|The frigid weather across the United States was as chilling as the bad news from the war front in those last few days before Christmas, 1944. A cold wave sent temperatures to 34 degrees below zero in parts of the Northeast, snow falling across the northern plains, and a cold drizzle was soaking Phoenix.|
The bright hopes of an early victory over invading Germany had dimmed. The Battle of the bulge had begun in Belgium. Newspapers and radio news announcers told of American troops being overrun by the advancing German army.
At a large encampment in Papago Park, east of Phoenix, approximately 1,700 German prisoners of war cheered as they heard broadcasts telling of German victories. The prisoners didn’t believe the stories about American victories, thinking they were just propaganda. There was a general celebration and hell-raising in the camp at the first news of the Battle of the Bulge. The celebration on the evening of December 23, however, was a carefully planned ruse to cover the escape of a group of German navy officers and enlisted men.
The Geneva convention states that the prisoners of war have a duty to try to escape. Submarine Capt. Jürgen Wattenberg, then 43, took his duty very seriously. The Papago Prisoner of War Camp was so isolated in the desert that the American guards considered escape all but impossible. They were certain that the rocky, caliche ground was too hard for any attempt to escape by tunneling out. But that was just what the Germans did.
Wattenberg estimated later that digging began sometime in September, 1944. Prior to the digging, the officers had scoured the camp grounds for two areas which would be in blind spots, places where the guards couldn’t readily see them. The entrance and exit to the tunnel were out of view of the two guard towers on the east side of the compound.
Kapitän zur See Jürgen Wattenberg
*28 Dec, 1900 in Lübeck, +27 Nov, 1995
The German prisoners asked their guards for permission to create a volleyball courtyard. Innocently obliging, the guards provided them with digging tools. From that point on, two men were digging at all times during night hours. A cart was rigged up to travel along tracks to take the dirt out. The men stuffed the dirt in their pants pockets which had holes in the bottoms, and they shuffled the dirt out along the ground as they walked around. In addition, they flushed a huge amount of dirt down the toilets. They labeled their escape route Der Faustball Tunnel (The Volleyball Tunnel).
They dug a 178 foot tunnel with a diameter of 3 feet. The tunnel went 8 to 14 feet beneath the surface, under the two prison camp fences, a drainage ditch and a road. The exit was near a power pole in a clump of brush about 15 feet from the Cross Cut Canal. To disguise their plans, the men built a square box, filled it with dirt and planted native weeds in it for the lid to cover the exit. When the lid was on the tunnel exit, the area looked like undisturbed desert.
Wattenberg ordered the men in the adjacent compound to throw a noisy party the evening of December 23, 1944. They weren’t told why, but many of them guessed and silently wished their comrades luck. Besides, they were happy to celebrate the good news of Hitler’s final offensive, the Battle of the Bulge.
Beginning at about 9:00 p.m. on December 23, prisoners started crawling out along the tunnel in teams of two or three men. Next door their German buddies were singing, breaking bottles, waving flags and generally making the biggest hullabaloo they could. Each escapee carried clothing, food, forged papers, cigarettes and medical supplies, plus anything else they had been able to save up in the past several months. Wattenberg had managed to procure the names and addresses of people in Mexico who might help them get back to Germany.
The plan was to float down the Cross Cut Canal, then to the Salt River, to the Gila River and on to the Colorado River which would take them into Mexico. Three of the men had constructed a canoe which could be taken apart and carried in three pieces. They had blocked up the drains in the shower room to test it for water-tightness. It never occurred to the Germans that in dry Arizona a blue line marked “river” on a map might be filled with water only occasionally. The three men with the canoe were disappointed to find the Salt River bed merely a mud bog from recent rains. Not to be discouraged, they carried their canoe pieces twenty miles to the confluence with the Gila river, only to find a series of large puddles. They sat on the river bank, put their heads in their hands and cried out their frustration.
By 2:30 a.m., December 24, all twelve officers and thirteen enlisted German submarine men were on their way. Their efforts have been described as the largest POW escape in the United States. The POW camp’s security officer, the late Army Maj. Cecil Parshall, insisted in 1978 that 60 Germans actually escaped that night. He stated that the only reason 25 prisoners were counted as escapees was because that’s how many were eventually caught and returned to the camp. The rest were ignored in a government cover-up. Wattenberg, however, has said only 25 escaped. Wattenberg stated later that few of the men had high hopes of actually escaping from the United States and returning to Germany. But once they conceived of the tunnel plan, they were enthusiastic about trying it anyway. Two escapees eventually made their way to Mexico where they were about to be shot as spies when they were rescued by American authorities.
