THE GREAT ESCAPE AT CAMP PAPAGO PARK

“The Great Escape” was a wonderful movie made in 1963 with Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson.  It was the true tale of an escape attempt during WWII of several hundred American and British soldiers from one of the toughest German prisoner of war camps.  The Nazis built the camp to hold even the craftiest escape artists, but what they did not figure on was that they also put together the finest escape team in military history.

Less known, however, was an escape attempt from an Arizona prisoner of war camp that held men from the German Navy, many of them captured from U-boats, the term for German submarines.  The commander of Camp Papago Park, formerly located in what is now Tempe, Arizona, made the exact same mistake as the German’s did–he placed the smartest, most-escape prone men together in Compound 1-A.  And what would smart men who wanted to go home normally do?  They put together a plan of escape that was quite daring.

According to “The Faustball Tunnel,” a book by John Hammond Moore (1978, Naval Institute Press), four U-boat captains and their comrades constructed a tunnel that went from their bathhouse to the edge of the Arizona Crosscut Canal, a distance of 178 feet.  They had great dreams of using the irrigation ditch to get to the Salt River and float to Mexico, 130 miles away.  Ironically, the most popular song in America (and among the German POWs) during the fall of 1944 was ”Don’t Fence Me In.”

The biggest problem was how to get rid of all the dirt.  In the beginning, they began planting new flower beds, flushing the dirt down the toilets and even storing it in the attics of their barracks, but as the tunnel became longer, they needed a better plan to hide their digging.  One day, as they watched the American enlisted men’s area where the GIs were playing basketball, the idea came to them–their compound had no sports field or faustball (volleyball of Italian origin that the Germans adored) field.  Knowing the treaties of the Geneva Convention encouraged sports for prisoners of war, they began industriously building the field with the approval of the camp commander.  The Americans even supplied them with two shovels and two rakes which would have to be turned into the American guards at the end of the day.

The Germans figured the digging would take ten or twelve weeks and during that time they would have to figure out how to hide food, gather other supplies, get clothing that did not have the large ‘PW’ letters printed on the denim, and fake identity papers.  Most important of all, they had to make sure the secret of their departure would be kept a secret.

Next time:  Getting Ready for the Great Escape

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

Copyright Geraldine Birch. All rights reserved.

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