One of the scariest things that can happen to a soldier is being captured by the enemy. Sure, the Geneva Conventions restrict what can be done to you when you’re a prisoner of war (POW), but some of our enemies don’t really abide by those rules. In this feature, we’ll give you 10 amazing stories of survival and strength behind enemy lines. Some escaped, some were rescued, but all are badass.
The Vietnam War was the last major war that really featured a lot of prisoner taking, and one of the most astounding stories belongs to Nick Rowe. The intelligence officer for the Special Forces fell into an ambush with his team in 1963. When first captured by the Viet Cong, Rowe claimed to be a civil engineer, but eventually his story was blown and Charlie was pissed. They staked him out in a swamp so he was unable to move while insects feasted on his body. He tried to escape multiple times, at one point returning to custody when the Viet Cong threatened to kill one of his squad mates. Finally, the enemy slated him for execution, but as they were marching him to the firing squad he disarmed his captors and ran to a nearby clearing, where he managed to signal American helicopters to pick him up.
If you want a real tough man, here is 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound Alistair Urquhart. This British soldier was taken prisoner in 1941 and viciously tortured when the Japanese invaded Singapore during World War II. He was sent to work on the “Death Railway” to Burma before being loaded into the bowels of a “hell ship” and transported to Japan, where he worked slave labor in a camp 10 miles outside of Nagasaki. He was there when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the town, yet miraculously survived and was freed when Japan surrendered.
Surviving in a POW camp is hard enough if you have all of your limbs, but legendary World War II flying ace Douglas Bader had it even tougher. He was missing both of his legs. After a horrifying crash cost him his lower extremities, Bader trained hard and was re-awarded his flight certification, taking numerous missions over Germany. Shot down by friendly fire over France, Bader was captured by the Nazis and taken to the notorious Colditz Castle. Despite not having his legs, Bader attempted to escape multiple times before the U.S. Army liberated him in 1945.
When you’re a POW, you need to use whatever tools you can to survive. For sailor Richard Antrim, it was his quick thinking that got him and his men rescued from a Japanese prison camp. After his ship, the HMS Encounter, was sunk in the Java Sea, Antrim and his crew were sent to a labor camp in the Celebes Islands. While there, he impressed his captors with his engineering knowledge and persuaded them to let him rearrange the work plans for better productivity. Unbeknownst to his captors, Antrim had arranged a system of trenches to spell out “U.S.” from the air to signal his countrymen that POWs were in them and shouldn’t be bombed. He received a Bronze Star for bravery for this awesome act.
Escape is always the first thing on your mind when you’re behind enemy lines, but few prisoners can actually pull it off. Few prisoners are Dieter Dengler, though. Dengler was a German-born Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. Quickly taken into custody, Dengler wasn’t worried. During training exercises, he’d not only managed to escape the model prison camp three times, but was also the only person to gain weight due to his willingness to eat garbage. Once in the real thing, Dengler quickly organized a group of soldiers into armed revolt and escaped, only to find himself in a leech-infested jungle hellhole. Amazingly, he managed to signal an Air Force pilot after 23 days in the jungle and became the first U.S. serviceman to escape from a Laotian prison camp.
For much of his military career, Hungarian-born soldier Tibor “Bob” Ruvin was passed over for medals due to entrenched anti-Semitism. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor a staggering four times but was never awarded it. While fighting in the Korean War, Ruvin was captured by Chinese forces and taken to a POW camp. Conditions in the camp were horrible, with the Americans so demoralized that they fought with and snitched on each other constantly to curry favor. Ruvin flipped the bird to that kind of behavior, instead sneaking out of the camp every night to pillage Korean supply depots for food which he distributed to his fellow prisoners. He considered it a mitzvah, and the heroic Hebrew was finally recognized for the Medal of Honor in 2005.
It’s fairly common for prisoners of war to be paraded in front of cameras as propaganda tools, but for a clever mind, that can be a tool to use against the enemy. When Navy jet pilot Jeremiah Denton was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, it began an eight-year ordeal of imprisonment that would have crushed a lesser man. Denton, however, kept his cool all the way, and when he was forced into a televised press conference, he repeatedly blinked his eyes in Morse code, spelling out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” to let the good guys know that North Vietnam was disobeying the Geneva Convention.
Now here’s a guy who made being a prisoner of war look damn cool. Honore Giraud was a French general who was captured during both World War I and World War II and escaped both times. We’ll skim over his first escapade because it’s not terribly interesting, but his WWII adventure is epic. In 1940, he was captured by German troops and sent to the imposing Konigsten Castle outside of Dresden. He spent two solid years plotting his escape, learning German and secretly memorizing the geography of the area. One day, he lowered himself down the castle walls with a rope and escaped, eventually reaching France. The story of his escape became known worldwide, and Heinrich Himmler ordered the Gestapo to find him and assassinate him.
If you’re in a Nazi prison camp, escape should be your No. 1 priority. For New Zealand-born soldier Charles Upham, twice awarded the Victoria Cross, it was always on his mind. After being captured by the Axis, he was assigned to the notorious Colditz Castle. Before he even got there, he was working on getting out. First he jumped out of a train bathroom window, knocking himself unconscious on the tracks. So that didn't work. When he got to the prison camp, he tried to scale the fence in broad daylight. When the guards stopped him, he simply lit a cigarette and walked back to his work area. Now that’s serious swagger. After that attempt, he was put under constant guard by two men with machine guns, but even that couldn’t stop him from making further escape attempts. When Colditz was finally liberated by the Americans, instead of returning home to his family, Upham broke into the armory, kitted up and went out to hunt any Nazi stragglers he could find.
Next: The Last American POW
Prisoners of war in Vietnam had a tough time of it, as the Cong routinely used all kinds of nasty tortures to get information. But James Stockdale was a man of iron. After being shot down by friendly fire, he was captured in 1965 and taken to the Hoa Loa prison camp. When Stockdale learned that his captors planned to parade him in public for propaganda purposes, he slit open his scalp with a razor to disfigure himself. When they made him wear a hat, he beat himself in the face with a stool. He spent seven years in the prison camp, and when he was released he was barely alive, suffering from a broken back, a broken leg and two shoulders that had been brutally wrenched from his sockets. But he made it out.