During World War II, the United States held 400,000 Axis prisoners of war in some 500 POW camps. Some of these camps were located in the Midwest and Great Plains areas, but the majority were in the South and Southwest.
“At the same time that the prison camps were filling up, farms and factories across America were struggling with acute labor shortages. The United States faced a dilemma,” an article posted to the Smithsonian website explains. “According to Geneva Convention protocols, POWs could be forced to work only if they were paid, but authorities were afraid of mass escapes that would endanger the American people.”
Although they were initially reluctant to do so, U.S. officials eventually put “tens of thousands of enemy prisoners to work, assigning them to canneries and mills, to farms to harvest wheat or pick asparagus, and just about any other place they were needed and could work with minimum security.”
Despite the large number of prisoners and the relatively lax security at many of the work sites that employed them, very few of the POWs tried to escape. Only 2,222 of the Axis POWs, fewer than one percent, ever attempted a breakout, according to Smithsonian — and most who did escape were quickly recaptured.
The most notorious escape occurred during the evening of Dec. 23, 1944 when 25 German POWs made their way through a tunnel they had dug out of the Camp Papago Park, a prison compound in a desert park outside of Phoenix, Arizona. The escape became known as “The Great Papago Escape” — and for a brief moment it captured the American public’s imagination.
Camp Papago Park began accepting prisoners in 1943 and eventually housed 3,100 German soldiers and officers, many of them from the Kriegsmarine, the German navy. Among the naval prisoners were many “troublesome U-boat captains and their crews,” HistoryNet noted.
“These troublesome POWs were housed in compound 1A. The prisoners in 1A were not allowed to leave the camp to pick citrus and cotton with other prisoners,” recalled The Great Escape of ’44, a short documentary from Arizona State University’s Channel 8. “These were men that not only had repeatedly escaped from Papago, these were men who had been habitual escapees from other camps,” historian Steve Hoza explained in the documentary.
Among the most infamous prisoners was Jurgen Wattenberg, a former U-boat captain and the highest-ranking prisoner at Camp Papago Park. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Wattenberg graduated from the Prussian Naval Academy and had served in the German navy for more than 20 years before three British destroyers sank his submarine in the Caribbean on Sept. 3, 1942. The British navy later turned the submarine skipper over to the United States.
“Wattenberg was a highly educated, very dedicated officer,” historian Lloyd Clark stated in The Great Escape of ’44. Soon after arriving at the camp, Wattenberg began planning an escape.
Wattenberg and his co-conspirators decided that digging a tunnel would be their best bet. They began digging, but after filling empty attics in unused barracks with dirt and flushing heaps more of dirt down toilets — this according to The Arizona Republic — they realized they were going to need a cover story to explain all the dirt they would have to excavate.
“One day in September 1944, when the tunnel was in its infancy, four U-boat captains in 1A idly watched American G.I.s as they headed toward their athletic field,” the Republic reported. “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?”
Wattenberg asked camp officials for permission to create a faustball court, faustball being a German game similar to volleyball. “Camp officials made a mistake when they welcomed Capt. Wattenberg’s request for dirt, shovels and other tools to build a German version of a volleyball court,” the Times obituary noted. “When the Germans started digging their tunnel behind a bathhouse, working in small groups on 90-minute shifts and using spoons, screwdrivers and shovels, the piles of dirt provided handy cover.”
“Even so, the tunnel, whose entrance was hidden by the bathhouse, a coal bin and a clothesline, produced so much dirt that the prisoners eventually had to devise a new way to dispose it,” according to the Times. “A result was a veritable profusion of carefully tended, and extremely well-sodded, prison gardens.”
As the men worked on the tunnel they also made other preparations, such as hoarding food and sewing “civilian” clothes to change into once they escaped. “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,” the Republic reported.
“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.”
By December 1944, the prisoners had dug a 178-foot tunnel, complete with a string of electric lights, that led beyond the camp’s barbed-wire fences, according to the Times. On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 23, they began slipping through the tunnel in groups of two and three. In all, 25 of them escaped.
According to the Republic, one of the biggest slip-ups the camp personal made was allowing POWs to sleep in on Sundays, delaying the daily headcount until the afternoon. Camp personnel didn’t report the escape until 8:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve. “By that time, one of the POWs was already in custody,” the Republic reported. “He had hitched a ride with a civilian who drove him directly to the sheriff’s office.”
The escapees’ general plan was to head south to Mexico in small groups at night. During the day, they hid anywhere they could, in stables, bushes, caves and even the basement of a local high school, according to the Republic.
Things didn’t go well for them. “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.’”
A 2001 Phoenix Free Times article recounted how contemporary columnist Walter Winchell had a “field day” with the Papago story. Winchell claimed that Gunther Prien, at the time the most famous of Germany’s U-boat commanders, was among those who escaped from Papago. “Personally decorated by Hitler, Prien was credited with sinking the British battleship Royal Oak in 1939, but by 1941 was listed as missing in action. Prien never came anywhere near Papago; in fact, he’d been killed in action several years before the camp ever opened.”
It wasn’t fear alone that stirred public outrage about the escape. “Civilians appeared less concerned with their safety at the hands of fugitive Nazis than they did with the contents of the recaptured soldiers’ knapsacks,” the Free Times noted.
“Now, isn’t that a Hell of a state of affairs when we, the taxpaying citizens, cannot get a single slice of bacon for weeks on end when we come home from working in a defense plant, and then read in the paper that prisoners of war can get away with slabs of it?” one angry housewife wrote in a letter to The Arizona Republic.
The public outcry led to a full-scale manhunt for the remaining escapees. “With citizens, soldiers, police and Papago Indian scouts looking for them, all but one POWs were gathered up” within a few weeks, the Republicreported.
Wattenberg was the last holdout. He hid in a cave for nearly a month before he ran out of food and finally “cleaned himself up and walked into downtown Phoenix, where he politely turned himself in to a policeman,” according to the Republic.
All prisoners had returned to their home countries by 1946, Smithsonian explained.
Wattenberg’s obituary in the Times states that he became a beer distributor back in Germany after the war. He returned to Phoenix in 1984 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Great Papago Escape, but he was unable to return for the 50th anniversary in 1994. He died in December 1995.