The islands along the St Lawrence almost seemed to shiver in the night as an icy wind whipped through the trees and shredded wisps of smoke from scattered house chimneys. Usually, no one would be out on such a night, but two figures slowly made their way across the pack ice of the frozen river. Ulrich Steinhilper and his friend Albert Waller, tired, hungry, and cold, pressed onward, because they knew that the road home to Germany ran through the Thousand Islands.
In the early days of World War II, Britain was fighting for its survival. As the war continued, Britain accumulated German prisoners, and pondered what to do with them. Not only did the prisoners present a danger of sabotage and escapes, but they required food and security, items that were in short supply in England. So, many prisoners were sent to POW camps in Canada, where food was plentiful, and escape was much harder.
One of those prisoners was Luftwaffe pilot Ulrich Steinhilper. Sent to Canada after being shot down over England during the Battle of Britain, Steinhilper spent most of his waking hours planning his escape from the camp at Bowmanville, east of Toronto. He knew that his best chance of getting back to Germany was to get to the United States, where it would be easier to disappear into the population and possibly find a way back.
So, on a cold day in February of 1942, Steinhilper made his move, his third escape attempt. Steinhilper, and fellow POW Albert Waller, broke out of camp by pretending to be maintenance workers. Wearing coveralls from the camp workshop, they started painting fenceposts on the inside of the fence, then got the guards to let them outside to finish the work. After a while, they took a "rest break" and slipped away.
They hopped an eastbound train and made their way to the St Lawrence to cross to the United States, figuring the frozen river would be the best way over the border, especially since it would be late at night by the time they would get there. Two POWs from the Fort Henry camp in Kingston had crossed the icebound St Lawrence just a year earlier, but had been recaptured, and another Luftwaffe prisoner had crossed near Brockville and eventually made it all the way back to Germany! So even through the frigid darkness, the Thousand Islands area beckoned as the road back home.
Steinhilper and Waller jumped off the train a few miles east of Lansdowne, skirted Rockport and pushed through waist deep snow below Tar and Grenadier Island to begin the long trek across the river to the American side, nervously listening for cracking ice underfoot. Ahead, barely visible through the swirling snow, dark masses loomed, only to slowly reveal themselves as islands and not the far shore. Somewhere around the Summerland group of islands, the two men were devastated to find an open water section in the ice blocking their way. Luckily, they were able to find a floating mat of driftwood, debris, and ice to support their weight to get across the opening. Finally, stiff with ice, dizzy with fatigue, and half frozen, they arrived on the American shore somewhere near present day Kring Point State Park on Goose Bay. They hid in an empty house for the night to warm up and recuperate. The next morning, they pushed the door open against a fresh snowdrift and continued their desperate journey.
After several false starts, jumping into snowdrifts to avoid detection, and backtracking, they arrived at Watertown, N.Y., where they knew there were numerous rail lines giving access to points south, and to endless possibilities. But a patrolman on the street in Watertown thought the two bedraggled men with bulky coats and haversacks looked suspicious. He arrested them on the spot and their quest for freedom was suddenly over.
Steinhilper made two more unsuccessful escape attempts, but though he didn’t realize it at the time, his trip across the St Lawrence was the closest he would ever get to escaping. It was the second time he got to the US, however. In a 1941 attempt, Steinhilper walked and rode from Bowmanville until he jumped a train in Hamilton headed towards Buffalo, New York. He huddled in a dark nook on the engine, hoping the darkness would conceal him. The train carried him all the way to Niagara Falls, NY, but stopped under a bridge in a well-lighted area full of pedestrians, so Steinhilper decided to wait until the next stop to jump off. To his dismay, the cars were uncoupled and the engine returned to the Canadian side, where he was promptly discovered and arrested.
Steinhilper did not return to Germany until after the war in 1946. He had several jobs, including being a truck driver for the US Army, and a stint with Pan American Airways. Finally, he went to work for IBM as a typewriter salesman, but his restless mind was always working. He developed the theory of modern word processing, and even invented the term. He wrote three books about his experiences during and after the war.
The Messerschmitt fighter plane in which he was shot down was recovered from an English peat bog in 1980 and is now a featured exhibit in the Battle of Britain Museum in Kent.
In 1987, Steinhilper returned to the Thousand Islands area (doesn’t everyone?), and was reunited with Bill McIntire, the policeman who arrested him in Watertown in 1942. The photo of that meeting was taken at the exact spot where the arrest had taken place 45 years before.
Steinhilper passed away in 2009. Most visitors to the Thousand Islands have a far better experience than Steinhilper did in 1942, but few have a more unusual one.
By John Reisinger
John Reisinger is an author living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore but he and his wife Barbara come to the Thousand Islands for vacations. John writes about real-life people, places and events. He corresponded with Ulrich Steinhilper as part of his research for his book Evasive Action. Two of his other books have won Gold Medals in the Global eBook Awards! Check out Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico, Death and the Blind Tiger and visit his webpage to see his complete list of fiction and non-fiction works. In the September, 2016 issue of TI Life he wrote Buried Treasure in the Thousand Islands and in November he wrote, A Last Night on the “Alexander Henry”