Lieutenant Pat O'Brien was a World War I flying ace from the United States who flew for the British before America joined the war. Fatherless at 15, Pat O’Brien left his home of Momence, IL seeking to learn to fly at a time when airplanes were mere kites. He was among the very first pilots of the Army Signal Corps to test early Curtiss flying machines in 1916 on North Island at San Diego. North Island is now the U.S. Naval Base. Impatient with America’s slow acceptance of the airplane as a weapon of war, he left the Corps to join the Canadian Force being trained in Toronto to replace thousands of British pilots who were losing their lives in France.
Shot down over Belgium in 1917, he crashed from 8,000 feet and survived, German doctors removing a bullet from his throat. One month later he jumped from a moving prison train and escaped. He was the first American-born pilot to escape in World War I. He walked seventy-two days, over 250 miles behind enemy lines to freedom at the Holland border where he dug under a nine-foot electrified fence and escaped. Arriving in London one week later, he visited King George in a private audience that lasted nearly one hour. During his six months recovering in London, he penned a best-selling book about his escape Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp.
O'Brien subsequently enjoyed a great deal of fame throughout Britain and America for his exploits. He wrote a popular book, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison (1918), about his experiences, was honored by King George V and toured America as a highly requested speaker.
He moved to Hollywood in 1920 with half a million dollars, and starred in a silent film as the leading man in Shadows of the West. O'Brien was found dead in Hollywood hotel at age 30. However, the cause of his death remains a mystery. It was initially reported that he committed suicide and he was buried without a gravemarker. Author Kevin McNulty, Sr. researched O'Brien's life and death for more than six years and he believes O'Brien was killed by his wife and another woman.
O'Brien's daring escape was featured on the Travel Channel's popular Mysteries at the Museum series in 2017. The segment can be found at approximately the 21:05 mark of the episode: https://www.travelchannel.com/videos/madame-x-and-more-0289713
The following excerpts were selected from Pat O'Brien's 1918 autobiography, Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp. The full text of Outwitting the Hun is made available online by Project Gutenberg.
Photos from: Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp (1918).
O'Brien (standing center behind the German guard seated at the table) at Courtrai prison camp.
I shall not easily forget the 17th of August, 1917. I killed two Huns in a double-seated machine in the morning, another in the evening, and then I was captured myself. I may have spent more eventful days in my life, but I can't recall any just now. . . .
Our patrol was up at 8 P.M., and up to within ten minutes of that hour it had been entirely uneventful. At 7:50 P.M., however, while we were flying at a height of sixteen thousand feet, we observed three other English machines which were about three thousand feet below us pick a fight with nine Hun machines. I knew right then that we were in for it, because I could see over toward the ocean a whole flock of Hun machines which evidently had escaped the attention of our scrappy comrades below us. So we dove down on those nine Huns. At first the fight was fairly even. There were eight of us to nine of them. But soon the other machines which I had seen in the distance, and which were flying even higher than we were, arrived on the scene, and when they, in turn, dove down on us, there were just twenty of them to our eight! Four of them singled me out. I was diving and they dove right down after me, shooting as they came. Their tracer-bullets were coming closer to me every moment. . . .
A burst of bullets went into the instrument board and blew it to smithereens, another bullet went through my upper lip, came out of the roof of my mouth and lodged in my throat, and the next thing I knew was when I came to in a German hospital the following morning at five o'clock, German time. I was a prisoner of war! . . .
A German doctor removed the bullet from my throat, and the first thing he said to me when I came to was, "You are an American!" There was no use denying it, because the metal identification disk on my wrist bore the inscription, "Pat O'Brien, U.S.A. Royal Flying Corps." . . .
On the fourth day of my captivity I was well enough to write a brief message to my squadron reporting that I was a prisoner of war and "feeling fine," although, as a matter of fact, I was never so depressed in my life. I realized, however, that if the message reached my comrades, it would be relayed to my mother in Momence, Illinois, and I did not want to worry her more than was absolutely necessary. It was enough for her to know that I was a prisoner. She did not have to know that I was wounded. I had hopes that my message would be carried over the lines and dropped by one of the German flying officers. That is a courtesy which is usually practiced on both sides. . . .
One of the most interesting souvenirs I have of my imprisonment at Courtrai is a photograph of a group of us taken in the prison courtyard. The picture was made by one of the guards, who sold copies of it to those of us who were able to pay his price—one mark apiece. As we faced the camera, I suppose we all tried to look our happiest, but the majority of us, I am afraid, were too sick at heart to raise a smile even for this occasion. One of our Hun guards is shown in the picture seated at the table. I am standing directly behind him, attired in my flying tunic, which they allowed me to wear all the time I was in prison, as is the usual custom with prisoners of war. . . .
There was one subject that was talked about in this prison whenever conversation lagged, and I suppose it is the same in the other prisons, too. What were the chances of escape? Every man seemed to have a different idea and one way, I suppose, was about as impracticable as another. None of us ever expected to get a chance to put our ideas into execution, but it was interesting speculation, and, anyway, one could never tell what opportunities might present themselves. . . . Mine came sooner than I expected. I had been in prison at Courtrai nearly three weeks when, on the morning of September 9th, I and six other officers were told that we were to be transferred to a prison camp in Germany via train. . . .
Lieutenant Pat O'Brien made his escape jumping from the moving train and spent the next seventy-two days evading capture while walking through Germany and occupied Belgium until reaching the border of Holland.
You can read the full account of O'Brien's escape in his memoir, Outwitting the Hun, which is made available online by Project Gutenberg.
The full story of Lt. Pat O’Brien's life - war, fame, love of two women, exotic travels to Russia, Siberia, China, Cuba, Europe and Japan plus all the excitement of the early Roaring 20’s comes alive in the Story of Lt. Pat O’Brien by Kevin McNulty, Sr. available on Amazon.
Lieutenant Pat O'Brien, Royal Flying Corps. From Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp (1918).
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