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Arizona's Great World War II Prisoner of War Escape
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
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.
Links to Some of My Other Arizona History Hubs
- The White Dove of the Desert - Tucson's Mission San Xavier del Bac
Located in the southwest corner of Tucson, AZ, the Mission San Xavier del Bac is an 18th Century Mission Church that continues to function as a house of worship and focal point of a mission that was founded by the Spanish Jesuit missionary, Father E
- Hugo O'Conor - Founder of Tucson
Visitors to the city of Tucson, Arizona in America's Southwest are often surprised to learn that this city just north of the Mexican border was founded by a Dublin born Irishman named Hugo O'Connor. Read the amazing story of how this Irishman came