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The Great Escape

Steve McQueen during filming of The Great Escape (AP Photo)

Anyone who helped give the Nazis a bloody nose is worth remembering.

Earlier this week, Jack Harrison, the last known survivor of a famous escape plot by Allied prisoners during World War II, died at age 97.

Many are somewhat familiar with the 1944 breakout from Stalag Luft III thanks to the 1963 film The Great Escape. Based on a book by Australian escapee Paul Brickhill and scripted by former POW James Clavell (who would go on to write Shogun), the movie was directed by John Sturges and featured an ensemble of acting greats including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn.

The lasting image most have of The Great Escape is McQueen's (historically inaccurate) motorcycle leap over a German barbed wire fence as Nazi troops close in.

What many may not recall is the terrible price most escapees paid. Of the 76 escapees, all but three were recaptured by the Germans. Of those, 50 were executed. Over 200 men were chosen to participate in the outbreak, but the German discovery of two escape tunnels prevented most from getting out. "I guess it was a blessing in disguise I never made it through, as most were shot," Jack Harrison said in an interview last year.

Harrison and his fellow prisoners at Stalag Luft III were marched to other locations in January of 1945 as Russian troops approached German-occupied Poland. In April that year, the camps were liberated by the U.S. 14th Armored Division. During the Nuremberg Trials, several Gestapo and Luftwaffe officials were either executed or imprisoned for their role in the Great Escape's aftermath.

Looking back, was the attempt worth it, given the loss of life and the fact that the war would end little more than a year later?

Jack Harrison seemed to think so.

"The main purpose wasn't just to escape," he said. "It was to outfox the Germans. It was a huge moral victory. It humiliated Hitler and gave the Nazis a bloody nose."

Anyone who helped give the Nazis a bloody nose is worth remembering.