Flight From Phoenix

When he closes his eyes, Heinrich Palmer can still see Phoenix from his home in Münster, Germany. "It was for me a very strange place," he says, his accent thick. "Hard to forget, because of the bright sunlight every day, all that sandy dust, and the big cactus that looked very odd and a little scary."

Mostly, the visions that come to Palmer are of Camp Papago Park, the German prisoner of war camp where he lived from 1944 until 1946. He can describe in detail the barbed wire, the guard towers, even the latrine where a young German spy was hanged for trading secrets. He can conjure up the tidy white officers' huts that are today part of an apartment complex in Scottsdale, and the American officers' club that is now an Elk's Lodge near the intersection of 64th Street and Oak. Even more memorable to Palmer are the good times he had at Papago Park, which today hosts family picnics, but during World War II was the site of a POW Axis camp that housed 3,100 German prisoners of war.

Unlike POW camps overseas, where captured American soldiers were underfed and routinely tortured, U.S. camps were downright hospitable. And thanks to slipshod security and a program that emphasized leisure time, Camp Papago was among the most appealing to prisoners. "It was like a kind of resort," Palmer says. "I have many good memories of that place."

Among the best times Palmer had at Papago was the evening, just before Christmas, when he and 24 buddies tunneled their way out of the camp, embarking on a monthlong spree that generated embarrassing national headlines and an FBI investigation into the lax security at Arizona's POW camps. Although history books and local legend recall the escape as daring and dangerous, and while a new play and a forthcoming television documentary retell the story as a significant and dramatic chapter in World War II history, many of its principals are of another opinion.

"It was nothing important," Palmer says, laughing. "We got out, we came back. Two weeks later, it was forgotten."

In textbooks and by war historians, the escape from Papago is hardly forgotten. It's referred to, in books about the event and in dozens of journals and magazine articles, as the greatest breakout from a United States compound by prisoners of war during World War II. And while it has all the elements of a good Hollywood yarn, the Papago getaway is more Abbott and Costello meets Stalag 17 than The Great Escape.

"It's true that the Americans don't come out unscathed in the story," says Ben Tyler, a local playwright whose two-act Escape From Papago Park opens here March 15. "The prisoners dug a huge tunnel right under the guards' noses. But it's still a great story. There's the incongruity of having sailors out in the middle of the desert, and then having them tunnel out of camp. And most people are just intrigued to know why these guys were here in the first place."

They were here -- and in hundreds of other camps across the country -- under the guidelines of the Geneva Convention of 1929, which governed the ethical care of military prisoners of war. By the mid-1940s, nearly half a million foreign soldiers had been captured by American troops overseas. Shipping these prisoners to the States made it easier to care for them and, once they were installed in camps away from the battle line, made them available as a supplemental work force. With American men away at war, German POWs provided a solution to the labor shortage: From 1943 to 1946, Arizona war prisoners ran motor pools, cleaned out irrigation ditches and picked fruit. Steve Hoza, a book and paper conservator responsible for the Papago display at the Arizona Historical Society and author of a book about POWs, says 90 percent of local cotton crops were harvested by German prisoners who opted for work details here.

"These men were migrant farm workers," Hoza says. "They'd get shipped to Idaho during potato season, then off to Pomona during citrus season, then back here to pick cotton." The prisoners were paid about 80 cents an hour in scrip, which they could use to purchase snack foods or personal items from the camp supply hut.

Before they became field hands, the men housed at Camp Papago had been the elite of the German armed forces. Their new home was a former combat training barracks at Papago Park, a national park founded in 1914. Converted into a POW camp, the site was divided into four prisoner compounds and a separate officers' compound, overseen by a guard contingent of 367 enlisted men and four officers. German officers retained their ranks and were assigned better housing and their own errand boys. Enlisted men bunked down barracks-style.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela