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Pat O’Brien tells of his ‘great’ escape

January 25, 2018

Editor’s note: The year was 1918. America was embroiled in World War I, women were pushing for the right to vote and a flu pandemic would soon devastate the country. Our Throwback Thursday takes a look back at our most popular stories from this month in history, from the quirky to the heartbreaking.

The entire county had been waiting weeks for news of Pat O’Brien, a heroic prisoner of war who was slowly traveling back across the Atlantic to do a tour of the area. His first public appearance in the area was Jan. 22, 1918, as O’Brien finally shared his story of captivity and triumph with his hometown. This story, published unabridged under the headline “Pat O’Brien Tells of His Escape from the Germans” was wildly popular, with reprints and follow-up articles for weeks to come.

Five hundred patriotic citizens and friends of “Pat” O’Brien attended the banquet in his honor Tuesday night in the Winnerholm building in Momence. They pronounced the affair a tremendous success.

Although the general weather conditions were poor, the tickets, which incidentally benefitted the Red Cross also, sold as if the weather were summer. Besides a large number of guests from Momence, many went there on trains, in autos and bobsleds from a distance. Preparations had been made to accommodate 470 guests, but so many applied for admission that seats were at a premium and arrangements were made to take care of a larger number. The walls and ceiling were draped with bunting and flags. A patriotic impression prevailed.

With the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” to which everyone arose, by the Momence Orchestra, which was located in the rear of the building to one side, and to which everyone applauded liberally, the actual program commenced. This musical announcement heralded the approach of an important ceremony. While the next piece was being played by the orchestra, “Pat” O’Brien, his mother and the others of his party, were escorted to their seats at a smaller table in the front of the dining room. As Pat passed down the aisle, between the rows of friendly eyes, he tried to smile to everyone. He seemed immensely pleased and not at all embarrassed. If he had been “Teddy” Roosevelt, he probably would have said “delighted.”

Pat Calls All His Friends

Pat O’Brien’s greeting was spoken in a clear tone, in a voice which betokened sincerity. “I am not going to say, ‘ladies and gentlemen,’” he said, “but I am simply going to say, ‘friends.’” Any unsympathetic guests in the dining room were won immediately. For that moment, Pat was their friend also.

Explaining very briefly that he could not tell those present much on the war on account of the lack of time, Pat O’Brien said, “And so I will tell you only of my escape and perhaps that is what you wish.” It was.

Story of Escape

The story, as related by Pat O’Brien, colored with many humorous remarks and bits of color, which only an Irishman can see and describe, is in substance as follows:

While fighting in the British Royal Air Corps on the Flanders front, on Aug. 17, the machine in which he was flying, was shot down by the Germans and fell to earth. Pat O’Brien escaped death by a miracle. He landed on German soil; was taken prisoner and kept in a hospital immediately behind the German lines for several days. Lt. O’Brien, because of his rank and because of the fact that he was American, was taken to the German intelligence department, where he was asked all kinds of questions in regard to America’s participation in the war and activity.

“Hell Turned Loose”

“I informed them that before the war was over, they would think that Hell had been turned loose,” remarked Pat. “I only hope that I will be able to see that carried out.”

After being kept by the intelligence department for two days, where he was fairly well treated, he was taken to a prison camp in Belgium, where he got very little to eat and usually was hungry. He humorously remarked that he made up his mind there and then that he didn’t like the camp. It was when he was informed that he was to be taken to a prison camp, being bombed continuously by Allied airships, that he made up his mind to quit the German prison life if at all possible. He declared that it was bad enough to be bombed by the Germans, but to be bombed by one’s own friends was much worse.

Considered Escape

During a day and a night, Lt. O’Brien considered the possibility of his escape. Meanwhile, the train on which he was riding carried him further and further into the interior of Germany. He said that he believed that here was a time when everyone felt afraid. He finally conquered what little hesitation he had and after the train had gotten 75 or 80 miles into Germany, jumped boldly from the train window with two slices of bread in one hand and a sausage in the other. “I landed on my feet, but my face was a close second,” said Pat. He declared that if the train had stopped immediately, he would probably have been recaptured. However, the train was not stopped for half a mile and meanwhile he had picked himself up and had gotten off the right of way, hiding himself from the searching party.

Wandered 73 Days

For 73 days, he lived like a hunted beast; tramping through the mud of Germany, through Luxembourg and Belgium to the Holland frontier. He stole such vegetables as he could and lived like a rabbit, on celery and other greens. He dared not ask anyone for food. Most of the time he wore his uniform. At last, however, he managed to steal garments, bit by bit until he had covered it.

Swam the Meuse

The Meuse river was reached finally by Pat, who plunged in despite the fact that it was night. He admitted that he would have drowned had it not been for the fact that he had learned to swim in his youth in the Kankakee River and in the old stone quarry. When he had reached the opposite bank, he was so exhausted, he fainted. He came to and had presence enough of mind to pull himself out of sight for the rest of the day.

