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Arizona's Great World War II Prisoner of War Escape

Updated on February 16, 2012

The Great Escape

In the 1963 movie The Great Escape, Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborourgh are cast in the roles of Allied prisoners of war in a Nazi POW camp Stalag Luft III.

Despite the fact that the Nazis had thought they had designed the camp to be escape proof, McQueen, Garner and Attenborough and a number of their fellow prisoners manage to dig a secret tunnel and escape.

The movie was based upon a novel of the same name by Paul Brickhill who had been a prisoner of war in a camp known as Stalag Luft III in which there had been a mass escape much like the one in the book and movie.

Hub 24 for 30 Hubs in 30 Days Challenge

My assistant, Chika, and I trying to write and publish 30 Hubs in 30 Days
My assistant, Chika, and I trying to write and publish 30 Hubs in 30 Days

Movie "The Great Escape" Based Upon a Real Escape From a Nazi POW Camp

Brickhill witnessed the escape but did not participate in it. His novel and the 1963 movie adapted from it describe the escape and its aftermath pretty much as it actually happened including the Gestapo mowing a number of the prisoners down with a machine gun after they had been captured.

The movie did take a few more liberties than the book in that it had the prisoners in the camp being mostly American and British while the real Stalag Luft III housed mostly British and Commonwealth prisoners and only a few Americans.

The movie also added some extra drama such as Steve McQueen's character's attempt to jump a barbed wire fence to safety in Switzerland with a motorcycle while being chased by Nazis.

While The Great Escape is a great movie which I have enjoyed watching a number of times, this Hub is not a review of that movie but, instead, an account of a real POW escape during World War II in Phoenix, Arizona.

A POW Camp in Phoenix, Arizona

During World War II our Nazi and Japanese foes were not the only ones to take prisoners. The Allies, including the United States, captured prisoners as well. Like the Nazis and Japanese, we had to feed and house our prisoners in areas where escape was difficult.

With the war against the Nazis being fought in Europe, it made sense to house the German and Italian prisoners we captured in the United States as it is rather difficult to get to Europe easily from North America when you are on the run.

While not talked about very much and with few, if any, of these camps kept as museums after the war, it is surprising how many POW camps there were in the U.S. When I checked I found a list of nineteen POW camps in Arizona and have seen articles listing numbers of other camps in other states as well.

One of the main camps in Arizona was at Papago Park in Phoenix. This was the site of one of the Roosevelt Administration's Depression Era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps, run by an Army Officer, in the 1930s. During the war it was used to house German prisoners of war and today it is an Arizona Army National Guard base and also houses the Arizona Military Museum (which is open to the public).

The Arizona Military Museum includes an excellent display depicting the camp and the story of the escape.

U-Boat Kaptain Jurgen Wattenberg

The story begins in 1939 when the German armored cruiser the Graf Spee, after suffering severe damage following a battle with three British warships, made its way to port in Montevideo, Uruguay where it was scuttled and the crew taken into custody.

Kaptain Jurgen Wattenberg had been the navigation officer on that ship and, along with most of the ship's other officers and many of the crew had escaped internment by the neutral pro-British Uruguayans and neutral pro-German Argentinians and made their way back to Germany where Wattenberg was given command of the U-162 submarine.
Kaptain Wattenberg's  U-162 was sunk by British destroyers in the Caribbean off of Trinidad on September 3, 1942 and he and his crew taken prisoner.   America had entered the war by this time and the crew was turned over to the United States for imprisonment.

Kaptain Wattenberg was originally placed in a POW camp in Tennessee but was moved to the Papago Park camp in the summer of 1944 after the authorities in the Tennessee camp discovered that he was behind a plot to dig a tunnel and escape.

Captured Soldiers are Duty Bound to Try to Escape

Military prisoners of war have a duty to try to escape if captured. The Geneva Conventions recognize this and forbid reprisals and limit punishment for those who are caught escaping. Article III of the United States Code of Military Conduct states this duty clearly:

If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.

Kaptain Wattenberg and military prisoners of war of other nations are bound by similar codes of conduct. So it is not surprising that, shortly after his arrival at the Papago Park POW Camp that Kaptin Jurgen Wattenburg began planning another escape.

A Tunnel is Dug

As the highest ranking prisoner in the camp, Kaptain Wattenberg became the commander of the prisoners in the camp under the rules of the Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners of war.

As the commander, one of his first acts was to request from the U.S. authorities in charge of the camp shovels and other implements with which to dig. The stated reason for this request was to build a volleyball court in the camp for the prisoners.

This was a reasonable request and the U.S. authorities gave him the requested shovels and other tools. As anyone who has ever tried to plant a bush or tree in Arizona knows, the ground is almost rock-like. In fact the calcium carbonate caliche that makes up most of the arid Arizona soil is basically a type of sedimentary rock which, with great effort, can be dug into with a shovel and other hand tools.

