Upon breaking out of his second Japanese prison after almost three years of captivity, Lt. Cmdr. Columbus Darwin Smith crossed more than 1,300 miles of enemy-held territory in a desperate bid for freedom.

On November 28, 1941, Rear Admiral William Glassford summoned Lieutenant Commander Columbus Darwin Smith for a private conference. Glassford was commander of the Yangtze River Patrol in Shanghai and was doing his best to complete the dismemberment of the illustrious “YangPat” gunboat force as quickly as possible.

Japan and the United States were on a collision course, and the officers and men of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, of which YangPat was a part, found themselves in the middle. This was particularly true in Shanghai, where the International Settlement and French Concession were the only areas still unoccupied by Japanese forces. Hoping to “show the flag” for as long as possible but in an increasingly untenable position, U.S. officials had waited until the eleventh hour to evacuate from China. By Thanksgiving 1941, all that remained on station were the gunboats Tuituila, which would be turned over to the Chinese, and Wake.

Launched in 1927 as Guam and renamed in January 1941, Wake was a typical gunboat, 159 feet in length, and armed with two 3-inch cannons and eight .30-caliber machine guns amidships—four on the port side and four on the starboard. The ship normally had a crew of about 60, but as part of the drawdown of forces, by the time Glassford met with Smith, this had been reduced to a mere 14 men, eight of whom were radio operators. The boat was also stripped of anything of use, though care was taken that the gunboat would have ample supplies for a long period of independent duty.

Without most of its crew and equipment, and a sitting duck for a superior Japanese force that was expected at almost any minute, Wake had to be one of the most unappealing commands in the Navy. Still, the boat needed a skipper.

Glassford already had a man in mind, a Navy reservist recalled to the colors in January 1941. Columbus Darwin Smith was an old “China hand” with years of experience in the Far East. He was also a member of a very select fraternity, the Shanghai Pilot’s Association. It fell to the members of this tiny group to guide international shipping up the treacherous Yangtze River and onward up the Whangpoo River to Shanghai.

In 1941 Smith was 48, a seasoned mariner who spoke Mandarin Chinese and could get by in Japanese. He seemed the perfect choice—but this was a mission that was truly above and beyond the call of duty, and he had every right to refuse the assignment. After hearing Glassford’s proposal, Smith grew thoughtful. “As I see it,” he told the admiral, “I may be killed by the Japs, or I may wind up in a Jap prison.” It was an accurate enough prediction, and both men knew it. “That’s right,” Glassford replied. “Now, will you accept it?”

“Yes, sir!” Smith responded. Admiral Glassford and the gunboats Luzon and Oahu departed soon afterward. Smith and Wake’s skeleton crew were well and truly alone. The commander had his civilian apartment in the French Concession, some miles away, and an office in the American Consulate on Foochow Road. The consulate was two blocks from Shanghai’s waterfront, called the Bund. There were no docks along the Bund, so Wake was stationed at an anchorage in the middle of the Whangpoo.

As they waited for the hostilities to begin, the first week of December took on an almost surreal quality for Smith and the members of his command. Tension was building, the atmosphere heavy with foreboding, yet all was outwardly calm. On December 7, Smith took a call from a Japanese naval officer named Otani. The Japanese officer knew Smith, and asked the American where he would be at 11 o’clock the next day. It seemed that Otani wanted to give the commander a gift of turkeys. “I’ll be on the Wake,” Smith responded, puzzled at the query.

Shanghai is across the international date line, so the Pearl Harbor attack was not reported until the early morning hours of December 8. Smith got a call from Wake’s quartermaster at 4:20 a.m.: Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and the Japanese were demanding that Wake’s crew surrender immediately. Smith threw on his uniform and then managed to get a taxi to take him to the Bund. The Japanese had invaded the International Settlement and were busy setting up roadblocks around the city.

Smith’s taxi was stopped several times by Japanese soldiers, but the commander managed to talk his way through. He arrived at the Bund, only to find the whole waterfront swarming with Japanese troops. Wake had been rigged with explosives to prevent its capture, but when its commander arrived it still rode peacefully at anchor. Something had gone wrong, because the crew was under orders to scuttle it at the first sign of trouble.

The commander desperately wanted to get to his ship, but the Japanese troops refused. It had to be one of the most bizarre sights of the war—a lone U.S. Navy officer arguing with the 20 bayonet-wielding enemy soldiers who surrounded him. At this point Smith noticed his quartermaster, who filled him in on what had happened after the hasty phone call.