“For the next two days was the worst of all,” declared Lt. O’Brien. “I said to myself that if I didn’t get food, I couldn’t hold out much longer.”

Begged for Food

However, with his indomitable spirit, Pat did hold out. Finally, when at the point of starvation, he chose a small farmhouse so that few German soldiers would be quartered there and boldly knocked upon the door, with a rock demanding food. Evidently there were no German soldiers there for Pat said nothing about them. The house was occupied by an old woman, who stirred herself to cook some potatoes for Pat.

A little anecdote destined to illustrate the Irish humor, which carried him through hardships, was related at this point by Lt. O’Brien. He said that the woman of the house was 75 years of age and had been wearing wooden shoes probably all her life. These had worn a callus on her foot. While she was busy about the house, Pat sat there, despite all his troubles, and wondered if it would be possible to drive a nail through the callus.

Saw “Horrible Sight”

It was at this house that Pat declared that he saw the most horrible sight he had ever seen. His auditors waited spell bound. “It was myself in a looking glass,” declared Pat, who went on to tell how he had not washed and had marks of blood still on his face from his contact with the gravel right of way. He cleaned himself up, paid the woman four marks for the meal, and started on his way again.

Guided by North Star

He had but one thing to guide him and that was the north star. “If ever anyone watched the north star, I did,” he said, telling how it had been his companion and associate and how he had talked to it and befriended it, as he seems to be befriended everything else.

Finally, Pat came to one of the largest cities of Belgium. For some reason or other he did not seem at all anxious to relate in detail any of his experiences there. He declared that he had found everyone there an enemy and said that “surrounded by plenty, he had nearly starved.”

Nearly Re-Captured

It was while approaching this city along the country road that he came the nearest of being re-captured. He was met by three German soldiers and commanded to halt. He immediately pulled out a small bottle of water, which he had been carrying, of his pocket, resolved, if necessary, to hit one of the soldiers over the head with it and attempt his escape. He was searched but as nothing was found upon him, he was not arrested. While the soldiers had their backs turned, Pat quietly walked off. He feared later that they were on the lookout for potato smugglers and had thought he was one.

Reaches Holland Frontier

The Holland frontier was finally reached. It was lined with nine feet of electric wire, carrying a death dealing voltage. He immediately set to work to construct a ladder out of two small striplings, which he found. Because the sap was wet, they proved to be anything but non-conductors. Pat was given the worst blow that he received during his escape. He was knocked unconscious by the electricity and might have been killed. When he revived, the German border-guard passed so close to him that he could have reached out his ladder and touched him. “At that time I was only thinking of one thing, to get to Holland,” said Pat. “I had no intention of taking a life unless absolutely necessary.”

Tunneled Under Wire

“After one of the hardest jobs I ever did in my life, I dug a tunnel under the wire,” said Pat, telling how he had crawled under the Holland frontier, with only two inches or an inch and a half separating his back from the wire — and death.

Lt. O’Brien made no attempt to describe how he felt when reaching safety; confining himself to the mere statement that he had been 73 days in making his escape and had lost 50 pounds.

Sought British Consul

He went immediately to the British Consul. Pat rather apologized for seeking the British Consul instead of the American, but excused himself, saying that he was in British uniform. Here he was given food, an entire change of clothing, and anything he wished. He was offered money and told that he could have 1,000 pounds, which would have amounted to $5,000. “To show that there is a fool born every minute,” said Pat, “I took 10.”

Proceeded to London

From Holland, Lit. O’Brien went immediately to London. He related none of the details of how the convoy accompanying them had been rammed by their own ship.

In London, Lt. O’Brien received a telegram from King George, commanding him to appear before him at Buckingham Palace. To this audience, Pat went with more or less fear of royalty and somewhat fearful of his own conduct. He was met at the palace by Early Conner, who ushered Pat into a small room, where he expected that he would receive further instructions. He was grasped by the hand by an unknown man and someone announced, “Lt. O’Brien, your Majesty.” Then the man left the room and “I would have been a close second if the King had not had me by the hand,” remarked Pat.

King, a Misrepresented Man

The present King of England is a very misrepresented man, according to Patrick O’Brien, who said a more kind hearted and courteous man has never lived. He paid him the tribute of saying that when the war was over, King George would be even more of a favorite than his father had been.

“I had expected that the King would say congratulations,” said Pat. “We actually talked 55 minutes.”

On leaving London, Pat went to Dublin, stating that he felt that it was only proper that a man with a name like his should visit Ireland. Then he came to Toronto, where he brought the news of the death of his best friend, Paul Reiney, whose death he had witnessed while in the German hospital.

“Finally I came to the best town in the world: the town where I was born, Momence.”