Pvt. Frank Savicki
The first American prisoner of war to escape the Germans and live to tell about it was a Pennsylvania coal miner who had emigrated from Poland four years before The Great War began.
His name was Frank Savicki and his story was told in the US Army weekly Stars and Stripes on October 25, 1918 and reprinted in his local paper, the Shenandoah Herald, on November 20, just days after the Armistice.
Savicki's story, unearthed from records at the Schuylkill County courthouse in Pottsville, PA., is similar to that of thousands of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in a huge wave lasting from around 1870 to 1914. He was born in Gaj, Poland, then a province of the Russian Empire, on December 26, 1894.
He and his older sister Anna arrived at Ellis Island on the S.S. Pennsylvania on June 10, 1910, and made their way by train to Shenandoah, where they settled with an uncle. Frank, then 16, went to work in the coal mines. Like many boys his age, he began as a mule driver.
Frank Becomes a Citizen
Savicki was a small but wiry soldier: He was 5'4", weighed 150 pounds, and had blue eyes and brown hair. He was a member of the 28th Division, a Pennsylvania National Guard unit that General John J. Pershing later called "The Iron Division" for its endurance in battle. The Iron Division fought in six major campaigns, from Champagne-Marne to Meuse-Argonne.
The newspaper dramatically recounts Savicki's capture, his journeys in captivity, and his daring escape, starting with the July battle:
"Savicki had been the liaison man between B Company of the (????) Infantry Regiment and C Company, his own unit. With the Marne and the town of Chateau Thierry behind, B Company was going ahead to maintain contact with the Boche and C Company was following.
The 28th Division on the Attack in the Marne Sector
Savicki was the only one of the three to survive the day's action. That evening, waiting in the hole to escape under cover of darkness, he was taken prisoner. German officers interviewed him about a mile behind the lines, then sent him further back and locked him in an enclosed room in a farmhouse, where he was left for two days, in the dark, without food and water. The Germans had taken "three francs in silver, his watch, a safety razor, and his spiral puttees."
On the third day he began a two-day march to a prison camp at Laon, guarded by two German soldiers. "At Laon, weak from fatigue and hunger, Savicki was put in prison barracks in which were quartered several hundred other Americans, French, British, and Italians. The barracks had been converted from some large public buildings and was surrounded by a barbed wire fence."
Savicki spent six weeks in the Laon prison camp. He noted, "There were several hundred prisoners, about fifty of whom were Americans. We worked every day from seven o'clock in the morning until eight or nine o'clock at night. We were divided into small gangs of from six to twelve to work on the roads, on the railroads, or unloading supplies."
Rations were sparse: "Every morning we were given our bread ration - three pounds for seven men. At morning and at night we were given a can of so-called coffee. At noon we were given soup made of some kind of grass and horse meat. There never was much meat in it, though. This noonday issue was the only pretense of a meal of the whole day."
Division Troops During a Gas Attack
After six weeks in Laon, Savicki was moved again, to Rastatt, in Baden. "He made the trip in a box car with forty-odd other Americans. They were three days and two nights en route, during which they subsisted on one piece of bread each and two drinks of water," notes the newspaper account.
He spent about two weeks at Rastatt, where conditions were better than at Laon: "A shower bath had been shipped from Switzerland and it had been installed. Savicki got a bath and a change of underwear. He remained fifteen days in this camp and received two boxes from the Red Cross, each containing ten pounds of canned meat, beans, tobacco, and hard tack."
From the Rastatt camp, Savicki worked every day on a farm owned by an elderly German and his wife. He was quartered in a guard house with several Russian P.O.W.'s who showed him a distant mountain over the border in Switzerland. A former subject of the czar, Savicki spoke Russian and became friends with them, picking up what they had learned about the possibilities of escape, as some of them had been captives for nearly four years. After two weeks on the farm, he decided to make a break for Switzerland.
That night he was able to trick the guard, lock him in the guard house, and escape. The reporter describes Savicki's journey: "He cut straight across country avoiding all highways. His path lay over the tops of several hills, through knots of woods and stretches of ground heavy with underbrush across several small cultivated valleys. He traveled all night guided by the knob of the mountain. He paused when he saw before him, glistening in the moonlight, a little river which he knew separated Germany from Switzerland.
"Dawn found him in a clump of shrubbery on a hillside less than 300 yards from the nearest of the little vine covered sentry boxes scarcely more than 100 feet apart along the international boundary. In the cover of the bushes he remained all day. Before him he could see the river and the difficulties before him in crossing it." The difficulties were barbed wire, railroad tracks, and the river itself.
Savicki noticed that the guards stayed in their boxes and didn't patrol. The river looked too broad to jump, so he decided to try vaulting it, and found a nearby stick to use for a vaulting pole.
The report continues, "After dark he started. He crawled. So slowly and cautiously did he go that the trip to the edge of the barbed wire took five or six hours. There he rose and threaded his way through the strands, pausing after each step to unfasten the barbs which clung to his clothing.
"He came to the railroad track and crawled over that. He gained the edge of the river. He stood on the bank. The other bank ten feet away was Switzerland and safety. He poised his vaulting pole and sprang for the further side. The pole sank four feet into the mud of the river bottom. Private Frank Savicki landed belly deep in the water with something of a splash.
"There was a tense minute. Clinging to a clump of grass on the Swiss bank, Savicki waited for the bullets he was certain were coming. But none came. Evidently the Boche had not heard him. Finally, he pulled himself onto the land. He was a prisoner no more.
"By daylight he made a little Swiss village in which he met an old man who dried his clothes before a fireplace and gave him breakfast. The town received him graciously and bought him a railway ticket to Berne. At Berne the Red Cross fitted him out in a new uniform and the American colony outdid itself in affording entertainment worthy of an American ex-prisoner from Germany."
One of the Most Widely Circulated Photos of the AEF
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