The Not-So-Great Escape: German POWs in the U.S. during WWII

By Ronald H. Bailey
11/5/2007 • Battle of The Bulge, World War II

Late in 1944, authorities at Security Unit No. 84—one of five hundred camps on American soil housing German prisoners of war—began to feel a sense of relief. Here at Papago Park in Arizona, a difficult lot of more than three thousand officers and sailors from the German navy and merchant marine finally appeared to be adjusting to camp life. This seemed especially true over in Compound 1A, which housed the troublesome Nazi U-boat commanders and their crews.

Guards marveled at the sudden changes in 1A. The compound was much neater. The prisoners appeared in high spirits. They spent hours creating large and well-tended flower beds. With permission of the camp authorities they had even begun to build an outdoor court for faustball, or “fist ball”—volleyball. Several times a day the prisoners carefully groomed the court’s surface with rakes provided by the guards. The Americans attributed all this activity to typical German organization and efficiency.

Nearly 400,000 German POWs were brought to the United States during World War II, and officials recorded precisely 2,222 individual attempts by the Germans to flee their camps. POWs scaled fences, smuggled themselves out in or under trucks or jeeps, passed through the gate in makeshift GI uniforms, cut the barbed wire or tunneled under it, or went out with work details and simply walked away. Their motives ranged from trying to find their way back to Germany (which none ever did) to merely enjoying a few hours, days, or weeks of freedom.

But none of these assorted breakouts could match in audacity, scale, or drama the plan under way at Compound 1A at Papago Park. It would trigger the largest manhunt in Arizona history, bringing in local law enforcement, the FBI, and even Papago Indian scouts.

The Christmas Eve breakout would end largely in a farce, with no one shot, hurt, or even seriously punished, but that in no way diminished the seriousness of the attempt—or the panic it spread at the time.

The first Germans arrived at Papago Park, six miles east of Phoenix, in January 1944. They were placed in a half-dozen compounds in the rough-hewn camp, which had previously housed National Guardsmen, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and segregated black infantry units.

As John Hammond Moore notes in his account of the escape, The Faustball Tunnel, camp officials invited trouble by concentrating the least cooperative POWs in the two sections of Compound 1. These were the troublemakers, previous escapees, and other problem prisoners: officers and seamen in section 1A, noncommissioned officers in 1B.

Only Capt. Cecil Parshall, the provost marshal, saw a problem with this arrangement. Parshall was an ex-police detective and decorated World War I veteran who, among other colorful exploits, had pulled off a bank heist while serving as a general in the Mexican army. Parshall pointed out that there was a spot in Compound 1 that could not be seen from the guard towers. “Those Germans were a fine bunch of men, smart as hell,” he said later. “And it made no sense to put the smartest of them in Compound 1. I knew they would discover that blind spot.”

Idleness made it worse in Compound 1. Only about one in four prisoners in the camp were gainfully employed, earning eighty cents a day in canteen credits picking cotton and doing other chores. The Geneva Convention exempted officers and noncoms from work detail, allowing them to sleep late and spend their days plotting ways to get beyond the wire. Lt. Wolfgang Clarus, who had been captured in North Africa where he commanded a coast artillery unit, recalled: “You stare at that fence for hours on end, try to think of everything and anything that can be done, and finally realize there are only three possibilities: go through it, fly over it, or dig under it.”

German POWs had attempted to “dig under” without much success at a camp in Colorado and at Fort Ord, California. In Compound 1A, digging evidently began sometime in September 1944 under the direction of a team of four U-boat captains who plotted strategy while playing bridge in the barracks. “It was a challenge and an adventure,” recalled one of them, Capt. Fritz Guggenberger, who had been personally decorated by Hitler for the exploits of his U-513. “The tunnel became a kind of all-consuming sport. We lived, ate, slept, talked, whispered, dreamed ‘tunnel’ and thought of little else for weeks on end.”

The site selected for the beginning of the tunnel was in the blind spot between the nearest guard towers that Parshall had warned about. The entrance shaft was three and a half feet from a bathhouse, which was the structure closest to the outer fence surrounding Papago Park. Diggers loosened a board on the side of the bathhouse to create a passageway and positioned a large coal box nearby to conceal the shaft. They would walk into the bathhouse, ostensibly to shower or wash clothes, then exit and slip down into the tunnel’s six-foot-deep vertical entrance shaft. Three groups of three men worked ninety-minute shifts during the night, one man digging with a coal shovel and small pick, the second lifting soil in a bucket to the third man topside, who also served as the lookout.

