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by Alex Hanton
Escaping captivity from a bunch of oppressive jerkwads is decidedly not an easy task. It usually takes guile, ingenuity, and plain old cans of whoopass to be opened. Sometimes it involves much more, like superhuman feats only imagined by even the craziest of us.
Jock McLaren Removed His Own Appendix While On The Run
Robert "Jock" McLaren was an Australian soldier who was captured by the Japanese in World War II and thrown into Singapore's Changi prison camp, where hundreds of Allied soldiers spent their last days. While most people might have accepted defeat, McLaren was not most people, and instead managed to escape and spend weeks fighting with a Malaysian guerrilla group before being betrayed and moved to an even harsher prison camp in Borneo. At that point, most people would have certainly given up, but McLaren decided his next escape would be so badass that he'd force the universe itself to roll over and say, "This is exhausting, dude. Fine, you can have your freedom."
In Borneo, McLaren teamed up with Johnny Funk (we swear, we're not making these names up), a Chinese prisoner tragically born too early to become a disco sensation. Together they slipped under the wire and forged a path through the jungle to the coast, where they built a crude boat from a hollowed-out log. They then sailed 270 miles across the Pacific, battling the Japanese as they jumped from island to island, like a log-based version of The A-Team. Or a human-based version of Frogger.
"I didn't even need to do any of that. I was just bored."
Their plan was to get to safety in the Philippines, but unfortunately, logs aren't exactly known for hauling ass, and the whole country had already been conquered by the Japanese by the time they landed on Mindanao. They decided to join up with the local guerrillas, but there was a minor issue to deal with first: McLaren was dying of appendicitis. Since finding a nearby ER was out of the question, he decided he'd just take the damn thing out himself, using only a mirror and a pocket knife, plus "jungle fibers" to stitch himself up afterward.
On one hand, McLaren was an experienced veterinarian in civilian life. On the other, vet training in no way includes sawing out your own organs with no anesthetic in a jungle. The operation took over four hours, and then he was up and fleeing the Japanese on foot within days. Not only did he survive, he actually became a legendary guerrilla in the Philippines, commanding a heavily armed former whaling boat named The Bastard, which became the terror of the Japanese.
John Henry Hill Fought His Way Out Of A Slave Auction
In 1853, John Henry Hill's owner took him without warning to be sold at the slave market in Richmond, Virginia. He wasn't even given time to say goodbye to his family, which obviously wasn't the main ethical issue, but was a dash of awfulness sprinkled on the 9-course feast of evil. Fortunately, the scumbag slave-owners didn't realize that the person they were trying to sell was a tornado made of punching.
Hill only realized what was going on when he saw the auction house and someone came toward him with a pair of shackles. At that point he decided, "How about, 'No'?" and just started swinging. He took on anyone who dared crossed his wrath, putting "four or five men to flight," including his owner who presumably ran away while crapping his pants. History doesn't say otherwise, so it's probably true.
He later changed his name to "Punch Asswhooperton."
Contemporary sources say that Hill fought with "fist, knife, and feet," but we'd note that 19th century writers didn't have terms yet for Matrix-style kung-fu or fireball-producing hadoukens. They do describe Hill's racist-beating technique as "tiger-like," which we're pretty sure means he shot out retractable claws like a 19th century Wolverine.
After destroying everyone in his immediate vicinity, he jetted out of there and hid with a friend of his mom. Now, as a fugitive who just publicly beat every ass within ass-beating distance, one would think it made sense to lay low. That's probably because none of us are John Henry Hill. After getting bored with hiding, Hill taught himself how to forge passes and traveled all over Virginia, disguised as a slave, visiting friends and probably skull-crushing other oppressive jackasses. To reiterate: after punching his way out of slavery, he went right back into the heat of it to rescue other people.
The Underground Railroad eventually made arrangements to smuggle him to freedom in the north on a steamboat, and he took a pair of hidden pistols with him just in case he was caught and had to single-handedly fight the Civil War early.
Frank Grey: The Only Man To Escape Stalag 17
Frank Grey was the only man to successfully escape the notorious Stalag 17 Prison Camp. Which ... is kind of crazy since he wasn't even supposed to be there in the first place.
Grey was an American airman who was shot down over Germany in 1943. The Germans tried to take him prisoner, not knowing they had basically captured the Houdini of prison camps. Over the course of the next year, he escaped 7 times in increasingly complex circumstances. During one escape, he jumped on a slow freight train, only to realize it was full of guns and ammunition, presumably being rushed off to the Russian front. Grey rigged an improvised bomb from explosives on the train, jumped off, and ran like hell before the whole thing exploded.
His exploits earned him the nickname "Grey Ghost," because when life just hands you a nickname like that, you might as well roll with it. Plus "Frank the Yank" just doesn't have the same ring to it. Unfortunately, he was betrayed by a Yugoslavian family when he asked for a bed -- he was recaptured and roundly beaten. The Germans told him he was being taken to Vienna for a tribunal, after which he would be heading to a concentration camp, most likely Buchenwald.
