The Largest Axis POW Escape on American Soil: The Great Papago Escape

Captain Jürgen Wattenberg, a German submarine, U-boat commander, had quite the adventurous experience during the Second World War, even though he spent most of it interred. Well, being interred was a large part of the adventure. 

At the outbreak of the war, he was the German armoured battleship Admiral Graf Spee’s navigation officer. After the battle of the River Plate the battleship was severely damaged and its commander, Hans Langsdorff, decided to scuttle it in the Uruguayan Port of Montevideo. Although Wattenberg and his crew were interred following the scuttling, he managed to escape and find his way back to Germany in May 1940. In October that year, he served as a Kommandantenschüler, a commander-in-training, on the submarine U-103, before receiving command of the U-162. Although initially successful and sinking 14 ships of the Allies, his submarine was sunk by the British Royal Navy during its third patrol in September 1942, near Trinidad. 

Jürgen Wattenberg (1900-1995)

Instead of going under with his submarine, Wattenberg was arrested. The British were aware of his reputation and ensured his imprisonment on the U.S. mainland, realising the chances of another escape there were slim. He bounced around POW camps in Virginia and Tennessee, before finally arriving at Camp Papago Park near Phoenix Arizona in January 1944. 

Despite the camp being located in the middle of the desert, it was from here Captain Wattenberg organised and led the largest escape of German POWs on U.S. soil of the entire Second World War. And he himself was quite successful in evading capture by U.S. forces, the FBI, and Indian Scouts after the escape. 

Preparing the Escape

Camp Papago Park was initially built in 1943 for U.S. soldiers receiving desert combat training. Over time it had to be repurposed due to the significant influx of Axis POWs from the European Theatre. Initially, it housed Italian prisoners until they were moved to Californian camps. From January 1944 onwards a steady stream of German POWs began arriving at the camp.

As for the camp’s layout, there were five compounds, four for ordinary sailors and soldiers, and one for officers. Barbed wire fences encompassed the camp and guard towers stood at strategic locations. There were approximately 370 guards and officers guarding the prisoners. Roughly 3100 German prisoners were living in Papago at its peak, many of them Kriegsmarine personnel. 

Life within Papago wasn’t necessarily what you’d imagine POW camp life looked like. The camp’s commander, Army Colonel William A. Holden, trusted security so much that life was relatively comfortable for the prisoners. Security was lax, and the prisoners enjoyed many freedoms. They could choose whether they wanted to work outside the camp in the nearby cotton fields or remain in the camp. If they did decide to work, they would be reimbursed in accordance with the Geneva Convention. 

Guards simply sat in their towers, and there were no patrols within the compound. Now, it is easy to judge Holden’s misplaced confidence, but it can actually be very well understood. Camp Papago was built on decomposed granite. Not just Holden, but any official considered it impossible to dig through granite layers of varying degrees of hardness. Mainly because the prisoners didn’t have any real digging, let alone drilling tools. As such, there weren’t any guards looking for prisoners digging tunnels, because they deemed it utterly impossible.

Yet somehow the Germans managed to do just that. Right after arrival, in the officer’s compound, Wattenberg found a blind spot the guard towers couldn’t see. It was close to the camp’s eastern perimeter; ideally located because you wouldn’t have to dig too far to reach the outer fence. Wattenberg and several other German POWs began hatching the plan to dig a tunnel and escape the camp. The only tools they had at their disposal to crack the rock were fire shovels. 

The entrance of the tunnel started underneath an outdoor coal box behind the bathhouse. The men began breaking the concrete and started digging. Only one man could work in the tunnel at a time. So as you can imagine, it took months. They spent three months boring the nearly 200-foot long tunnel, that’s almost 60 metres, through thick granite. 

Entrance of the tunnel

They worked in 90-minute shifts of three men. One dug and two stood on the lookout. Debris, dirt and concrete were disposed of in gardens, during walks in the frontcourt, but even hidden in attics or flushed down toilets. Several articles mention the Germans received permission to build a faustball court, a game similar to volleyball. Building the concrete court was the ideal cover to dispose of their surplus dirt. 

