The Arizona Great Escape

[Note this post is a reprint from prior years]

This week is the anniversary of one of my favorite bits of Phoenix history.  Many people have seen the Steve McQueen movie "the Great Escape",
about a group of 60 or so prisoners who cleverly dug a tunnel out of a
German POW camp and escaped in various directions across Europe, many
of whom where eventually recaptured.

I don't know if such an event occurred in Europe, but an almost
identical real-life POW escape (tunnel and all) occurred right here in
Phoenix, Arizona almost exactly 60 years ago.

Like many isolated western towns in WWII, Phoenix played host to a
number of German POW's, in our case about 1700 in Papago Park.
Phoenix, and in particular Papago Park, with its arid climate and red rocks, must have been quite a culture shock to the Germans.

Anyway, I won't tell the whole story, but it is fascinating and you can read it all here.  A short excerpt:

The
German prisoners asked their guards for permission to create a
volleyball courtyard. Innocently obliging, the guards provided them
with digging tools. From that point on, two men were digging at all
times during night hours. A cart was rigged up to travel along tracks
to take the dirt out. The men stuffed the dirt in their pants pockets
which had holes in the bottoms, and they shuffled the dirt out along
the ground as they walked around. In addition, they flushed a huge
amount of dirt down the toilets. They labeled their escape route Der Faustball Tunnel (The Volleyball Tunnel).

They
dug a 178 foot tunnel with a diameter of 3 feet. The tunnel went 8 to
14 feet beneath the surface, under the two prison camp fences, a
drainage ditch and a road. The exit was near a power pole in a clump of
brush about 15 feet from the Cross Cut Canal. To disguise their plans,
the men built a square box, filled it with dirt and planted native
weeds in it for the lid to cover the exit. When the lid was on the
tunnel exit, the area looked like undisturbed desert.

There
is some dispute about how many people actually escaped -- official
records say 25.  Others argue that as many as 60 escaped, but since
only 25 were recaptured, 25 was used as the official number to cover up
the fact that German POW's might be roaming about Arizona.

The prisoners who led this escape were clearly daring and inventive,
but unfortunately in Arizona lore they are better known for their one
mistake.  Coming from wet Northern European climes, the prisoners
assumed that the "rivers" marked on their map would actually have
flowing water in them.  Their map showed what looked like the very
substantial Salt River flowing down to the Colorado River and eventual
escape in Mexico.  Unfortunately, the Salt River most of the year (at
least in the Phoenix area) is pretty much a really wide flat body of dirt.  The German expressions as they carried their stolen canoes up to its banks must have been priceless.

It
never occurred to the Germans that in dry Arizona a blue line marked
"river" on a map might be filled with water only occasionally. The
three men with the canoe were disappointed to find the Salt River bed
merely a mud bog from recent rains. Not to be discouraged, they carried
their canoe pieces twenty miles to the confluence with the Gila river,
only to find a series of large puddles. They sat on the river bank, put
their heads in their hands and cried out their frustration.

We
probably shouldn't make too much fun of these hapless U-boaters, living
in a land so far out of their experience:  Apparently the prison guards
made Sargent Schultz look like Sherlock Holmes:

Although
the men left in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, the camp officials were
blissfully unaware of anything amiss until the escapees began to show
up that evening. The first to return was an enlisted man, Herbert
Fuchs, who decided he had been cold, wet and hungry long enough by
Christmas Eve evening. Thinking about his dry, warm bed and hot meal
that the men in the prison camp were enjoying, he decided his attempt
at freedom had come to an end. The 22-year old U-boat crewman hitched a
ride on East Van Buren Street and asked the driver to take him to the
sheriff's office where he surrendered. Much to the surprise of the
officers at the camp, the sheriff called and told them he had a
prisoner who wanted to return to camp.

One
of the last to be re-captured was U-boat Commander Jürgen Wattenberg,
the leader of the breakout.  Interestingly, Captain Wattenberg hid out
in the hills just a few hundred yards from my current home.

  • I don't know if such an event occurred in Europe

    It did. Although most were eventually caught the German army was forced to divert 100,000 troops to capture the escapees. Subsequently many were shot as spies (in contravention to the Geneva convention)which put an end to other escape attempts from German PoW camps.

  • I first read about this in the Smtihonian magazine. The captain lived in some little dugout, partial cave like deal up on Camelback, and a another guy actually went into a bowling alley, had a beer, and a left.

  • BobH

    Growing up in Phoenix (born just after the war) I heard variations of this story many times. A couple things I noticed in reading the link:

    Saying that the guards were Sargeant Shultzish seems unfair to Schultz. I can see that you might give prisoners digging implements to build a volleyball court, but wouldn't you oversee their use? And how much digging is involved in a volleyball court? Dig a couple holes for the poles supporting the net and you're done -- an hour's work perhaps. But they gave them the tools in September and never checked on them through December. Brilliant.

    I salute the two Germans who managed to get to Mexico -- that couldn't have been easy. It's ironic that the Americans had to rescue them.

  • Steve H

    Several major errors in the above accounts. I wrote a book on the subject and interviewed many of the escapees. The three men who wanted to float to freedom wanted to get to the Gila River, not Salt River. They did not steal boats,they built a three-man kayak in the camp and carried it in pieces with them. The men were Fritz Utzolino, Wolfgang Clarus and Wilhelm Gunther.
    None of the escapees made it to Mexico. Hein Palmer and Reinhard Mark made it to within 15 of the border before being recaptured.
    Major Parshall, the Provost Marshall, was guilty of spreading the rumor that 60 escaped. The figure he quoted was that there were a total of 60 men who escaped from Papago during its operation.