A World War I escape from a German POW camp
Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi
January 4, 2020
My Dad was in the British Army during World War I. When he was only 19, he got captured by the Germans and taken to a military prison camp in Germany. It was newly built and had wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire – like the camp in the old Hogan's Heroes television show, though that took place in World War II. My Dad hated being a prisoner and was constantly trying to figure out how to escape.
One night when it was misty and kind of foggy he got his chance. He managed to wriggle his way under the barbed wire fences and disappear into the night. He got scratched up and cut a little but he was okay – he'd have gotten shot if the guards had spotted him. He was by himself and had no real idea where he was – just somewhere in the German countryside.
He followed a rural road, jumping off and hiding during the few times he saw a car. This was in 1916 and there weren't that many cars. He saw a light in the distance through the mist and made his way towards it. The light was coming from an oil lamp, hanging from a pole above a railroad crossing as a warning – that's all they had in those days, just a lamp that would be lit at dusk and raised up with a pole and hung from a hook on a wooden crossarm. Then a railroad signalman would come and take it down and blow it out at dawn.
My Dad had managed to obtain the fixins for a handrolled cigarette in the prison camp and he had been saving them because they didn't allow the prisoners to smoke. He had a little tobacco and a rolling paper, but hadn't been able to come up with any matches or lighter. So he went to work when he saw that lamp hanging up there. He carefully rolled a cigarette and climbed up the pole and leaned out, hanging from that crossarm, and used the signal lamp to light that one scavenged cigarette. It felt like a moment of freedom to him. He was still a just a teenager.
The Germans eventually recaptured my Dad on a German farm and took him to a different camp where he was held until the war ended. He immigrated to the U.S. and I was raised in Arizona. My Dad died when I was pretty young. I think of him sometimes when I see a railroad signal in some remote place. I can imagine him climbing that signal pole the night he escaped.
– Bill Stokoe
The late William "Bill" Stokoe was a head signal maintainer for Southern Pacific Railroad for many years and he collected and restored antique and vintage signals. The signals and other railroad memorabilia that he collected comprise the majority of the displays at the Tehachapi Depot Museum. Bill was a remarkable man with an incredible memory and an encyclopedic knowledge of railroading. He was truly the railroader emeritus among Tehachapi's many and very knowledge rail fans, and he was a great and loyal friend, both to the Tehachapi community and to the many who were proud to be his friends.