The Japanese had come aboard so quickly that there was no chance to resist or set off any scuttling explosives. Since the gunboat had only about 2 feet of freeboard, sailors from the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force simply stepped on deck. The radioman had just received additional reports of the attack in Hawaii when he felt a Japanese pistol thrust into his ribs.

Unable to reach his ship, Smith decided to go to his office in the American Consulate. Incredibly, the Japanese soldiers made no move to arrest or otherwise detain him. Smith went to his office, and soon four of his radiomen—men he kept ashore as a precaution—were busy sending and receiving messages. The Japanese arrived at 11:30 a.m. When the first soldier reached the consulate, Smith gave the order and his men smashed the radio transmitters with axes. Sensitive documents had already been destroyed.

Commander Ito then approached Smith, bowed and declared: “A state of war now exists between Japan and America. Will you surrender to me?” Smith nodded his assent—there was little else he could do.

For the next month, Smith was moved from location to location and was generally well treated. On January 23, 1942, he was transferred to the Woosung POW camp, roughly 15 miles from Shanghai. With the facility under the control of the Imperial Japanese army, the American naval officer could not expect such lenient treatment.

Woosung was a former Chinese army base. It covered about 10 acres, the whole complex surrounded by an electrically charged fence, and comprised seven barracks, each partitioned into large cells. To house the most men, each cell had raised double-deck platforms that served as sleeping bunks. Thin blankets were issued to the prisoners, but they provided little warmth against the bitter winter cold. Watery rice soup was a prison staple, and if an inmate was lucky he might find a few tiny pieces of pork or fish floating forlornly in the bowl.

The water supply was from a well that was probably polluted, and the primitive toilets, little more than privy holes, attracted swarms of flies. Temperatures plummeted to as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was no heat in the barracks. Casual brutality was commonplace. Any prisoner perceived as disobedient was severely beaten.

When Smith and his crew arrived, about 1,500 military and civilian prisoners inhabited the camp, including British naval personnel. Some were from HMS Petrel, a gunboat that had been anchored not far from Wake at the start of the war. After Lieutenant John Pokinghorn refused to surrender, Petrel had been hit by heavy Japanese naval and artillery fire and sunk on the spot. Some of the crew were then machine-gunned in the water as they tried to swim ashore. The survivors, many of them badly wounded, became prisoners.

Other prisoners included the U.S. Marine and civilian construction workers captured at Wake Island. Later, Marines from the embassy guard detachment in Peking and also the leathernecks from Tientsin arrived in the camp. Sir Mark Young, British governor of Hong Kong, was among the prisoners.

As the weeks went by, Smith began hatching an escape plot with British naval officer John Woolley and Wake Island construction boss Dan Teeters. Lieutenant Commander Arthur Cunningham, Wake Island’s commander, also joined the plotters. It was agreed that a fifth member, a young Chinese man named Liu, would also be included. Liu had been “ship’s boy” aboard Wake and was familiar with the country around the camp.

They made their attempt on the evening of March 10, 1942. It was a moonless, utterly dark night. Smith and Liu worked feverishly on a barracks door that had been nailed shut, prying the nails so the portal could be furtively swung open. This was accomplished, though the escapees had to be mindful of a guard who periodically passed in the vicinity.

The next step was to crawl some 300 yards to the electrified fence, their knees padded by some rough sacking. Woolley had earlier stolen a shovel, with which they scraped away enough gravel to allow the men to wiggle under the fence. At one point a guard came close to the group, but luck was with them and they remained undetected. Slowly, cautiously, each man squeezed under the fence, knowing that death by electrocution was only an inch or two away. It was touch and go, but all four managed to clear this last remaining hurdle.

They were outside the prison, and no alarm had been raised, but the danger still remained. Their only hope was to reach free Chinese territory. Smith wanted to go to the Whangpoo River, some five miles away, and steal a sampan. They could reach the Yangtze River and then sail down to unoccupied China. Liu thought the best plan was to strike inland, a region full of farms, rice paddies and canals, where they were sure to find friends and shelter. Smith vetoed the idea.

A thick fog obscured landmarks and made travel difficult. The fugitives managed to reach the river but were quickly caught by Chinese puppet troops working for the Japanese. They were then handed over to the Kempeitai, whose reputation as a “Japanese Gestapo” caused the prisoners to lose heart and hope. They were not mistreated, however, and after an initial interrogation were taken to the Bridge House in Shanghai.