Thus, the thought that Kaptain Wattenberg and his men would dig a tunnel never crossed the minds of the U.S. authorities. In fact until they were actually shown the tunnel by prisoners after the escape, the authorities believed that the escapees had made their exit by climbing over the barbed wire fence.

Work on the tunnel began in September and wasn't completed until a few days before Christmas in 1944. Some of the dirt removed from the digging of the tunnel was flushed down the toilets while much of the rest was hidden in prisoner's pant legs, just like in the move The Great Escape, and allowed to fall on the ground as they walked around outside.

In addition to digging the tunnel, Kaptain Wattenberg had prisoners collect all the scraps of rubber they could find during the time when they were digging the tunnel. These were to be used to build rafts which Kaptain Wattenberg planned to use to sail down the Gila River from Phoenix to Yuma and then cross the border into Mexico.

Would Have Been a Great Plan If There Had Been Water in the River

Kaptian Wattenberg decided to make the escape the night of December 23, 1944. Escaping with him would be eleven other officers and 13 enlisted men all of whom were sailors. To cover the escape, Wattenberg arranged for the rest of the men in the camp to have a rousing pre Christmas Eve party. Aiding in this was the fact that the prisoners were issued the same 3.2 beer ration that the American troops were given.

Whether real or faked the drunken bash distracted the guards who had to enter the camp and restore order. Meanwhile by 2:30 on the morning of December 24th, Wattenberg and his fellow escapees had all made a successful exit through the 178 foot tunnel to the Arizona Crosscut Canal that ran past the camp, and on their way through the canal, which had no water in it at that time of year, to the Gila River.

Kaptain Wattenberg had provided each of the men with contact information for people in Mexico who would help them make their way back to Germany.

While many Mexican men had come north and enlisted in the U.S. military to fight in World War II and many others were recruited by government and private agents to come to the U.S. and work in the farms and factories replacing American workers who had been drafted into the military, internal political strife forced the Mexican government itself to stay on the sidelines for much of the war.

However, in 1945 Mexico did declare war on the Axis and sent one squadron of the Mexican Air Force to assist the United States and Philippine forces in the liberation of the Philippines. Five Mexican pilots gave their lives in that action.

While the escape had been successful, the group ran into trouble as soon as they reached the nearby Gila River. The Gila is a wide river flowing in a nearly straight line from Phoenix to Yuma, Arizona where it joins the Colorado River which flows into Mexico where empties into the Gulf of California. The plan was great except that the Gila River rarely has any water in it and that was the case when Wattenberg and his crew entered the Gila River of Christmas Eve 1944m

A Christmas Season Comedy

Lacking the means to get to Mexico except by boat the morale of the escapees began to deteriorate and the men split up.

While warmer than northern states in December, it still gets cold at night in December in Arizona. It also tends to rain in December. Cold, rain and hunger combined with finding himself alone in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Eve was too much for one sailor who made his way to a road where he flagged down a passing motorist and asked the driver to take him to the local sheriff.

Like the Great Escape (both in real life and as portrayed in the book and in the movie) from Stalag Luft III in Germany the Great Escape from Papago Park also failed. However, unlike the tragic end to the Stalag Luft III escape, the end of the Papago Park escape was mostly comic in retrospect.

Rather than panicking, the obliging motorist who stopped for the shivering POW on the road, drove him to the nearest Sheriff's office where the sailor walked in and surrendered. It was 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve when the sailer walked into the Sheriff's office and surrendered. The surprised officer on duty locked the POW up and called the authorities at Papago Park who were just as surprised as the Sheriff's deputy.

The Sheriff's call was soon followed by a call from a lady saying that she had two POWs in her home who had knocked on her door and surrendered to her. There were other calls as well from other citizens whose Christmas Eve had been interrupted by POWs knocking on their doors and surrendering to them.

The rest of the citizens of Phoenix learned of the escape on Christmas morning when the Arizona Republic ran a front page story about it. Over the next few weeks all but one of the remaining escapees were either picked up wandering around Phoenix or simply surrendered like their comrades on Christmas Eve.

The last to be apprehended was Kaptain Jurgen Wattenberg himself. He had been living in a small cave in the bank of an arroyo (creek - dry in this case) in Phoenix and surviving on food he purchased in stores. By late January he knew from stories about each men that appeared in newspapers he picked up in his wanderings around town that all of them had been captured.

Wattenberg was also running out of money and on January 28, 1945, one month after his 44th birthday on December 28th, he walked into central Phoenix and brought himself some lunch in a Chinese restaurant and then went to the Adams Hotel where he fell asleep on a couch in the lobby. He awoke and saw a bellboy looking at him. He promptly left the hotel and went to a gas station where he asked for directions to the train station.

