What to do about the morning head count?

One of the most important aspects in planning their escape from Camp Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona, was the head count of prisoners. This was because every morning at 9 a.m. and every afternoon at 4:30 p.m. the men were required to line up for a head count.  The German POWs knew they couldn’t substitute other men for the head count, a trick that had been tried in an earlier escape that failed.

With as many as thirty men escaping, the absence of so many men would set off an immediate search and the goal was for them to get as far away as possible before the camp guards became aware of their escape.  Finally, four U-boat captains came up with a ploy:  The Germans politely informed their American captors that German officers must be counted by American officers of at least equal rank, not by enlisted men.

Of course this was unacceptable, because it meant German officers would not show up for a head count unless they were counted by American officers. This was how they would escape without being immediately noticed.

The commander of Camp Papago Park warned the prisoners of Compound 1 A that unless every man stood for head count, the entire compound would be put on a restricted diet.  The roll-call strike lasted 16 days, but some food was sneaked into the compound by non-commissioned officers of an adjoining compound.

Eventually, a compromise was worked out: All men, irrespective of rank, would be present for roll call every morning except Sunday at 9 a.m. and every afternoon at 4:15 p.m.  By tacit agreement, those above the rank of a lieutenant captain could stand in the doorways of their barracks to be counted.

It was a small victory, leaving Sunday mornings without a headcount, which is exactly what the Germans wanted.  However,the furor caused by Compound 1 A roll-call strike allowed the men to begin dumping large amounts of dirt in the area for the new faustball field (a form of volleyball)–and it wasn’t even noticed!

Next time:  Getting Ready for the Great Escape Part II

To read my novel about a young German POW at Camp Papago Park, please go to “The Swastika Tattoo.”

Copyright Geraldine Birch.  All rights reserved.

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