The ‘Great Escape’ That Happened On US Soil

“Those Germans were a fine bunch of men, smart as hell. And it made no sense to put the smartest of them in Compound 1. I knew they would discover that blind spot.” —Captain Cecil Parshall, provost marshal at Camp Papago Park, speaking later about the German POWs

In A Nutshell

In 1944, a group of POWs planned a daring prison break. They’d tunnel under the fences, hike through the wilderness, and make their way to . . . Mexico. As it turns out, these particular prisoners were Nazis in the Arizona desert, and their escape involved volleyball, a canoe, and an evening at the local bowling alley.

The Whole Bushel

Papago Park was the perfect spot for a POW camp. It was smack-dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, surrounded by miles of barren wastelands. The days were hot, and the nights were freezing cold. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. But the Nazis in Security Unit No. 84 were going to try anyway.

It was 1944, and Papago Park was home to around 3,000 sailors and merchant marines, all waiting out the war beneath the overbearing Arizona sun. Well, that was the idea anyway. The Germans in Compound 1 had other ideas.

The Americans running Security Unit No. 84 had made the classic mistake. Hoping to keep a close eye on the troublemakers, they’d placed all their escapees and agitators in Compound 1. To quote The Great Escape, they’d put all their rotten eggs in one basket. As you’ve probably guessed, this was not a good idea.

The escape from Papago was organized by four U-boat captains who discussed their getaway plans while playing bridge. The plot was pretty simple, at least in theory anyway. They’d dig a 55-meter (178 ft) tunnel under two fences and out past a patrol road. They’d need to go 2.5 meters (8 ft) under and add an extra 4.25 meters (14 ft) to clear the fences. Once they made their escape, they’d run for the border and join up with Nazi sympathizers in Mexico. Then they hoped to find a boat ride home.

Digging started around September, and small groups of men scooped out the soil while another team distributed dirt around the compound. They hid it in flower beds, stored it around the barracks, and even flushed it down toilets. Then someone decided to build a volleyball court. Glad to see the Germans spending their time on sports, the Yanks passed out shovels and rakes which the prisoners used to spread their excavated soil over the volleyball field, leveling the ground and covering up the rocks.

Some Germans rigged up lights in the tunnel while others constructed a cart and tracks to speed up the dirt-removal process. Some worked on fake IDs and documents, and others were in charge of providing food. Their solution was to toast white bread, pound it into crumbs, and seal the croutons in the bags taken out of cereal boxes. Out on the road, the crumbs could be mixed with water or milk to make improvised oatmeal.

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Perhaps the most rewarding job was duping the Americans into buying fake Nazi regalia. They fashioned Iron Crosses and other medals out of melted toothpaste tubes and shoe polish. After scuffing the merchandise up for a bit of realism, the inmates sold their paraphernalia to the gullible guards and stored the money away for their big breakout.

The Great Papago Escape finally got underway on December 23, 1944. That evening, the Germans threw a wild part to celebrate the Battle of the Bulge (possibly an omen for what was about to happen). They sang drinking songs at top volume while 12 officers and 13 enlisted men made the long crawl to freedom. The men split up in teams of two to three men and scurried into the desert, hoping to make it all the way to Mexico.

The next day at roll call, the Americans sounded the alarm. FBI agents, soldiers, local cops, and bounty hunters combed the desert, hunting for the runaways. Some Germans were picked up by Native American trackers while others turned themselves in, hungry and worn out. And then there were the “three mad boatmen.”

Their names were Captain Wilhelm Gunther, Lt. Wolfgang Clarus, and Lt. Friedrich Utzolino, and they weren’t keen on marching to Mexico. Instead, they were going to build a canoe, sail down the nearby Gila River, make their way to the Colorado, and paddle to Mexico. Only when they reached the Gila, they found the river was all dried up.

They were soon back in Papago Park.

The luckiest Germans were a trio of submariners led by Captain Jurgen Wattenberg. Instead of running to the border, Wattenberg and his friends, Walter Kozur and Johann Kremer, decided to hang around the Phoenix area. On one occasion, Kozur and Kremer went to a nearby bowling alley and had a few beers. Kremer even occasionally joined a work party from Security Unit No. 84 and spent his nights sleeping back in camp.

Eventually, the guards recognized Kremer, and the man was busted. Kozur was arrested shortly afterward, but Wattenberg outlasted all his pursuers. The U-boat captain stayed out in the Arizona desert for over a month until he finally ran out of food. That’s when cleaned himself off, sauntered into Phoenix, and turned himself in on January 28, 1945, the last of the runaway Germans.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia (color added)
The Memory Palace: Dig Set Spike
History Net: The Not-So-Great Escape: German POWs in the U.S. during WWII
AZ Central: How German POWs pulled off the largest escape ever

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