Although the men left in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, the camp officials were blissfully unaware of anything amiss until the escapees began to show up that evening. The first to return was an enlisted man, Herbert Fuchs, who decided he had been cold, wet and hungry long enough by Christmas Eve evening. Thinking about his dry, warm bed and hot meal that the men in the prison camp were enjoying, he decided his attempt at freedom had come to an end. The 22-year old U-boat crewman hitched a ride on East Van Buren Street and asked the driver to take him to the sheriff’s office where he surrendered. Much to the surprise of the officers at the camp, the sheriff called and told them he had a prisoner who wanted to return to camp.
Shortly after the sheriff’s call, a Tempe woman called in to tell them two prisoners had knocked on her door and surrendered to her. The phone rang again, this time from a Tempe man who said he had two escaped prisoners to be picked up.
The highest ranking officer, U-boat Commander Jurgen Wattenberg and two of his U-boat crewmen, Walter Kozur and Johann Kremer, crawled through the dark tunnel together and slipped into the cold waist-deep canal. They were the fifth of ten teams to leave the tunnel that night. They grinned at each other as they heard the ruckus being raised on their behalf by the noncommissioned officers’ compound, diverting the guards’ attention. Rising silently from the water, they took a generous snort from their schnapps, homemade hooch from distilled potatoes and citrus.
They hurriedly settled their gear on their backs and set off north-west through the desert. By 2:00 a.m. they were huddled, dripping and cold in a citrus grove where they breakfasted on grapefruit. They settled down to try to sleep in the continuing drizzle.
They found a dilapidated shack by sunrise the next morning and spent the day taking turns sleeping and guarding. By evening Kremer remarked, “It’s Christmas Eve.” He took out his harmonica and softly played, Stille Nacht,”—“Silent Night.”
By evening they enjoyed a dinner of canned meat and milk, dried bread crumbs, and chocolate bars hoarded from the daily rations in camp. They talked of their loved ones, and of their other comrades. They spoke of how proud they were of their escape and how well it had gone so far. Then each sat silent in his own thoughts.
By dawn they had reached an area that today would be along Stanford Drive and between 32nd and 44th streets. They hid out in the gullies, concealed throughout the day and exploring the mountains to the north after dark.
The American guards back at the POW camp were not having a merry Christmas at all. They had been called back from holiday leave to beef up the guard at the camp, certainly a rather late effort. In addition, personnel at the Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah; the Provost Marshal General’s office in Washington, D.C.; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and other governmental agencies were arriving for intensive investigation.
Several days passed before American Army Private First Class Lawrence Jorgensen, on a search detail, discovered the camouflaged escape hatch and solved the mystery of how the POWs escaped.
In their reconnaissance of the area, the three German escapees finally found a jagged channel that numerous cloudburst and gully washers had carved into the slope near the Squaw Peak area. One of the many eroded alcoves had an overhang of six or seven feet. Desert weeds on top of the ravine helped to conceal the shallow cave. They rolled a few large boulders across the opening. Then they cut brush and propped it in front of the cave to obscure their activities. Kremer scooped out a pit for a fire and their first pot of coffee was brewing by sunrise.
For the next two nights Wattenberg and his two men scouted their environs. On the second night they went to the area east of the Arizona Biltmore resort. Creeping through a citrus grove they heard voices and a dog began to bark. They stopped and crouched low. Finding an irrigation pipe, they filled their canteens, returning to their camp with citrus and fresh water.
By the end of the first week of January, 1945, the three men resolved to find out what had happened to their fellow escapees. Kremer and Kozur slipped into Phoenix at nightfall. As the eastern sky was turning pink the two men returned with their bounty, one sack full of fruit and another full of newspapers. They had hoped to find a map but no luck.
The headlines screamed, “WHOLESALE NAZI ESCAPE SCREENS BIG SHOT’S FLIGHT.” Wattenberg was amused at being labeled a “big shot.” Previous to this his description had been “the chief troublemaker.”
Another newspaper read, “TWO NAZIS APPREHENDED AT MEXICAN BORDER,” referring to the capture and near shooting of Reinhard Mark, a midshipman, and Heinrich Palmer, a petty officer, south of Sells, Arizona.
By the end of their month-long outing, Wattenberg and his men became bolder. Prior to the escape, Wattenberg had informed one of the men who was not in the escape party of his intention to remain in the mountains to the north until he could manage to escape further. He had drawn a sketch of the landscape and marked an area for a possible food drop when the group was outside the camp on a work gang.
On January 18 or 19, Wattenberg gave Kremer a note thanking their comrades for the supplies. After dark, Kremer went to the agreed-upon place, an abandoned, dismantled vehicle. He left the note and returned with fruit and several packs of cigarettes. Their remaining food supply was by now depleted.