A fourth group of men distributed the excavated soil the next day. They flushed it down toilets, stored it in attics, or let it slip through holes in their pockets onto the new flower beds. As the tunnel progressed, a small cart was fashioned out of a shower stall base to haul the dirt back to the entrance.

Soil piled up at such an alarming rate that a new means for getting rid of it had to be found. Capt. Jürgen Quaet-Faslem, a cocky Prussian who had commanded U-595, came up with an idea. “Shouldn’t we have a sports area in this compound?” he asked. “I think they are supposed to ‘encourage’ sports.” Thus was born the notion of a volleyball court—on rough ground that would need to be leveled. This the prisoners proceeded to do daily, spreading soil taken from the tunnel with the help of shovels and rakes provided by the Americans. Guards got used to seeing a mound of dirt there; they assumed it was the same old pile and not a fresh supply unearthed from the tunnel.

The tunnel moved forward at up to three feet on a good night. In late November a colonel from a visiting team of inspectors declared that the camp need never worry about prisoners digging out: the soil, he proclaimed, was hard as a rock. He was standing right atop the concealed tunnel entrance at that moment; prisoners who heard him smiled as if in agreement.

The diggers intended to tunnel under two fences and a patrol road that encircled the camp. Just beyond the road stood an electric light pole in a clump of bushes. By triangulating on paper they calculated that the tunnel needed to be 178 feet long from the bathhouse to the pole. But someone wanted to double-check the distance. So he attached a small weight to a string and late one night hurled it into the undergrowth near the pole. Suddenly, a jeep with two American soldiers came along the patrol road. Capt. Hans Werner Kraus, skipper of U-199, watched in horror. “That string caught one of them right across the neck,” he said. “Fortunately they were moving very slowly. He simply brushed it aside, said nothing, and the vehicle disappeared into the night. But the line broke and was still hanging on the far fence weeks later. Several times the Americans walked by, stared at the string, wondered how it got there and why.”

Back in February, Quaet-Faslem had escaped by hiding on a truck loaded with plywood. He crossed the border and made it more than thirty miles into Mexico before being recaptured. From that experience he knew that stocking enough food was vital. Though German prisoners disliked commercial American white bread—“nothing but air,” someone remarked, “you can squeeze it into nothing”—they decided the basic item in the getaway packs should be bread toasted and pulverized into crumbs. It was packed tightly in waxed paper envelopes saved from individual breakfast cereal boxes. Mixing the crumbs with milk or water “would make sort of a mush that might be monotonous but it would be nourishing and easy to carry,” said Kraus.

Escapees also needed some kind of credentials. American photographers had taken snapshots for the prisoners to ship home to Germany in order to show how well POWs were treated in the United States, and the pictures proved useful for fake passports and other papers. The forged papers were imprinted with official-looking stamps, fashioned from scraps of leather and rubber, which would allow the escapees to pose as foreign sailors trying to get to California or the Gulf Coast.

Prisoners earned U.S. currency by creating fake Nazi paraphernalia to sell to the guards. They used sand molds and melted toothpaste tubes to turn out Iron Crosses, eagles, and other insignia. Then they painted the items with black shoe polish and scuffed them up to simulate wear as if they were the real thing.

Three other Germans were engaged in another novel scheme. Capt. Wilhelm Günther and Lts. Wolfgang Clarus and Friedrich Utzolino had no intention of hiking 130 miles to the Mexican border. Looking at an Arizona map, they saw that they could walk only 30 miles or so westward and hit a river, the Gila, which flowed southwest to join the Colorado River near the border. All they needed to float down these rivers was a boat.

The trio—dubbed the “three mad boatmen” by their fellow POWs—proceeded to build a flatboat big enough to carry themselves and their gear. From scavenged pieces of lumber they fashioned the struts of a wooden frame. Canvas and tar for the skin were obtained from the camp under the ruse that the roof of one of the barracks needed repair and the prisoners would gladly do the work. The boatmen designed their craft so that it could be folded up and carried in separate parcels, none to exceed eighteen inches—the maximum width that could fit easily through the tunnel. Much of their work was done openly: guards thought it was just another time-killing handicraft project.