Bridge House was well known as a place where prisoners were routinely tortured and killed. Horrible screams often echoed though the building, chilling the blood and weakening the resolve. Smith and his fellow escapees endured hours of interrogation but were not tortured. After a time, they were transferred to Kiangwan Prison and placed in solitary confinement. Each cell measured 4 feet by 9, with a wooden bucket for a toilet that was rarely emptied. Light was provided by a single bulb that burned day and night.

Having made their escape attempt from an army-run prison, the four men were charged with desertion from the Japanese army and put on trial before a military court. As an indication of the gravity of their offense, a brigadier general presided over the legal farce. The trial lasted eight hours, the defendants standing at attention the entire time.

The proceedings were conducted entirely in Japanese; even the prisoners’ defense counsel spoke no English. Unaware that Smith understood some Japanese, the judge and the defense lawyer spoke freely. At one point the defense lawyer expressed disappointment that his clients would not be executed, which meant death by decapitation.

The defendants were then dragged from the courtroom and placed once again in solitary confinement. They were kept there for 52 days, still not knowing their ultimate fate. Finally they were taken back to the courtroom to hear the verdict. Smith, Woolley and Cunningham were each given 10 years’ imprisonment. Teeters was given two years, and Liu one year.

The prisoners were also told they would be deprived of all military and civilian privileges. The Japanese judge explained to Smith that Japan had never ratified the Geneva Convention. Besides, he said: “You men have deserted the Japanese army in time of war. Therefore you are tried by domestic law just like any other Japanese citizen.” In effect, Smith and the rest were reduced to the status of ordinary criminals.

It was June 8, and a new phase of Smith’s captivity was about to begin. Ward Road Gaol would be his new place of confinement. Built in 1934, the modern multistory facility was considered one of the finest of its day. The central building featured a large rotunda, a hub from which cell blocks radiated out like spokes of a wheel.

When Smith first arrived, the prison staff consisted largely of prewar personnel, mainly British, with some Americans and Russians. There were also Indian Sikh jailers and a number of Chinese. Some 8,000 inmates included about 100 foreigners. Only a handful were Allied military prisoners; most were common criminals serving their regular sentences. The British, American and Russian warders were understandably uncomfortable about guarding POWs, but circumstances gave them little option but to obey Japanese orders.

Conditions were pretty good. Each cell had a flush toilet and running water. Cells were clean and spacious, though food rations were inadequate. Prisoners suffered most in winter because fuel was scarce and the prison was not heated. Medical services were provided by Chinese doctors, who took good care of their charges when the Japanese were not around. But most of the time the men were alone in their cells.

The inmates were allowed about one hour for outdoor exercise, which they valued for more than just recreation. It was a chance to gather together and talk—albeit in hushed tones—about the possibility of escape. Smith was reunited with Woolley on these occasions, and the pair began planning their next attempt. This time they would include just one other man, Corporal Jerold B. Storey, who had been with the Marine Embassy Detachment.

Storey was tough and strong, just the sort of person needed for a prison break. The next step was to work out the details of a plan. Smith believed that having more than three men on an escape team would lead to disaster. Once out of the prison, the group would have to walk through populated areas swarming with Japanese soldiers as they made their way toward friendly forces at Chungking. Even if they escaped from the prison, their destination was 1,300 miles away.

The first difficulty with their plan occurred when Commander Cunningham got wind of the plot and demanded to be included. Rather than limit the size of the group, he believed that eight POWs in the prison should all break out together and head north. They would then circle around Shanghai before heading southwest in the direction of Chungking.

Already wary of Cunningham after the first failed escape attempt, Smith thought this plan was too obvious. It sent them in the very direction the Japanese would expect the fugitives to go. He believed boldness, not caution, was the path to success. The former Shanghai pilot proposed to go through the teeming center of a city whose streets swarmed with Chinese civilians and Japanese soldiers. The idea was to hide in plain sight, relying on the very real possibility that the Japanese would never expect them to adopt such a bold route. Allied civilians were in internment camps by now, but there was still a large Russian community in the city. The escapees might be conspicuous as Caucasians, but they could very well be mistaken for Russians or Germans.

Cunningham disagreed, but the matter was eventually settled. All eight prisoners would work together during the initial escape and then Smith and his group would separate, each commander carrying out his own plan.

