Flight From Phoenix

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

While the digging commenced, the Germans began training for their hike to the nearby Mexican border. "We prepared for the escape right under their noses," Palmer says, giggling. "We walked and ran every day with weights under our clothes to get in shape for the long journey ahead."

Despite his glee, Palmer is quick to defend the American guards at Camp Papago. "It is not that the guards were stupid. It was that they were friendly with us. The tunnel entrance was very well camouflaged. And they thought since we liked them, we would not go. We did like them. And we went anyhow."

Hoza is less generous in his assessment of Papago's security. "The guards will be the first to tell you that they were lax," he says. "Most of them were 4F, the lowest military rating, and couldn't qualify for combat. They became military policemen and prison guards."

Author Steve Hoza at the site of the tunnel's exit.
Paolo Vescia
Author Steve Hoza at the site of the tunnel's exit.
The cast of Escape From Papago Park poses beneath a makeshift guard tower.
Paolo Vescia
The cast of Escape From Papago Park poses beneath a makeshift guard tower.

But not particularly good ones. On the evening of December 23, 1944, Papago prisoners diverted their captors' attention with noisy celebrations of a recent German victory against the Allies. Searchlights were all trained on a weather balloon carrying a German naval flag, released by prisoners as another distraction. While guards busted up POW parades throughout the camp, and as "Don't Fence Me In" played on KTAR's Your Hit Parade, two- and three-man groups began sneaking into the tunnel.

Three feet high and only half as wide, the 178-foot tunnel burrowed beneath a pair of camp fences and exited on the banks of the Arizona Crosscut Canal. It was illuminated by an electric light and was filled in places with muddy water. Although U.S. Army archival drawings made after the tunnel's discovery show a neatly dug underground trench, Moore writes that these sketches are far too flattering. "Nobody had the slightest idea how to dig a tunnel," he quotes one of the fugitives as saying. "It was our first, you understand."

Hoza says that most of the deserters knew a successful escape was a long shot. "They didn't think they'd make it back to Germany," he said. "They treated it like a big prank. They were bored."

Palmer recalls being more hopeful. "I thought if I could get to Mexico, I could make it home," he says. "My plan was to try to go to Guaymas, then stow away on a ship to South America. From there, I could return to Germany and the war."

Lammersdorf stayed behind. "It was useless to go into the desert without a clear plan. Mexico was far away, and most of us had no desire to expose ourselves to real hardships. We had a good life. We were well fed, we spent many hours reading and relaxing, with no trouble from our friends, the guards."

The guards were apparently so full of Christmas spirit that they failed to notice that Wattenberg and two dozen of his cronies were missing until a full day had passed. Although Palmer remembers being told that camp officials discovered their charges were gone after evening roll call on Christmas Eve, other reports paint a more embarrassing picture.

"Herbert Fuchs had seen what was on the menu at Papago for Christmas, so he surrendered to police," says Lloyd Clark, a former Arizona Republic writer who's made a second career of documenting the escape in articles and oral presentations. Clark says that by the time Fuchs was returned to camp, five more escapees had been apprehended in Tempe.

Papago officials didn't bother to report the missing men to the FBI, which first learned of the escape when a representative of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office called to report a group of POWs were in custody. Camp officers were quickly called back from holiday leave and search parties were dispatched, while guards began counting heads and searching for a hole in the fence.

By now, the story had been leaked to the press and, while the remaining 19 escapees napped in caves or hiked through gullies in the desert, the local media began spinning tales about their whereabouts. The Arizona Republic broke the story on Christmas Day, in a front-page article that claimed that prisoners had scaled an eight-foot barbed wire fence on December 24. A sidebar listed names and descriptions of escapees, but failed to mention that six of the men had already been captured. An early Phoenix Gazette story claimed that local buildings would be tear-gassed to flush out POWs hiding there.

In subsequent articles, with titles like "Wily Germans Elude Chase" and "Bloodhounds Trailing Nazis Near Arlington," the papers churned out stories that, while inaccurate, certainly enlivened the escape. Clark recalls that one Republic article had the prisoners "slithering away like eels" during a Christmas Eve rainstorm; once the tunnel was discovered, its location and length changed from story to story.

"The newspapers said the boys took a boat out with them," huffs Dorothy Jorgensen, a secretary who worked alongside her husband, Larry, at Papago. "The tunnel wasn't wide enough to get any boat through. The boys brought some boards with them when they escaped, so they could build a raft and float on down to Mexico. Then they got to the river and realized there was no water in it. They laughed about that when we got them back. They were embarrassed, but they thought it was awful funny, too."

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