A 25-year-old Texan named William Ash and a 21-year old from Quebec named Eddy Asselin climbed into a toilet and dropped into a sewage pit—and that's how the story of "one of history's most disgustingly brilliant escape schemes" begins on Narratively. Stephen Dando-Collins presents this excerpt from The Big Break: The Greatest American WWII POW Escape Story Never Told, due out in January, of three North American POWs held by the Germans in a WWII war camp in Poland and desperately plotting a Shawshank Redemption-like escape from a latrine called the Abort. The laborious and dangerous dig had teams assigned to various tasks, including digging, watching for cave-ins, extending the air pipe, and the "unenviable" job of hiding the evidence (the dug-out dirt) in a "lake of urine and feces," pumped out once a week for a local farmer's fertilizer (the POWs told him their secret just as he started getting suspicious about the amount of earth in his haul).
"Each trip down [the tunnel] required a little more courage," Ash revealed later. There were other logistics to worry about, too, including the risky chore of acquiring photo IDs for their eventual freedom and calculating how many men the oxygen in the tunnel could sustain during the escape (they settled on 33). Then came the big night: March 5, 1943, a night with little moonlight and a rugby match set up as a distraction. Ash and Asselin headed to the latrine during the match, and they were the first to lift the toilet seat to descend into the tunnel. "Let's pray this will be the last time we do this," Ash said to Asselin before climbing down and kicking off an escape for the legends. Why the tunnel ultimately worked, per Dando-Collins: "Not even the Germans believed that men could be so desperate to escape they would immerse themselves in human waste for months." (The entire fascinating dive into the latrine here.)