A Daring Escape: How Frank Savicki Broke Free From a German POW Camp, Outsmarted Guards and Crawled for 6 Hours to Win his Freedom

A Daring Escape: How Frank Savicki Broke Free From a German POW Camp, Outsmarted Guards and Crawled for 6 Hours to Win his Freedom

Patrick Lynch - February 17, 2017

The first American POW to escape during WWI was a Polish immigrant named Frank Savicki. His is an extraordinary tale of bravery and a prime example of what the human body and mind can do when placed under extreme duress. After being captured in France in 1918, Savicki was transported to Germany where he endured terrible conditions. One night, he used his cunning to fool his guards before running, crawling and even vaulting his way to freedom.

Citizenship & War

Savicki was born in the town of Gaj, Poland in 1894. Along with his older sister Anna, he arrived at Ellis Island, New York in 1910. The Savickis were among the massive influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe that came to America in the 40-year period before WWI. They moved to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania to live with their uncle. As was the case with most kids his age at that time, Savicki worked as a mule driver before working in the coal mines starting at the age of 16.

He began the long process of becoming a citizen in 1914 and was finally naturalized in December 1916. America entered the war in April 1917 and Savicki enlisted in the A.E.F. a couple of weeks later; he was keen to serve his new country and became a member of the Pennsylvanian National Guard. The 28th Division was nicknamed the Iron Division due to its endurance, and they fought in six important campaigns during the war.

A Daring Escape: How Frank Savicki Broke Free From a German POW Camp, Outsmarted Guards and Crawled for 6 Hours to Win his Freedom
First AEF Troops land in France. Daily Herald

Savicki was part of C Company, and along with B Company, they were located between the towns of Chateau Thierry and Marne, France in July 1917. He was a liaison between the two groups, and the plan was for B Company to proceed to Marne to keep contact with the enemy while C Company followed. When B Company ran into the Germans, a skirmish took place, and Savicki passed the signal back to his group. However, he was cut off from both groups along with two other men. Sadly, they both died, and Savicki was captured after trying to hide in a shell hole.

After a brief interrogation, the Germans put Savicki in a locked room in a farmhouse. He stayed there with no food or water for two days before being transported to a prison camp in Laon. The exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry soldier was thrown in a barracks along with hundreds of captured troops. It was a desperately grim situation; the men were surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and forced to work 13-14 hours a day, seven days a week.

Savicki recalled the terrible conditions the POWs had to endure. Rations consisted of less than 200 grams of bread a day, a drink that was allegedly coffee, and a soup made from grass and a tiny amount of horsemeat. The men slept on a barn floor with no blankets, no change of clothes and no way of bathing. In the six weeks, he spent at Laon, Savicki never took his clothes off, and the men were covered in lice.

A Daring Escape: How Frank Savicki Broke Free From a German POW Camp, Outsmarted Guards and Crawled for 6 Hours to Win his Freedom
Frank Savicki. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Another POW Camp

Savicki was moved to Rastatt in Baden, Germany and traveled in a boxcar with 40 other American prisoners. The journey took three days, and the men ate just one piece of bread each and had a couple of drinks of water. The POWs at Rastatt were treated a little bit better than in Laon because they had a shower, bath, change of clothes and a couple of Red Cross boxes of food. He spent two weeks there working on a farm owned by an old German man and his wife.

Savicki shared a prison with a group of Russian POWs who showed him a mountain in the distance over the border in Switzerland. As Poland was part of the Russian Empire at the time of Savicki’s birth, he spoke Russian and soon made friends with the men. These troops had been in captivity for four years and had been considering the possibility of escape for some time.

A Daring Escape: How Frank Savicki Broke Free From a German POW Camp, Outsmarted Guards and Crawled for 6 Hours to Win his Freedom
American Soldiers heading home from WWI. Historical Photos

The Great Escape

Savicki wasn’t prepared to wait long, so he decided to make an escape attempt after just 15 days on the farm. Step one involved tricking the guard and locking him in the prison. As it transpired, this turned out to be the easy part. The soldier raced away from the camp and stayed clear of highways. Savicki trekked through hills, woods, and valleys before spotting a river that he knew separated Germany from Switzerland.

Between Savicki and Freedom lay 300 feet of terrain, a river, and German sentry boxes located 100 feet apart. He hid in the bushes and tried to plot his daring escape from enemy territory. Savicki noticed the guards stayed in their boxes and didn’t patrol; this lifted his spirits as it made his task a little easier. There was still the small matter of crossing the river. He spotted a long stick and decided to use it as a vaulting pole.

He waited until dark and crawled his way to the barbed wire fencing. The short journey took six agonizing hours and, after pulling pieces of wire from his body, Savicki made it to the river’s edge. As he stood on the bank, he could see that freedom was just 10 feet away. He planted the pole in the riverbank, and it sank into the mud; Savicki landed in the water and made quite a splash.

Savicki waited for what seemed like an eternity because of the noise he had made, but the bullets never came. Without further delay, he pulled himself onto the bank and moved as fast as he could into Switzerland. By morning, he came across a tiny village, and the kind, elderly man there dried his clothes and gave him breakfast. The locals were sympathetic and paid for Savicki’s ticket to Berne, where he received a new uniform.

After the war, Savicki returned to Pennsylvania, but details of the rest of his life are sketchy. A 1920 census shows a ‘Frank Savitzky’ living in the escapee’s neighborhood, but it was a common name among Polish immigrants, so we can’t say for sure if this man was the same individual who became the first American POW to escape in WWI.


Some Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 8 Incredible WWII POW Stories of Survival and Escape

History Collection – The Civil War’s Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives

History Collection – A WWII Rampage at a POW Campaign In Utah

History Collection – Japanese POW Camps During World War II