Flight From Phoenix

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

"The Gazette and Republic didn't play up the escape as much as the national press did," Hoza says. "Walter Winchell had a field day with it. To this day, the Germans resent the kind of attention Winchell paid to the story."

Among the Republic boners that Winchell inflated was a report that Günther Prien, the most famous of Germany's U-boat commanders, was among the escaped prisoners. Personally decorated by Hitler, Prien was credited with sinking the British battleship Royal Oak in 1939, but by 1941 was listed as missing in action. Prien never came anywhere near Papago; in fact, he'd been killed in action several years before the camp ever opened. Clark calls the Prien story a "latrine rumor" started by prisoners, but Hoza says the tale originated with a Gazette reporter.

"The writer asked [camp security honcho] Major Eugene Tays if Prien was among the escaped prisoners," Hoza says. "Tays wasn't at liberty to say who was interred at Papago, and his 'no comment' was taken as a yes."

Playwright Ben Tyler says the new play may be amusing, but it's not a comedy.
Paolo Vescia
Playwright Ben Tyler says the new play may be amusing, but it's not a comedy.

Civilians appeared less concerned with their safety at the hands of fugitive Nazis than they did with the contents of the recaptured soldiers' knapsacks. Housewives were incensed at reports that rationed foodstuffs not available to them at Bashas' were found in surplus among the escapees. A letter to the editor printed in the Republic complained, "Now, isn't that a hell of a state of affairs when we, the taxpaying citizens, cannot get a single slice of bacon for weeks on end when we come home from working in a defense plant, and then read in the paper that prisoners of war can get away with slabs of it?"

Meanwhile, Larry Jorgensen had discovered the exit to the escape tunnel on December 26. According to Moore's book, even when Papago personnel were shown the "blind spot" where the tunnel entrance was located, it took some three hours to uncover it. Jorgensen was selected to crawl through the tunnel's 178 filthy, waterlogged feet, an experience he recalls with a shudder today. "You've really got to want to get out of somewhere to work your way through someplace like that," he says.

A full week after their escape, 17 of the 25 men were still at large. Palmer and fellow escapee Reinhard Mark were captured outside of Sells, Arizona, on New Year's Day, after they were spied sleeping under some bushes. The pair were taken to the home of a customs official. After serving the Germans a lavish dinner, their host invited locals in to gawk at the POWs.

"Then, a very strange thing happened," Palmer recalls. "They brought in this little crippled boy. He didn't know anyone who could play chess with him, and he wanted to know if we knew how to play. I told Reinhard, in German, to let the kid win, because I thought we might win favor with our captors. And this kid didn't look like he had long to live, so why not let him beat the great captured war prisoners? He could tell his friends about it later."

Following this impromptu international chess match, Papago officials arrived to return their prisoners to camp. When their American escorts became lost on the way back to Phoenix, Palmer offered directions. He recalls that the American officers wanted to take their prisoners out for a drink, but feared that the Germans were underdressed and wouldn't be allowed admittance to any of the better watering holes. "The lieutenant asked if his prisoners had any special requests," Palmer says, "so we asked to be driven through the city to see the lights." Palmer's only complaint about being returned to camp had nothing to do with his own welfare or his blundered escape. "I was sad to hear that the Indians who turned us in only got about $10 for our capture," he says today. "That's not much of a reward for two whole men."

Civilians continued to spot escapees, and the FBI fielded calls from as far away as San Diego, where a group of 14 Boy Scouts were mistaken for Nazi POWs because, as the Republic reported, "they were carrying knapsacks and walking single file down a mountain trail." A rancher who mistook an Atlanta hobo's Southern drawl for a German accent turned him over to local cops. And a pair of teenage boys, dressed in Levi's and high school letter sweaters, were hauled in by Flagstaff police and questioned because one of them was overheard uttering a phrase in German.

Throughout January, the real Papago prisoners were apprehended and returned to camp one and two at a time. Many had wandered through suburban and downtown Phoenix undetected for weeks; others had trekked as far as 15 miles from the Mexican border before being caught. Finally, on January 29, more than a month after his escape, Wattenberg was recaptured. The last prisoner to be caught, Wattenberg was busted in the lobby of the Adams Hotel, where he'd stopped to nap and read the newspaper. He signed an autograph for arresting officer Sergeant Gilbert Brady ("The game's up and I lost, Sincerely, Jürgen Wattenberg"), bummed a cigarette and returned happily to camp.

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