The Great Escape of '44

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Lloyd Clark: This was the greatest escape by Axis prisoners of war from a U.S. compound during World War II.

Narrator: It happened in the desert east of Phoenix at a prisoner-of-war camp in Papago Park.

Steve Hoza: There's not much left today of the former camp. One of the things that you can still see are the foundations for one of the many guard towers that surrounded the compounds here.

Narrator: The P.O.W. camp has been replaced by neighborhoods and baseball fields. But from 1943 to 1946, this is where Italian and German P.O.W.'s were incarcerated, west of the Crosscut Canal on both sides of 64th Street between McDowell and Thomas Roads.

Steve Hoza: Behind me is the Arizona Crosscut Canal, and this formed the eastern border of the Papago Park P.O.W. camp. Directly behind me where these modern houses are was compound 1A, and this is where the -- what the Americans called the troublemaker compound.

Narrator: The men in compound 1A were not allowed to leave the camp to pick citrus and cotton like other prisoners, and they were guarded a little more closely than the rest.

Steve Hoza: These were men that not only had repeatedly escaped from Papago, these were men who had been habitual escapees from other camps.

Narrator: They were a mixed bag of German navy personnel. There were senior officers, enlisted men, and famed U-boat commanders, like Captain Jürgen Wattenberg.

Lloyd Clark: Wattenberg was a highly educated, very dedicated officer. He had to be a Nazi, no question about that.

Narrator: Wattenberg and others from compound 1A were very smart and probably very bored.

Steve Hoza: And you put all these brilliant minds into one camp, and I don't know why they didn't think they were going to --

Narrator: Escape? Definitely not through a tunnel. The soil at the camp was so hard, prison officials figured that P.O.W.s could never dig their way to freedom. But one rainy night just before Christmas, that theory was put to the test.

Lloyd Clark: During the hours of darkness of December 23 and 24, 1944, the tunnel that had been dug 180 feet from inside compound 1A to the western side of the Arizona Crosscut Canal was entered and exited by 25 of the P.O.W.s.

Narrator: The digging started about three months earlier outside a shower room next to this coal bin

Lloyd Clark: Because the big problem the escapees had was disposing of all the dirt they were taking out of the tunnel.

Narrator: They scattered it throughout the compound and flushed it down the toilet.

Steve Hoza: They had asked the Americans if they could build a faustball court, and faustball is sort of the German equivalent of volleyball. So they took a lot of this dirt that they excavated from the tunnel and used it to make their faustball court, and they put it underneath their barracks, they used it in their various gardens right under the noses of all of the American personnel. The tunnel eventually came up, the exit was about here, and they had built a wooden ladder for them to come up. So as these teams of escapees got out in teams of two and three, they got out, would slide down into the canal, which was about waist-deep, then they would wade about 500 yards past the perimeter of the camp before they got out and changed into their dry civilian clothes.

Lloyd Clark: They took such delight in knowing that they were pulling one off on the Amerikanische.

Steve Hoza: How the Americans pieced it together was, because of the torrential rains, several of the escapees had turned themselves in very early in the morning on December 24th. Then a roll call later in that day, they discovered that the prisoners -- that there were 25 missing from compound 1A, but they didn't know exactly how they had gotten out.

Narrator: Another day went by before the tunnel was discovered. By then, the escape was making headlines and 19 prisoners remained at large.

Steve Hoza: The plan for the majority of the escapees was to try and make it into Mexico, and then from there into a pro-Nazi country in South America.

Narrator: Many used maps they had stolen to help them find their way. This one belonged to Heinrich Palmer.

Steve Hoza: Heinrich Palmer and Reinhard Mark, they made it the furthest of any of them. They made it to within 10 miles of the border, the Mexican border, on foot in nine days.

Narrator: Three of the P.O.W.s planned to float to Mexico along the Gila and Colorado Rivers on a boat they built in camp.

Steve Hoza: Well, by the time the three boatmen -- the three "crazy boatmen," as they were dubbed later -- got to the Gila River, they realized that it was not a flowing river.

Narrator: So they tossed the pieces of their boat aside and they were captured a short time later. More P.O.W.s were apprehended in the days and weeks ahead until only Captain Wattenberg was left. He had been hiding in a cave north of Phoenix with two other escapees. One day they left to find food and never returned.

Steve Hoza: When captain Wattenberg realized that they had been caught, he decided to try and make it out of the valley. So one night in late January, he hiked into Phoenix, and he spent the night in the lobby of the Adams Hotel.

Narrator: He was heading for the train station at about 1:30 in the morning when Phoenix police sergeant Gil Brady asked for his I.D. Wattenberg told the officer he had left it at home.

Lloyd Clark: Brady asked him to get in the patrol car, and he took him down to the Phoenix Police Station. But within moments of being in the car, Wattenberg said, "I am the big shot you've been looking for."

Narrator: Wattenberg was the last man captured, January 28, 1945. Forty years later, Lloyd Clark and the Papago Trackers group he founded invited Wattenberg and other former P.O.W's back to Arizona.

Lloyd Clark: Well, I was very gratified that I'd been able to put all this together. It was something that I thought should be commemorated because it was a very historic event.

Narrator: There were many other escapes from P.O.W. camps all over the United States during World War II, but the greatest escape happened at Papago Park when two nights before Christmas, a record 25 German prisoners climbed out of the earth and into Arizona history.