As a first step, small hacksaw blades were needed to cut through cell bars. Although how they were procured was later disputed by the participants, four hacksaw blades were smuggled in to the group. Each of the blades was 10 inches long and made of hardened steel. Smith’s cell window was barred by four horizontal and two vertical bars. By cutting the bars in two places, an opening of 85⁄8 inches by 143⁄4 inches would be available. During the time it took to cut the bars, cutting progress was concealed with soap and shoe blacking.

Smith’s cell would be the escape hatch for all eight, so the seven others each had to cut through the four upright and one horizontal bars at the door of their own cubicle. Once they were out of their cells and in the corridor, the seven escapees would make their way to Smith’s cell.

The well-laid plans were almost derailed when Smith was hit by an excruciating pain on both sides of his lower groin. He had suffered a double hernia, and some of his intestines were poking through his abdomen’s muscle wall. This was a very bad rupture, made worse by malnutrition. Smith found, however, that if he placed his fingers on the tear, literally holding his intestines in place, he could walk, and the pain was minimized.

The plotters were model prisoners for the two months prior to their escape. Smith knew they would need strength for the attempt, so he innocently asked a Japanese guard named Mori, who had subsequently taken over security at the prison, if outside friends would be allowed to send him extra food. Mori, lulled into a false sense of calm by the prisoners’ apparent resignation, readily agreed—provided he got a cut of the sausage and canned goods.

The extra calories helped, though the men were still dangerously underweight. Smith had begun his imprisonment weighing about 190 pounds. It was now the fall of 1944 and he was down to about 120. Storey, the youngest of the trio, seemed the least affected by the prolonged captivity.

The night of October 6 was chosen for the escape attempt. Only a few more minutes’ work was needed to saw completely through all the bars, and the Japanese guards had not yet detected the breaks. The last guard check was at 9 p.m. As soon as that sentry passed, he would descend a flight of stairs and proceed to the main rotunda to settle in and take a nap.

By 10 p.m. the escape was well underway. While Smith readied everything, the seven others managed to get out of their cells— making sure the door bars were bent back into place so the guards would not suspect anything wrong until dawn. They then crept down to Smith’s cell, where he had already sawed the window bars completely through. Sheets were knotted together and lowered out the hole in the cell’s window. It was a drop of about 20 feet.

One by one the prisoners clambered down the sheet rope into the prison courtyard. One barrier remained—a wall about 25 feet high, topped in places with broken glass and strands of barbed wire. At the wall, the prisoners made a kind of human pyramid, which enabled the smallest and lightest of their number to gain access to the top.

Once on top, he secured a rope made out of tied blankets and attached the end to the wall. The others climbed up the blanket rope, then lowered it to the other side. This was the trickiest maneuver of all, because the wall was near an intersection crowded with people. But the escapees had gone through too much to stop now. They lowered their rope and climbed down. As they had all agreed, as soon as everyone was over the wall, Smith, Woolley and Storey parted company with Cunningham and his group.

Smith and his two companions made their way to Garden Bridge, a span over Soochow Creek that separated downtown Shanghai from the Honkew District of the city. Honkew was guarded by Chinese police working for the Japanese. Those constables were checking identity papers, but they were on the other side of the bridge and ignored the three white men. Japanese soldiers were waiting on the Bund side of the bridge, but curiously they too ignored Smith and his companions. Apparently they mistakenly thought the fugitives had been cleared by the Chinese police on the other side.

The escapees then made their way to the French Concession, crossing the broad Avenue Edward VII that marked the boundary between the concession and the International Settlement. They then continued on to Avenue Joffre, which took them out of the city and into the country. By 1 a.m. they were about seven miles from Ward Road Gaol. At one point, they encountered a Chinese policeman, but he turned his head and looked away.

It was now about 5 a.m. and dawn would soon break. Already it was becoming lighter, and the fugitives could see 200 yards ahead. They spotted a Japanese sentry, but his casual pace showed the alarm had not yet been raised. Smith also noticed some railroad tracks just ahead. As soon as the sentry passed, Smith, Woolley and Storey crawled over the rails, the cinders of the roadbed scraping their knees through the rough prison trousers. The rail line was soon behind them.

They now needed to sleep. The trio found an old Chinese graveyard with little hillocks marking the burial places. They took turns sleeping between the graves, one watching while the others slept.