Once completed, the tunnel went around 15 feet, so approximately 4.5 meters, below the ground surface. The tunnel continued underneath the outer perimeter fence, below an adjacent irrigation canal, a road, and exited nearby the banks of the Crosscut Canal. When it was finished, the tunnel was large enough just for a man to crawl through it.

After several months of planning, on the night of December 23, 1944, 25 German prisoners-of-war, both soldiers and sailors, decided to take the leap. The timing wasn’t completely random: the prisoners felt exalted earlier that week because news reached them of Gerd von Rundstedt’s momentary victories in the European theatre. Prison guards had suppressed a small uprising earlier that week, and prisoner gatherings occurred more often, leading to increased tension between guards and their prisoners. On the night of the escape, the prisoners who remained behind agreed to throw a rowdy celebration to cover the rest’s escape.

Thanks to heavy rain and what the camp commandant, Colonel William A . Holden, later described as a ‘Christmas mood’, Wattenberg and 24 other Germans could crawl through the tunnel, undetected. They emerged in the desert without any trouble, and now a vast trek lay in front of them to reach their destination: Mexico.

Fritz Guggenberger. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B13197 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

Their initial aim was to cross the Mexican border. Now, that wasn’t a very crazy idea. In fact, one of the escapees, submarine Lieutenant Fritz Guggenberger, had already escaped from Papago before. In February that same year, he escaped together with another inmate. They tried to reach Mexico because it was well-known Nazi sympathisers stationed over there could get escaped POWs back to Germany. However, the men were arrested in Tucson, Arizona, not too long after.

Yet this time too, the escape and subsequent journey of most men was filled with disheartening surprises. The escapees began their outbreak at around 9 PM and by 2:30 in the morning they were all walking free in the Arizona desert. Their next step was to split up into small groups, lower the chances of getting caught, and trek southward.

The Manhunt

Newspaper articles give a vivid account of the aftermath of the escape, and the subsequent manhunt. The next day, nearly 24 hours after the escape commenced, an American guard, Captain Parshall, noticed prisoners were missing. Once the camp officers realised the escape’s extent, several hundred FBI agents and Papago Indian scouts received orders to find the men. The Phoenix Gazette, the local newspaper, dubbed it the “greatest manhunt in Arizona history.” 

Because most escapees were unfamiliar with the terrain, not to mention it was midwinter with plenty of rain, a significant amount did not get far. The first six escapees, all submarine personnel, were swiftly arrested the next evening. The other 19 prisoners still on the run consisted of 11 navy officers, many of them linguists, and of course Captain Jurgen Wattenberg. The mastermind behind the escape, and most senior ranking member of the group.

With the aim of crossing the Mexican border and returning to Germany from there, the remainder of escapees had to traverse vast deserts. Newspapers reported all escapees were trained saboteurs, although articles written long after the escape generally agree most men were ordinary sailors. To top off the media spectacle, an Italian POW escaped from a nearby camp during the same time. Hundreds of military personnel, federal agents and scouts, combed through the desert, searching for the escaped Germans.

One of the most curious tales must be that of three Germans that stuck together. Already during their imprisonment, they stole a highway map of Arizona. On the map, the Gila River was shown as a “healthy blue waterway”. During their captivity, they managed to construct a collapsible kayak without the prison guards finding out. The kayak would be ideal for sailing downwards over the Gila River to the Colorado River, which drained to the Gulf of California and in turn provided an easy route to Mexico. During the escape, they smuggled the collapsible kayak with them. 

But once the trio reached its location, all they found was a dry riverbed. There were some puddles of water, but nothing even remotely fit for sailing. According to Roger Naylor, in an article about the escape, Arizonans are “extremely open-minded when it comes to rivers. Water isn’t an essential ingredient; sometimes it’s merely the memory of water or the potential for it.” Well, that certainly was the case here. Historian Steve Hoza wrote the book PW: First-person accounts of German prisoners of war in Arizona. He interviewed one of the kayak-escapees for his book. Wilhelm Günther later recounted that although he could laugh about it after the war, at the time it was very disheartening.

