Photo Of The Day

Photo: AP/Lawrence C. Jorgensen collection.

Photo: AP/Lawrence C. Jorgensen collection.

The Not So Great Escape

The exit of an escape tunnel from the Papago Park POW Camp.

Seventy years ago, late on a Saturday night and only two days before Christmas, all was quiet in Phoenix.

Above ground.

Beneath it a daring escape was underway. Twenty-five German prisoners of war had begun their breakout from Camp Papago Park, one of many wartime installations that dotted the United States.

Most Americans don’t know it, but their country held some 370,000 Germans in over 500 camps in 45 states during the war. Encouraged by the Geneva Convention to try to escape, those prisoners frequently broke out.

And the biggest breakout of them all happened in Phoenix shortly before 9 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1944.

The Papago POWs had used only a few tools to dig a tunnel 178 feet through the desert earth and now began their crawl to freedom that opened up to them at a patrol road outside their barbed-wire compound. They would emerge in the early hours of Christmas Eve near an irrigation canal and beyond the fences that had held them.

The Great Papago Escape, as it was called, is barely remembered today. But it was historic in its size, with 25 German POWs on the loose in the open desert on a drenching day, intent on walking the 130 miles to the Mexican border.

It took nearly 24 hours for camp guards to realize there had been a major escape, and by that time ? late Sunday afternoon ? the fugitives, in groups of twos and threes, were long gone.Extensive news reports caused a flurry of citizens to write angry letters to Arizona newspapers. One letter ? of many ? accused the camp authorities of being “damn slack.”

Even acid-tongued syndicated columnist Walter Winchell entered the fray, blaming the War Department for coddling German prisoners, moving the rhetoric up a notch by calling the escapees “saboteurs.”

But their intentions were largely benign. Most simply wanted to go home to Germany and figured they could do it via Mexico. They carried no weapons, only food, forged documents, clothing and a little bit of American money from selling to camp guards fake Nazi paraphernalia made from melted toothpaste tubes and shoe polish. Some of the men had compasses and maps slyly stolen from unguarded camp vehicles.

The escape was officially blamed on ineffectual administration by camp officials. The most serious mistake, however, was made by a new camp commander.

Col. William A. Holden believed he could control escapes by herding the most experienced breakout artists together in a single compound that came to be known as Compound 1A. Little did he know he was encouraging their collective expertise.

Further, Compound 1A had a serious flaw ? a blind spot between two guard towers. Camp officers chose to ignore it.

The Germans didn’t.

One day in September 1944, when the tunnel was in its infancy, four U-boat captains in 1A idly watched American GIs as they headed toward their athletic field. An idea came to the wily Germans who had highly developed engineering skills and hours of unsupervised time: Why couldn’t they have a sports area in their compound?

It would be the perfect ruse to dump dirt from the tunnel. They were running out of places to put the fresh earth ? filling attics of unused barracks or flushing dirt down toilets.

The captains didn’t think the Americans would go for the idea, but when it was approved and new dirt was found on the ground, camp officials never thought twice about it, believing the men were building a court for faustball, a form of volleyball.

So complete was the ruse that in mid-November 1944, high-ranking officers of the 9th Service Command headquarters in Salt Lake City toured the camp and Compound 1A and arrived at a humorous conclusion.

A colonel in the group, as the story goes, planted both feet firmly on top of the hidden tunnel entrance and proclaimed with confidence that Papago Park need never be concerned about tunnels because the soil was hard as a rock. Everyone smiled, including some of the diggers standing nearby.

The biggest slip-up was the failure of camp authorities to conduct head counts on Sunday mornings, allowing the POWs to sleep in.

On Sundays, the counts were done late in the afternoons, and since the escape was pulled off on the weekend of Christmas, most of the top officers were not on duty, leaving inexperienced lower-ranked officers and guards to deal with the confusing head count.

In fact, the remaining POWs in 1A kept leaving the formation to go to the bathroom. At one point the guards thought 60 Germans had escaped.

Unable to find the commander and the director of security, Capt. Cecil Parshall called the FBI at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. By that time, one of the POWs was already in custody. He had hitched a ride with a civilian who drove him directly to the sheriff’s office.

During their freedom, the Germans hid out in caves, culverts, stables, under creosote bushes, even in the basement of Roosevelt High School, hoping they could make it to Mexico by night.

Three men in the group, called the “three crazy boatmen” by other escapees, believed they could walk 40 or 50 miles westward from Papago Park, then float down the Gila River to freedom.

Gathering any wood they could, they designed a boat made of wood and canvas that could be broken down and placed in a bag and carried out the tunnel. They even tested its seaworthiness in a small lake dug in Compound 1A. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the river, they soon learned what most Arizonans know ? the Gila wasn’t much of a river. They burned the boat.

With citizens, soldiers, police and Papago Indian scouts looking for them, all but one POW were gathered up. Search crews either found them or they turned themselves in within a few weeks. They were hungry, tired and happy to be back. They all considered it a great outing.

The lone holdout was Fregattenkapit?n J?rgen Wattenberg, the highest ranking German officer in the camp.A known troublemaker, he did not plan to walk to Mexico. He escaped merely to make turmoil for the Americans.

Wattenberg had hid in a cave near Camp Papago Park with two other men, who got food easily by sliding in and out of the camp among work crews. Wattenberg eventually ran out of food. With no other option, he cleaned himself up and walked into downtown Phoenix, where he politely turned himself in to a policeman on Van Buren Street, not far from the Adams Hotel.

It was Jan. 28, 1945. Wattenberg had been free for more than a month.

AZ Central: How German POWs pulled off the largest escape ever
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