Tuesday, June 08, 2010

One of the Last Great Escape Participants Dies At Age 97

One of the last surviving participants in what later became known as the Great Escape died in England at the age of 97.
Jack Harrison, who survived the Great Escape plot by Allied prisoners in a German prison in World War II, has died at age 97, his family said.

Harrison died Friday at Erskine veterans' home in Bishopton, Scotland.

As one of the camp's gardeners, Harrison helped dispose of the dirt excavated from three escape tunnels. He was 98th on the list of some 200 inmates designated to make the escape on March 24, 1944, but only 76 got away before guards detected the breakout and raised the alarm.

The breakout was celebrated in the 1963 film "The Great Escape" starring Steve McQueen and James Garner.

Only three men managed to reach safety. Adolf Hitler ordered the execution of 50 recaptured escapers, and 23 others were returned to custody.

British news reports said Harrison was believed to be the last survivor of the plot, but this could not be confirmed. In addition to the 200 men who won places in the escape queue through a drawing, others were also involved in preparations.

"I guess it was a blessing in disguise I never made it through, as most were shot," Harrison said in an interview last year with the Scottish Sun newspaper. "But the main purpose wasn't just to escape. It was to outfox the Germans. It was a huge moral victory. It humiliated Hitler and gave the Nazis a bloody nose."

Of the three tunnels dug by prisoners, two had been found by guards and closed before the escape attempt.
The movie on which the mass escape from Stalag Luft III was based had an all star cast including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Donald Pleasance among others.

It's considered one of the best movies of all time. While the characters in the movie are largely based on amalgamations of different real-life POWs, the vicious methods used in dealing with the escapees was accurate - they were all rounded up and shot.

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