The trio decided to continue on foot, but couldn’t evade the FBI and Indian scouts for much longer. Other escapees didn’t have much more luck in evading capture. On New Year’s Day, two escapees were arrested only 50 km away from the Mexican border. As for Guggenberg, together with another escapee he nearly reached the Mexican border. On January 6 1945, two weeks after the escape, both men were arrested within 16 kilometres, around 10 miles of the border, 

Two days later three more men were arrested after one of them decided to wash his clothes in a canal near the Gila River. Passing cowboys spotted the group and reported them to the army, who could easily track them down. Frankly, most of the escapees were captured soon after, and the stories weren’t that wild. 

Captain Wattenberg

But it was Captain Wattenberg who really took the cake. Together with two escapees, the men trekked north instead of south. They found shelter in a cave in the mountains north of Phoenix, near Piestewa Peak. They held themselves up here for over a month, foraging the wilderness for food, and occasionally even entered Phoenix. 

One of the men with Wattenberg, Johann Kremer, contacted German workers volunteering to work the cotton fields outside of the camp. Kremer managed to convince a worker to exchange places, and he was returned to the camp where he collected food and information about the progress of the manhunt. Meanwhile, the German worker went to the cave where Captain Wattenberg and the other German sheltered, awaiting Kremer’s return. As for Kremer, in order to get out of the camp, he simply volunteered to work the cotton fields, and together with a group of POWs, he was sent to work outside of the camp. He did this on multiple occasions, and when the volunteer crew was at capacity, he simply gave one of the men part of this group food and information to take with him. The food would be stashed inside an abandoned car, for Wattenberg and the other escapee to retrieve at a later moment.

It wasn’t until January 22 that camp guards realised Kremer, whose name was on the list of still missing escapees, in fact, resided inside the camp. During the subsequent interrogation, Kremer probably gave away part of the still missing escapees’ details because the other man still outside the camp was arrested the next day when he went to retrieve provisions from the abandoned car. 

Yet Wattenberg wasn’t caught, and it appears Kremer didn’t give up the cave location. Because four days later, on January 27, Wattenberg treated himself to a meal at a restaurant in Phoenix, slept in a hotel lobby and roamed the streets during nighttime. Later it became clear he was looking for the railway station in an attempt to get out of Arizona. Unfamiliar with the city, he asked a member of the street cleaning crew for directions. His accent gave him away, and the cleaner informed the police. The next morning, Wattenberg was arrested and became the last prisoner to be captured following the Great Papago Escape. 

Hoza, in his book, collected both the stories of many Axis prisoners and their guards and Americans that worked around the camp in Arizona. According to him, many Germans eventually returned to Arizona once the war was over because they were thankful for being treated so well. And it showed: we’re all too aware of German POWs’ horrible circumstances in the Soviet Union, whereas the American death rate of German POWs was under 1%. Instead of being executed, the U.S. camp officers simply reduced the food the prisoners received as punishment for their escape. 

Interestingly enough during the days after the escape, the media ran wild with speculation about who was among the escapees. One name that frequently turned up was that of Günther Prien, the famed U-boat, submarine commander. He led the daring secret raid on Scapa Flow where he successfully sank the British battleship HMS Royal Oak. A security officer of Papago was quoted as saying Prien was among those that had escaped but later retracted the statement. Holden too denied the report of Prien being imprisoned in Arizona. 

These reports were pretty telling about the intelligence knowledge the Allies had of Nazi Germany. Günther Prien had, in fact, been killed three years earlier after a British destroyer caught his submarine. Prien was a war hero among the Germans and his death was a significant blow to the German morale. I have covered his exploits which elevated him to German war hero status, namely the submarine raid on Scapa Flow, in a separate video. It should be on an end-card shortly if you’re interested in that. 

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