Upon hearing his German accent, the gas station attendant called the police who picked up Wattenberg a few blocks away.

Wattenberg Returnes to Germany and Becomes a Brewery Manager

Wattenberg and the other escapees were disbursed to other camps and eventually returned to Germany following the end of the War that summer.  

With the war and his naval career over Jurgen Wattenberg entered the private sector and became manager of the Bavaria-St Pauli Brewery in Lubeck.  

Kaptain Jurgen Wattenberg died on September 27, 1995 at the age of 94.


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    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      3 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Robert Sacchi - I am glad you enjoyed this Hub and thank for sharing your information about the POWs escaping in San Antonio.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 years ago

      A very interesting and amusing Hub. There was a POW camp in San Antonio. I remember reading an article about it. The prisoners there were having a great time. There was one mass escape, 20 prisoners, once. The soldiers knew just where to find them, the local amusement park. They found 7 of them on the roller coaster.

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      RonEIFran - thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the Hub. I enjoyed researching the story for the Hub.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      This is a great story that I never knew of before. Well researched and well told. Thanks for sharing this very interesting account.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      My first thought before reading was where in the world would Axis prisoners in the Ariz. desert think they were going, Mexico? All was made clear in your excellent recounting of the somewhat comic and failed break-out, Chuck. It really comes as no surprise with Kaptain Wattenberg's determination as the German submarine service was largely composed of very dedicated set of seamen.. If not mistaken they suffered, as a percentage, the highest loss of all in the German armed forces. The Kaptain also attained the age of 94, which seems fitting in a way. Thanks for a new WW2 story Chuck, the book you have for purchase here, 'Unbroken', is absolutely superb and stirring.

    • alphonsians93 profile image


      8 years ago from Cebu Philippines

      wow this is amazing and in detail...superb..i love reading it... give us of these stories...

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      I just by chance found your hub and had a grand read. Thank you very much. My uncle was in Al Amain fighting on the German side and was captured and shipped to America. I have got a letter written on the eve of the Fight when Rommel got defeated. I tried to add you as my fan but you only got RSS and I don't know how to do this and what it is all about. Great research and wonderfully written.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      Isn't it funny, Chuck, how sometimes the very best stories are the true stories?

      I remember the movie, "The Great Escape," and Steve McQueen who was always the epitome of "cool." But I didn't have a clue that this "great escape" in Arizona took place.

      Thanks for a superbly written and researched hub.

      Give my regards to Chika. Which part did she type?

    • Chuck profile imageAUTHOR

      Chuck Nugent 

      9 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Paradise7 - Thanks for the comments

      I have considered writing on the Japanese-American internment camps which were different from POW camps in that the people interred were Americans of Japanese descent (there were also a couple of camps for Italian Americans and a few of them were apparently interred in such camps).

      German-Americans appear not to have been interred, but they were (and I believe still are) the largest single ethnic group in the nation and that represents a lot of votes and the internment camps were all about politics and not national security.

      One of the unusual things about the Japanese interment was that they only interred people in certain areas, not all Japanese. Most were from California but some from Arizona and other places. In Phoenix, AZ they took all the Japanese-Americans from certain sections of the city. But in some areas the boundary line ran down the middle of the street - if you were a Japanese-American on one side of the street you were sent to a camp. However, if you lived on the other side you were not. Also, many young Japanese-American men enlisted in the Army to fight in the war while they were in the camps and the Armed Forces willingly accepted them - so much for their being a national security threat.

      There was a camp south of Phoenix near Sacaton, AZ which I have tried to find to take some pictures and write a Hub but I have yet to find it.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Fascinating hub. What persistence those men had, to dig a tunnel in that kind of dirt. Ah, bless them, they had to try.

      I had a Japanese-American piano and music instructor who was interned in an internment camp in California as a child, with his parents, during WWII. He wasn't badly treated but he was isolated from the rest of the community and his parents lost everything they'd built up in America. They were definitely perceived (misperceived) as the enemy.

      That might be an interesting subject for a hub.

    • ocbill profile image


      9 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

      I saw a documentary on this recently. You put more details they left out. Great story and I admire the resiliency. Basically, there was not much choice. why not?


    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      9 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Wow, that is really awesome, I had No idea about this. It reminds for a great bank robbery in calif. in the early to mid 1900s, and they dug a tunnel as well. Great writing and I can feel your passion come alive in your writing. Thumps up Chuck

    • bobmnu profile image


      9 years ago from Cumberland

      Very Interesting. Thanks for the info. I too like the movie The Great Escape.


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