With a very special passenger aboard, the New York Central train bound for New York City pulled out of Ogdensburg at 7:45pm Sat., Jan. 26, 1941.
The 26-year-old man escorted by his lawyer was no ordinary vagrant arrested on the grounds of the Psychiatric Center in the early hours of Jan. 25.
Reporters, hot for a fresh take on the story, met the train at Albany and at Harmon.
He was an escaped German Messerschmitt fighter pilot shipped with other POWs from England to Canada.
Franz Xaver von Werra hand-paddled a small boat across the St. Lawrence from Ontario.
The Luftewaffe pilot commissioned in 1938 scored his first five victories in the May 1940 Battle of France and later claimed two more.
Three months later in the Battle of Britain, Werra claimed nine aircraft destroyed, four in the air and five on the ground. The Luftwaffe accepted the air victories. No confirming British records have been located.
Sept. 5, 1940 saw the end of his victories when anyone of three RAF pilots on record forced his crash landing in Kent where an unarmed army cook took him into custody.
Days later his first short-lived escape from a work party was thwarted by a military policeman with a truncheon. Werra held a pickax.
He found himself delivered to Trent Park manor house for 18 days of interrogation.
Here the British MI 19 took the bugging of rooms of the stately home to a fine art, initially seeking useful information from Luftwaffe pilots. Later in the lap of luxury, relaxed German field officers residing here provided a trove of intelligence to the Allies.
Following his grilling, Werra was sent to POW Camp 1 in Lancashire. Here Oct. 7 he made his second run for freedom when other German prisoners screened his escape while they were briefly allowed outside the camp.
Two Home Guard soldiers found him Oct. 10 in a sheep shelter. He quickly escaped. Two days later he was bagged wallowing in swampy moorland.
He earned 21 days solitary confinement and internment Nov. 3 at a POW Camp in Swanwick, Derbyshire. The prisoners had a tunnel under construction. The escape artist joined the diggers who styled themselves Swanwick Tiefbau A.G. (Swanwick Excavations, Inc.).
Werra proved his brass following a Dec. 20 escape with four POWs who were quickly nabbed.
With bluff, forged papers and his flying suit in hand the suave German persuaded a locomotive engineer he was a downed Dutch airman. Even the police gave him a by. At the Codnor Park Railway Station a dubious clerk arranged transportation to RAF Hucknall.
Squadron Leader Boniface at Hucknall was less convinced. When he slipped out of his office to verify the facts, Werra bolted for a hanger. At gun point, Boniface arrested him in a cockpit.
With five escapes to his credit Werra earned an all-expenses-paid trip to Canada.
Jan. 10, 1941 he and 1,250 other German POWs aboard the Duchess of York were in a convoy bound for Halifax. Given his reputation, he was under armed guard until well out to sea.
Werra continued his scheming. He was nervy enough to consider the Germans boarding and taking the escort battleship HMS Ramillies, if she remained the convoy’s sole guardian.
Aboard the officers’ train in Halifax he learned they were bound for a camp north of Lake Superior. Knowing the route passed close to the neutral United States, the dedicated escaper determined to dash at the best opportunity somewhere between Montreal and Ottawa.
Outside Smiths Falls he jumped from a window. In the populated area with good roads and New York only 30 miles away, he had a good shot at success.
The six Germans who followed his example were soon rounded up.
He found his way to Prescott and the frozen St. Lawrence with a service station roadmap. With the lights of Ogdensburg beckoning, he made his way downriver to begin his crossing.
Midway the river ran freely; Werra backtracked. At a camp he broke a small boat out of the snow, which he pushed and dragged to open water. He valiantly struggled toward freedom paddling barehanded to land below the Psychiatric Center.
He presented himself to the first police officer he encountered, showed his few possessions and uniform and was taken into custody. Immigration authorities charged him with entering the United States illegally.
German consular officials in New York City paid Werra’s $5,000 bail, secured James Davies as his attorney and soon had him on the train, but not before Ogdensburg Chief of Police Herbert S. Meyers was photographed him.
The Ogdensburg Journal, Sun., Jan. 27, 1941 reported, pictures and stories of the German flyer’s capture were to be found in Sunday editions throughout the country. All of the stories mentioned Ogdensburg and details of his capture here giving the city its biggest news “break” since the maneuvers were concluded.
German consular officials met Werra at Grand Central Terminal. Germany awaited the return of the hero, “Houdini” and braggart who claimed 40 kills.
The Canadians and British wanted his return. Negotiations continued with the United States until April 1941. Werra was gone. He had been secreted to the Mexican border, made his way to Rio de Janeiro, on to Barcelona and Rome, and then to Germany.
Adolf Hitler awarded him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross.
Based on his experience Werra helped refine German interrogation techniques and contributed to a training protocol for the questioning captured Germans would face. His report on his treatment may have improved the handling of Allied POWs.
On his return to the Luftwaffe he was promoted to Gruppenkommandeur and stationed at the Russian Front. August 1941 his unit was re-equipped in Germany with a new fighter and deployed to the Netherlands.
Oct. 25, 1941 Franz Xaver Von Werra took a practice flight over the North Sea.
The engine failed, the plane crashed into the sea, and his body was never found.
Michael Whittaker resides in Bishop’s Mills, Ontario, and is a former member of the Fort La Presentation Association Board of Directors. He currently serves on the association’s marketing committee. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the association