Kremer decided on an exceptionally bold plan. He decided to sneak back into camp by infiltrating one of the work details. There he could get the news of the other escapees, as well as procure more food before slipping away from another work detail the next day. He was only half successful. He made it back into camp. But during a surprise inspection on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 23, Kremer was caught and discovered. He had been in the camp undetected for three days.
The next day Walter Kozur came down a hill after sundown and was met by three soldiers. Soon Wattenberg realized that he, alone, was still free.
As Saturday dawned, Wattenberg decided that he would go into Phoenix and perhaps get a job as a dishwasher. He also considered hopping a freight train, hoping to arrive at some faraway place that hadn’t heard of the POW escape; perhaps a farm where he might get a job. He again looked through the newspapers from which he had clipped articles about the escape. His attention was drawn to some church notices. Perhaps he could get help from a Catholic priest, while being protected by the privacy of confession. He cut out the section of church addresses and folded them neatly, adding them to the collection of clippings in his rucksack.
After sundown he walked for nearly two hours to East Van Buren. No one seemed to notice him as the cars moved along the busy thoroughfare. He passed numerous motels where Americans in uniform were spending the weekend on passes. He ducked his head and quickly passed the crowds of soldiers.
Walking into the central business district of Phoenix, Wattenberg stepped into the American Kitchen restaurant. In a voice as devoid of accent as he could manage, he ordered noodle soup with beef, washed down with cold beer, a meal familiar to a German.
Wattenberg then went to several small hotels and asked about a room for the night. They were all full. He entered the Hotel Adams. The front desk clerk told him that they were all full for the night, but a room would probably open up in the morning after check-out. Wattenberg, tired and discouraged, noticed a vacant chair in the lobby. He sank into the soft cushions and opened a newspaper which had been discarded. Within minutes he was sleeping soundly.
About an hour later, the escapee awoke and noticed that the bellhop was watching him with more than passing interest. Wattenberg suddenly wondered if his picture had appeared in the newspapers. He also felt very conscious of his U.S. Army issue khaki trousers dyed blue. He decided to leave. The bellhop, Ken Vance, reported later that Wattenberg left the hotel at 1:30 a.m., Sunday, January 28.
Wattenberg left the Hotel Adams and headed north. At Central and Van Buren, he stopped Clarence V. Cherry, a City of Phoenix street foreman, and, in heavily accented English, asked for directions to the railroad station. By this time, perhaps he was willing to be caught, but just didn’t want to surrender.
When Wattenberg turned to walk on down the street, Cherry caught the attention of Sgt. Gilbert Brady of the Phoenix Police Department. He told the policeman that the tall man in the yellow checkered shirt had just spoken to him in a heavy German accent. Brady caught up with Wattenberg at Third Avenue and Van Buren.
“Sir, could I see your Selective Service registration?” the police officer asked.
“I left it at home.”
“Where is home?” Brady asked.
“Glendale, Arizona, or Glendale, California?” Brady asked again.
“Glendale—uh, Glendale, back east,” Wattenberg replied.
“You’ll have to come with me to the police station,” Brady ordered. Brady offered his fugitive a cigarette.
Wattenberg lit the cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled with force and resignation. “The game’s up and I lost,” he admitted quietly.
At the police station the police found that Wattenberg had with him 50 cents in coins, a blank notebook, and several newspaper clippings—some about the escape, others of restaurant and nightclub advertisements, and the Saturday directory of churches.
When Wattenberg was returned to the Papago POW Camp he was taken to the hospital where he was served a Sunday dinner of beef broth, roasted chicken, vegetables and ice cream. It had to last him awhile, since his punishment for the escape was bread and water rations for fourteen days.
By March, 1946, the last of the Papago Park POWs were sent back to their home countries. On June 16, 1946, Wattenberg was reunited with his wife and two sons at Neustadt, Holstein, a German seaport village on the Baltic Sea.
On January 5, 1985, the Papago Park Prisoner of War Camp Commission held a commemorative observance at the campsite. The festivities were attended by mayors of Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe. One of the special guests of honor was 85 year old U-boat Commander Jurgen Wattenberg. Looking back on his stay in Arizona, Wattenberg remarked how much he had enjoyed the SPAM dinners!
A banner over the camp meeting declared, “TO RENEW IN FRIENDSHIP AN ASSOCIATION COMMENCED IN ANGUISH.”
Today a residential subdivison, a Saturn dealership and a baseball field cover most of what was once Papago Park POW Camp. The only remaining building which would have heard the voices of the German POWs is now occupied by the Scottsdale Elk's Club.
These are some of the last remaining buildings used as barracks for the prisoners.
Source: Judy Martin. Arizona Walls: if only they could speak.
Phoenix, AZ: Double B Publication, 1997 (pp. 197-206).