escape attempts, and eventually walked to neutral Switzerland. For his actions, he received the Medal of Honor. He later served in Congress for 10 years.
Assigned to USS President Lincoln
Germany sank the Lusitania in 1917 and really triggered America's rage with the whole "Murder of 123 Americans and over 1,000 other civilians" thing. The U.S. is weirdly sensitive about that. So, right after Congress declared war, it also ordered the seizure of some German vessels held in U.S. ports.
A German passenger liner named SS President Lincoln suddenly became the U.S. troop transport USS President Lincoln. U.S. Navy shipfitters added weapons, added more berthing space, and sent the ship out to sea.
Navy sailors formed a new ship's crew. And one of them was Ensign Edouard Victor Michel Isaacs. The young Naval Academy graduate proved himself capable and quickly earned temporary promotions to lieutenant (junior grade) and then lieutenant.
The USS President Lincoln made four quick and efficient trips back and forth across the Atlantic, carrying thousands of troops to combat each time. The fifth trip started well with a massive convoy delivering their soldiers to Brest, France, on May 23, 1918.
On the return leg of the trip, the USS President Lincoln made it past the submarine danger zone without incident. The combat escorts, four destroyers, turned back to France on May 30. And, on May 31, the German U-boat U-90 hit the ship with torpedoes.
The sinking of Lincoln and capture of Isaacs
Of those torpedoes, three of them slammed home into the Lincoln, quickly dooming the ship. It sank in 18 minutes, reportedly as it fired its guns at the unseen foe. The ship's crew did an amazing job evacuating themselves and the wounded men being transported home on the ship. Only three officers and 23 enlisted men died in the attack and sinking.
But the Germans did get one more American: they took Isaacs prisoner. This was once a common practice of submarine commanders, though it was rare for them to pick just one prisoner. They typically rescued as much crew and any passengers they could.
But Isaacs found himself a lone American on the German submarine U-90. But U-boats are famously cramped, closed vessels where it's impossible for anyone to have significant privacy. So while Isaacs was isolated on the U-boat, he could also see all of its operations. And he very carefully took note of how the ship worked, how the crew operated, and more.
And then he plotted his escape to take his new intel to Allied intelligence.
Isaacs attempts to escape...over and over again
Isaacs first attempt at escape came quite early. As U-90 transited between Denmark and Sweden, he attempted to escape and swim across. In July 1918, he tried to escape the prisoner of war camp at Karlsruhe, Germany. Germany decided to transfer him to a different camp at Villingen, but Isaacs jumped through a train window.
He injured himself with that particular stunt. The Germans quickly recaptured him and beat him for his trouble. He spent three weeks in solitary confinement, nursing his wounds.
By October 1918, he was ready to try again. He broke free with a group of other officers on the night of October 6-7 and intentionally drew the guards' machine gun fire so that the others would have a better chance at escape.
After getting clear of the camp, he met up with an American officer captured while flying with France, Willis. Together, the two men walked to Switzerland, arriving after midnight on October 13.
Isaacs made his way back to Allied lines and immediately reported his intelligence to British and American naval officers. America sent him back to the U.S., and he arrived on November 11, 1918, as the war officially ended. He later received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Isaacs later wrote a book and became a journalist and then a Congressman. He passed in January 1990 as the last surviving World War I Medal of Honor recipient.