He was so good, he actually escaped from that photograph.
Luckily (?), the convoy stopped at Stalag 17 on the way and Grey was left unsupervised, apparently by accident. He immediately slipped into the prison barracks and persuaded the other American prisoners to hide him the only place they could: down a pit toilet. It apparently wasn't pleasant, but we're sure that goes without saying. Fortunately, the prisoners later managed to move Grey to an escape tunnel they were digging. Three Russians who had previously snuck into the camp were also hiding there, because the Nazi reputation for efficiency was seriously overstated. Grey even managed to get some sunlight, on the assumption that the guards probably wouldn't notice a new prisoner wandering around for a couple hours or so.
He later used a snowstorm as cover to slip into a separate prison that was holding British airmen, where he switched places with a New Zealander known to be a model prisoner. He then used his new identity to persuade the Germans to let him transfer to a lightly guarded work camp. From there he escaped easily and spent the rest of the war fighting with the Yugoslav resistance.
Ji Seong-ho Trekked 6,000 Miles Out Of North Korea On One Leg
Ji Seong-ho escaped the brutal North Korean regime by hiking over 6,000 miles and fording the mighty Tumen River on the border between China and North Korea. Oh, and he did this all with one hand and one leg, hobbling the entire way on a pair of wooden crutches.
Ji grew up during the great North Korean famine of the mid-'90s, which was every bit as horrific as it sounds. He ate grass and rats as he watched his classmates and family members starve to death, all while the North Korean regime promised that food would soon flow "like waterfalls," suggesting that even they'd forgotten what actual food looks like and were thinking about gravy fountains or something.
When Ji was 14, he tried to steal some coal from a moving train to trade for food. Unfortunately, he ended up collapsing from malnutrition and fell under the wheels, which crushed his leg and mangled one of his hands, and then was hit by a second train while lying on the tracks. Ji says he can still remember the feeling of the doctors sawing the remains of his leg off with no anesthetic, while repeatedly slapping his face to keep him awake and breathing.
It wasn't exactly an ideal childhood. But somehow Ji managed to pull through and reach adulthood with one leg and one hand, using crutches to hobble around. He became determined to escape North Korea after crossing the border to beg for grain and realizing that "the dogs in China ate better than my family." Then on the way back, he was brutally beaten by North Korean border guards for "embarrassing our nation" by begging.
Together with his family, Ji launched his daring escape attempt. He almost drowned trying to cross the river, but his brother grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to safety on the opposite bank. After crossing, the brothers made their way through China, Thailand, and Laos, before being taken to South Korea where the government paid for Ji's first ever prosthetic leg. Which ... cool. But come one, give the man a damn parade or something.
Siegfried Lederer Escaped One Concentration Camp (To Break Into Another One)
Siegfried Lederer was a Czech who fought with the resistance before being imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp. In December of 1943, the Nazis shipped him off to the death camp at Auschwitz, which would have been the end of Siegfried Lederer ... except fate intervened in the unlikely form of SS corporal Viktor Pestek.
Pestek was a relatively kind guard who was horrified by his job at Auschwitz, which wasn't exactly known for its relative kindness. Pestek had apparently been miserable for some time, but the final straw came when he fell in love with a prisoner named Renee Neumann. Obviously, he knew that Neumann's time was limited in the death camp, so an urgent escape was needed. But Pestek had no travel papers for Renee, who also refused to leave without her elderly mother. He eventually developed a plan to break all three of them out, but he needed an accomplice. And he still had no travel documents.
That's where Lederer came in. They agreed on a plan where Pestek would break Lederer out of the camp and Lederer would use his contacts in the Czech underground to get fake travel papers for Renee and her mother. Pestek smuggled Lederer an SS uniform and a pistol, and he escaped by walking right out the front gate during a shift change. The pair then made their way onto a mail train by pretending the SS had ordered them to snoop through people's mail.
"No, I'm totally one of you. Seriously, check out my mustache."
After escaping Auschwitz, Lederer didn't go underground and secure his own safety. Nor did he completely stick to Pestek's plan. While he told Pestek that he would help free Renee, he wanted to make one stop first: Theresienstadt. Despite the fact that he had just broken out of one concentration camp, he was now determined to break into another one to warn the prisoners about the fate that awaited them in Auschwitz.
He actually managed it, too, slipping past the guards in the dead of night to deliver his warning to leading Jewish prisoners. However, the camp leadership decided not to spread the news further, believing that most Jews couldn't escape and it was better that they not know what was awaiting them. Breaking back out again, Lederer spent the rest of the war fighting with the resistance and smuggling a report to Switzerland, providing some of the earliest first-hand evidence of the Holocaust.