Sleep did not come easily. Soon Japanese airplanes could be heard overhead. The planes were searching for Smith and his companions. The escape had been discovered not long after the two groups made their way out of the prison. As Smith had predicted, Cunningham and his party were quickly captured, caught by local police as they tried to cross Soochow Creek.

Despite the prying eyes overhead, Smith and his companions were lucky; their gray prison garb blended well with the old gravestones and the trio remained undetected. Still, it was time to move on. They had not proceeded very far when they encountered three Chinese boys who ranged in age from about 12 to 15. The youths were startled, but agreed to lead the three escapees to their village. The boys’ father was suspicious at first, but soon gave them shelter and the first good meal they had had in some time.

They pressed on, but the going was now becoming more difficult. The whole area was a vast marshland of mud, reeds and rice paddies, punctuated here and there by a peasant village. They walked all night and into the day, occasionally ducking for cover as Japanese scout planes searched overhead.

And then it seemed their luck had run out. At one village Smith and his companions heard voices as they moved between the huts. The talking was coming from a group of 14 Chinese puppet troops who soon saw the escaped prisoners.

Several soldiers raised their guns at the trio, and within moments a bayonet was only an inch from Smith’s chest. Smith decided to bluff. “We are French priests,” he declared with as much conviction as he could muster. “Can’t you tell by looking at us?”

The soldiers paused and then huddled for a quick discussion among themselves. Finally, one solder said, “Oh, let’s go on and leave them,” and the rest agreed. Just before they departed, their officer murmured, “Good luck.”

Time and again the fugitives were helped by sympathetic Chinese who provided food and shelter, and sometimes acted as guides. One of the most interesting episodes occurred when they came into a small village of eight huts. Men were threshing rice, and children scurried about. The workers initially rebuffed Smith, but then a very old woman appeared. “Come with me,” she said in Chinese. “I am the head of this family!”

It turned out she was indeed the matriarch of the village, all of whom were related to one another. She had bound feet, which made it hard to walk, but she quickly took command of the situation. Not only did they get food and shelter, but the old woman promised a sampan and guide for the next leg of the journey.

The escapees’ mood turned more gloomy as their physical condition deteriorated. Smith later said: “The soles of my feet were like raw beef. They had been bleeding a lot, but the blood had clotted and I was afraid to wash them lest the bleeding would start again.”

The fugitives finally encountered two Chinese women who told them there was a teahouse nearby where friendly soldiers occasionally gathered. The trio hobbled painfully to the teahouse and entered. The main room was occupied by 20 Chinese soldiers, all heavily armed.

When the three ducked inside, the soldiers put their teacups down and began reaching for the revolvers that were strapped to their sides. “We are escaping from the Japanese,” Smith loudly proclaimed in Chinese. “I am an American naval officer. My friend here is a British naval officer, and here is an American Marine. We want help to escape!”

The tension was broken by one of the soldiers, who asked Smith, “Are you interested in Chinese literature?” Puzzled, but thinking this was some kind of code word, Smith nodded his assent. The fugitives were taken to see an “honorable gentleman” in the neighborhood, a white-bearded member of the local gentry. Gracious and helpful, the old man made arrangements for a Chinese patrol with an English-speaking officer to guide them on their way.

This last leg of the journey was grueling, but the Chinese helped all they could. A Chinese doctor treated them at one point, even powdering Smith’s raw feet with sulfa, bandaging them and giving him a shot of penicillin. Despite this treatment, Smith’s legs could take no more. The veins had broken down, and both of his legs were black with congealed blood. He now began to worry about gangrene and possible amputation.

The trio finally reached the headquarters of Chinese General Tao Li. The general was a good host, explaining that there was a small American outpost about three days’ travel away. From there messages could be sent by radio to Chungking. Close to rescue but by now unable to walk, Smith had to be carried in a makeshift sedan chair.

They arrived in a large Chinese town where they were greeted by an American warrant officer in full uniform. He saluted them and they saluted back. It was November 3, 1944, the 27th day since their escape.

Smith recovered and was sent back home to the United States. After a thorough debriefing, he was reunited with his wife Rita. He returned to active duty in 1945, and after Japan surrendered he traveled back to Shanghai and became the port’s director.

 

Eric Niderost writes frequently for World War II Magazine. For further reading, see Officially Dead: The Story of Commander C.D. Smith, by Quentin Reynolds.

Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here