In early 1918, Momence native Pat O’Brien — the guest of honor at many banquets — always left the vegetables on his dinner plate. He had good reason to do so: After his airplane was shot down in 1917, he spent 73 days “on the run” behind German lines, surviving mainly on a diet of turnips, sugar beets and cabbage scrounged from farmers’ fields.
“I never did like vegetables. I hope I never have to eat another,” he told a Kankakee Republican reporter on Jan. 22, 1918, when he was being honored by friends and neighbors in his hometown. More than 500 local and out-of-town guests sat shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables in the Wennerholm garage, the largest indoor space in Momence, to hear O’Brien recount his adventures.
O’Brien learned to fly in 1912 at a field in West Pullman at the south edge of Chicago. Four years later, while living in California, he enlisted in the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Since the United States was not yet involved in World War I, O’Brien and his fellow Army pilots flew a seemingly-endless series of training flights.
Determined to fly in combat, O’Brien resigned his Army commission after eight months and crossed the Canadian border to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps. In May 1917, Second Lieutenant Patrick Alva O’Brien arrived in England for additional training. By early August, he was in France with the RFC’s 66 Squadron.
His first combat patrol over German lines took place on Aug. 13; his last came just four days later. In his best-selling 1918 book, “Outwitting the Hun,” O’Brien wrote, “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.”
On his final flight, the young pilot was involved in a fierce dogfight with three German aircraft, some 9,000 feet above the border between France and Belgium. He recalled the sound of bullets from the enemy fighters striking his Sopwith Scout biplane, then “a burst of bullets went into the instrument board and blew it to smithereens, another bullet went through my upper lip, came out 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!”
Amazingly, other than the bullet wound, O’Brien had survived the crash with only bumps and bruises. He recalled German officers who had witnessed the incident told him “that my machine went down in a spinning nose dive from a height of between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, and they had the surprise of their lives when they discovered that I had not been dashed to pieces. They had to cut me out of my machine, which was riddled with shots and shattered to bits.”
The young pilot remained for a week in the rough field hospital where a doctor had removed the bullet. When it was discovered O’Brien was an American, he was questioned for two days by German intelligence officers, then transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Courtrai, Belgium. Conditions at the prison were harsh and food was scarce, consisting mostly of coarse bread, boiled sugar beets and liquids that were claimed to be coffee or tea. “This comprised the usual run of eatables for the day — I can eat more than that for breakfast!” O’Brien wrote in “Outwitting the Hun.”
After three weeks there, he and several other captured pilots received bad news: They were going to be sent to a prison camp in Germany. “One of the guards told me during the day that we were destined for a reprisal camp in Strassburg,” he recalled. “They were sending us there to keep our airmen from bombing the place.”
On Sept. 9, O’Brien and seven other prisoners were herded into a train compartment with four armed German guards. They were the only passengers in the last coach of a 12-car train — the other 11 coaches were filled with soldiers heading home on leave.
“From the moment the train started on its way to Germany,” he wrote, “the thought kept coming to my head that unless I could make my escape before we reached that reprisal camp, I might as well make up my mind that, as far as I was concerned, the war was over.”
(Next Week: O’Brien’s escape).