Ingenuity Despite the Lack of a Flowing River    

Three of the German prisoners of war who readied themselves to escape from Camp Papago Park in Arizona over Christmas 1944 decided they would make a boat and float down the mighty Gila River.  Since Mexico was about 130 miles, it seemed easier to walk only forty or fifty miles, catch the river and float across of the border.

As the men looked at a stolen map, they saw the Gila River which wound its way from a juncture with the Salt River all the way to Gila Bend, making a big U-turn, as the name of town indicated, and then it flowed southwest to join the Colorado River, almost at the border with Mexico, near Yuma, Arizona.  From the map, the men surmised the Colorado River was a big river and that the Gila expanded as it flowed south.

They decided to make a boat out of a canvas skin which could be rolled up.  The canvas would be pulled over wooden struts which would go into a second bag. Most of the men who knew about the pending escape laughed at their plan, calling them the “three mad boatmen,” who they thought were insane to attempt carrying a folded boat through a 178-foot tunnel.  However, the three were determined to float their way to Mexico rather than walk. They managed to gather the wood needed and began building their boat, under the noses of the guards who thought they were making some bizarre handicraft.  The canvas was acquired because the leader of the camp, U-boat Captain Jurgen Wattenberg convinced the top brass that one of the barracks in Compound 1 A needed repairing and that the men of the compound could easily fix it with canvas and a little tar.

Proud of their ingenuity, the three easily made their escape through the tunnel and managed to make it to the river about five days later, hiding by day and traveling by night. They were disappointed, when they saw it, however, because it was not as big as they hoped.  Exhausted by their treck, they made their way to an island in the middle of the muddy river and went to sleep.  When they awoke, the river had nearly disappeared.  Little did they know during their planning that the river is mostly nonexistant because of irrigation and municipal water diversions. There had been water in it, however, after the big storm which happend on the night and early morning of their escape, December 23-24, but by the time they made it to the river on December 28, there was not sufficient water to float the boat. They dragged the boat, following the river, and they were able to use it periodically, but they finally decided it was a burden and destroyed it.

Disappointed, but unbowed, the Germans followed the Gila River until January 8, 1945, when one of them decided it was time to take a break and wash his underwear.  Some cowboys saw him, no doubt thinking it was odd to see a man without underwear, and called police.  That was the end of their adventure and they were soon returned to Camp Papago Park.

Read my novel The Swastika Tattoo. A story about a young German prisoner of war at Camp Papago Park.

Next: The Last of the Escapees Rounded Up

Copyright: Geraldine Birch.  All rights reserved.

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