Flight From Phoenix

In 1944, 25 German POWs tunneled out of the Papago Park internment camp. Now, a Valley playwright has excavated their adventure.

In his book PW: First-Person Accounts of German Prisoners of War in Arizona, Hoza writes that Lammersdorf and his colleagues referred to Papago as Schlarafenland-- the land of milk and honey. "These were not the German soldiers of the Hollywood battlefield, willing to fight for the Fuhrer at any cost," he says. "They were young men grateful to be treated this well by the American government. Particularly after the concentration camps were discovered. And especially considering how American POWs were treated in enemy camps."

When they weren't picking cotton -- and only 700 of Papago's residents chose to work -- prisoners were indulging in a list of recreational activities to rival any country club. Horseback riding and swimming (albeit in the irrigation canal that flowed past the camp) were offered to prisoners, and twice-weekly movies were screened in the camp's moviehouse. This same structure was home to the prison's eight-man choir, which performed frequent concerts, and also hosted the prison's theater company, which presented POW musical revues. Daily classes in commerce, law and foreign language were taught by German officers, who often digressed from their lesson plans to discuss effective means of escape from a prison camp and how to elude capture once one was out. POWs who eschewed the classroom could work on the prison newspaper, The Papago Rundschau, or tend the gardens and rabbit farms that sprang up all over camp.

Even romance, of a kind, could be had at Camp Papago. "The local girls, Mexican girls, would come to the fence at night," recalls Lammersdorf. "They knew that there were men who had not had any contact with women for some time. So these guys would sneak out of the camp, through a hole in the fence, and then come back later that night. Everyone was happy."

Maybe not everyone. "Nothing like that ever happened," insists former Papago guard Larry Jorgenson, today a Scottsdale retiree. "This story is absolutely false. We did not entertain prostitutes or any other kind of women at the camp."

They did, however, host public art exhibits, where the elaborate projects that prisoners created in the camp's crafts program were displayed and sold. Organized bridge games and soccer matches were enlivened by the schnapps brewed in a wash barrack from distilled orange and grapefruit peels, as were the talcum powder fights that were popular with prisoners after lights out.

With all this merrymaking, it's not surprising that, once an escape plan was hatched in late 1944, most of Papago's German prisoners opted to stay behind. "These men had survived combat," Hoza says, "so why should they risk being shot by a farmer for trying to escape from a place where they enjoyed comparative luxury?"

Lammersdorf remembers why some of his comrades decided to flee their comfortable life in the desert. "It is not so foolish that we would want to escape our fine home in the prison camp," he chuckles. "You see, it's the duty of a prisoner of war, an unwritten law, to try to return to the homeland. Some of us were just more patriotic than others."

And so, late in the fall of 1944, the digging began.

There were hundreds of documented escapes by German POWs during World War II; prisoners were forever wandering away from work details or hiding out in laundry trucks in an attempt to regain their freedom. The Papago escape is notable because of the number of prisoners who vanished, and because of the incompetence of their captors. The men running Camp Papago Park were so inept, in fact, that no one noticed that prisoners were missing until 24 hours later.

The Papago break was practically inevitable. Camp commander William Holden, in the first of many boldly stupid moves, consigned every prisoner who had ever escaped from a prison camp to Compound One. These "troublemakers," as Holden officially dubbed them, were responsible for 13 previous breakouts from Papago. Most of them were naval officers with keen engineering skills whose talent for flight was exacerbated by boredom and patriotic fervor.

"Yes, that was folly, putting all the former escapees together," says Heinrich Palmer, who was one of only two deserters not housed in Compound One. "Here were the experts, all in one place, talking about leaving. It was very helpful, in a way."

Holden wasn't worried that his prisoners would try to tunnel out of Papago. He knew that the camp was built on decomposed granite, and that his men had watched building crews blast through the stuff to install Papago's septic tanks. If it took dynamite to penetrate the camp's foundation, he reasoned, no POW would be able to burrow out.

But Holden was mistaken. His prisoners, perhaps while cleaning up after an especially messy powder fight, discovered that, when wet, decomposed granite turns into soft mud, then dries hard again. Using coal shovels and screwdrivers, a team of prisoners began digging their way to freedom in late-night shifts, dragging up tubs of dirt and scattering it throughout the camp. Much of it was used to fill flower beds; some of it was stored in a special attic; still more was flushed down the toilets. In his book The Faustball Tunnel, John Hammond Moore describes the prisoners' plan to build a faustball (volleyball) court as so much sand thrown in Americans' eyes. The construction project created an excuse for great heaps of earth to be lying around the camp, should any guards get suspicious. According to Palmer, none did.

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