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St. Louis native Neal Bascomb details daring World War I prisoner escapes

Neal Bascomb is the author of "The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War"
Caitlin Lally | St. Louis Public Radio

When considering the pivotal moments of World War I, the Great Escape of 1918 is likely not the first incident that comes to mind. Indeed, the history of this truly remarkable episode has largely gone unnoticed in the 100 years since it transpired.

Neal Bascomb’s latest book “The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War” attempts to shed light on this central event in world history. Bascomb joined host Don Marsh for a conversation about the new book on this Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

The book is the first comprehensive account of the small but mighty cohort of Allied soldiers who successfully escaped from Holzminden, the most infamous of Germany’s World War I camps for prisoners of war.

Led by pilot David Gray, these soldiers—desperate, not only to escape the atrocities of the camp, but also to return to the battlefield—hatched a scheme that involved extraordinary feats of engineering, trickery, and willpower.

“The Escape Artists” is different than prior attempts at recounting this history, primarily due to Bascomb’s extensive archival research.

“I went to the [soldiers’] families, and discovered these treasure troves of information. Many unpublished memoirs, many letters … diaries,” he told Don. These sources, said Bascomb, “really gave me a window into these men’s souls.”

The men’s escape was perilous and uncertain from start to finish. It began with the treacherous construction of an underground escape tunnel. Once the soldiers made it past this point, they needed to brave the combat zone that awaited the soldiers at the tunnel’s end.

“It was one thing to get out of the Holzminden; it was quite something altogether different to make it to freedom,” said Bascomb.

Through never-before-seen source material and his characteristic cinematic style, Bascomb brings the great prison break—and the characters that made it possible—to life in a brand new way.

Bascomb is a journalist and author most well known for his extensive body of historical nonfiction work, which includes critically acclaimed books such as “The Nazi Hunters” and “The Winter Fortress.” Before becoming a prolific Seattle-based writer, Bascomb spent his childhood as a public school student and devoted hockey player in St. Louis.

He will be discussing “The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Missouri Historical Museum.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillCaitlin LallyLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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