Keep New Times Free

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.

"The housing was only adequate, but living at Papago was like a vacation," sighs former Papago prisoner Hans Lammersdorf, in a phone interview from his home in Seattle. "There was no bitterness about the war on either side. The guards, the people we worked for, were all very nice. I would gladly have signed a life contract to stay in Arizona if I could have. But then the war ended and they made me go back to my homeland."

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.

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."

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."

"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."

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.

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.

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."

I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Phoenix and help keep the future of New Times free.

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."

Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.


Join the New Times community and help support independent local journalism in Phoenix.