« Lobbying "Reform" | Main | Overdue DVD Releases »

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.

Posted on December 19, 2006 at 01:48 PM | Permalink


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.

Posted by: Mark Adams | Dec 19, 2006 2:02:41 PM

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.

Posted by: Ray G | Dec 19, 2006 8:10:58 PM

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.

Posted by: BobH | Dec 19, 2006 8:27:19 PM

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.

Posted by: Steve H | Jan 8, 2007 10:18:47 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.