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 Wattenberg and his comrades were interrogated about where they'd been and what they'd done ("They thought it was all a big joke," says Dorothy Jorgensen, who transcribed the interrogations, "and they didn't tell much about their adventures out there"), Papago authorities were scrambling to conceal their screw-ups. They concocted an incredible story designed to save them that served only to make them appear more foolish. To the press, the FBI and their superiors, Holden and company began extolling the talent of their German wards. The officers claimed that the tunnel was an incredible feat of engineering, blasted through solid granite from the compound to the canal.

The American officers began referring to a letter left by the Germans which reportedly pointed to harsh treatment by camp guards as the reason for their escape. This letter, if it ever existed, presumably proved that the guards were not suckers and that, in fact, they were so devoted to keeping prisoners in line that they were perceived as tyrannical. To bolster their case, and as local board inquiries dragged on, Holden and staff began naming higher-ups who'd denied the possibility of a tunnel escape from Papago.

Despite these stories, or maybe because of them, military officials charged Holden and his comrades with neglect. Cited as evidence was the fact that camp command had failed to hold Sunday roll calls, and that Holden had scheduled no shake-down inspections of Compound One. A plan to court-martial Holden and crew was scuttled because Washington officials feared that undue publicity of the Papago escape would result in firmer rules governing prisoners of war -- rules that would curtail the amount of time prisoners could be allowed offsite to work in local fields. The prisoner work program would be out the window, a notion that no one in Washington liked.

courtesy Steve Hoza collection
Former Papago Park POW Hans Lammersdorf in 1944 and at home in Seattle, 1993.
courtesy Steve Hoza collection
Former Papago Park POW Hans Lammersdorf in 1944 and at home in Seattle, 1993.

Although records show that Holden retired from military service for "medical reasons" shortly after the escape, there's little doubt that he was sacked.

"Sure, Holden was retired on a medical disability," Clark says. "Which means that he was tired of having to answer questions about the escape."

On February 13, 1945, the Republic reported that a commander from Tule Lake, California, had replaced Holden. The paper did not report that what finally did Holden in was the discovery, just before Wattenberg's capture, that a member of the escape party had been slipping in and out of Papago during the entire month the escapees were gone. Johann Kremer, who'd tunneled out with his comrades on December 23, had revisited Papago every few days since, entering with work crews and staying long enough to collect provisions and an update on how the search was going. He'd then return to the nearby cave where he, Wattenberg and another escapee had been living for weeks. By the time Kremer was finally discovered onsite at Papago, it was obvious that the camp leaked like a sieve and that Holden was a goner.

"I wonder why people in the United States are still interested in this story, 50 years later," Palmer says. "Some prisoners went away, then we were brought back. I can't understand why this makes such a good story."

Ben Tyler says he knows.

"You usually think of U-boat commanders as grizzled war veterans, and German soldiers as stereotypical war machines," says Tyler, a former Wallace and Ladmo Show writer who penned last year's hit musical about that celebrated kiddy program. "But most of these prisoners were guys in their early 20s, out to have a little fun over the holiday. People think this is a classic war escape story, but it's really about the people who were trapped over here."

Despite a handful of laughs, Tyler's play isn't a comedy. "It's a docudrama," he says. "But considering what happened, it can't help but have humor in it."

Tyler, who's best known as the co-author of Guv: The Musical and its several sequels, has long been fascinated with the Camp Papago story. "I grew up out here, and it was always one of those local stories that you heard people telling and retelling. And they always got parts of it wrong. I wanted to set the record straight by writing about the prison escape the way it really happened."

Although Tyler says that some of the prisoners are aware he's written a play about them, neither Palmer nor Lammersdorf seemed to know anything about it. Even Clark was surprised to hear that the show will open this month; he thought the project had been abandoned some time ago.

Lammersdorf wishes it had. "I don't know if this will make a good play," he says. "New generations would not know about us, because the escape happened so long ago. And sometimes Jews object to any reminder of wartime Germans. Even though we were prisoners of war, and didn't even know about the extermination camps, we are still blamed. So maybe people will not want to be reminded that we were there."

Palmer, on the other hand, is pleased to hear a play has been written about the escape. "People think we were anxious to leave, some great group of prisoners storming back to the battlefront. But we were just young and bored. Or maybe it was this: The Americans put a bunch of German comrades from the same navy in the same compound. These men had great engineering talent. The Americans took away their freedom, called them troublemakers and told them they could never escape. So maybe it became our duty to prove them wrong. And it was very, very easy to prove them wrong."

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