The excavators, meanwhile, labored every night in the tunnel into early December. The final fifty feet were the most difficult to dig, as the tunnel plunged as far down as fourteen feet to go under a drainage ditch and the adjoining roadbed. Diggers worked by the light of a bare bulb strung on an electric wire connected to the bathhouse socket. The insulation covering the wire was badly worn in places, and everyone suffered painful shocks as they bumped against it in the tight confines of the tunnel, which was less than three feet in diameter.

On December 20, the tunnel measured precisely 178 feet long. In the vertical shaft at the far end, Quaet-Faslem and Guggenberger pushed a coal stove poker upward through the ground and into the air. Then, through the tiny hole, they pushed a stick with a little rag tied on the end. Prisoners on the roof of one of the barracks saw this flag appear in just the right place near the electric pole and let out muted cheers. The completed exit was covered and disguised with two shallow wooden boxes containing dirt and grass to blend into the landscape.

Three days later, on the afternoon and evening of Saturday, December 23, next-door Compound 1B erupted in a noisy party. The noncoms there drank forbidden schnapps distilled from citrus fruit, waved a German flag, shouted, and burst into Nazi marching songs. Ostensibly they were celebrating news of Hitler’s last-gasp offensive in Belgium, the Battle of the Bulge.

Under cover of this diversion, the escape began through the bathhouse. The escapers proceeded in ten teams of two or three men each, some carrying packs laden with nearly one hundred pounds of spare clothing, packages of bread crumbs and other food, medical supplies, maps, ersatz credentials, and cigarettes. Shortly before nine o’clock in the evening, the first team—Quaet-Faslem and Guggenberger—descended the entrance ladder and began struggling through the tunnel on elbows, stomach, and knees, pushing their packs ahead of them.

The 178-foot journey took a little more than forty minutes. Guggenberger climbed the exit ladder and cautiously lifted the cover. A light rain was falling as he and his companion emerged into a clump of bushes and dashed down into the waist-deep ice-cold water of the nearby Crosscut Canal. By 2:30 a.m. all twenty-five prisoners—twelve officers and thirteen enlisted men—had exited the tunnel and were making their way through a hard rain outside the wire of Papago Park. Colleagues who stayed behind closed up both ends of the tunnel.

The general plan was to head south and move only after dark, avoiding trains or buses. Many carried the names and addresses of countrymen or sympathizers in Mexico who might help them get back to Germany. All knew that the odds of actually reaching their homeland were extremely slim. But for now, in the early hours of Christmas Eve, they were free—embarking on an adventure that surely beat life in captivity.

That night one team found a small dry stable and rested among comfortable bales of hay, celebrating Christmas Eve with a meal of roasted bread crumbs and canned milk, and listening as a Mexican family living nearby sang Christmas carols. Another team stumbled across a dilapidated shack and took up temporary residence; one of them had a harmonica, and he quietly played “Stille Nacht.”

Back in Papago Park, the first real opportunity for the American authorities to discover something amiss was Sunday’s four o’clock head count. The German officers remaining in Compound 1A delayed it further by demanding that the count be conducted by an American officer, not a mere sergeant. “It is only proper that as German officers, we have respect and equal treatment,” one insisted imperiously.

It was about seven o’clock before Parshall was certain that a large group of prisoners was missing. He telephoned the FBI to report names and descriptions of the escapees. While he was still on that call, another phone rang. It was the sheriff in Phoenix reporting he had an escaped POW in custody. Herbert Fuchs, a twenty-two-year-old U-boat crewman, had quickly grown tired of being wet, cold, and hungry and hitchhiked a ride to the sheriff’s office. Soon thereafter, a Tempe woman called to say that two escapees had knocked on her door and surrendered; the phone rang again, and a Tempe man reported that two hungry and cold POWs had turned themselves in to him.

One more call came that Christmas Eve from someone at the Tempe railroad station saying yet another escapee had been arrested. This was Helmut Gugger, a Swiss national who had been drafted into the German navy. Almost certainly under physical persuasion from the Americans, Gugger revealed the existence of the still-hidden tunnel the following day.

With a half-dozen escapees already in custody, authorities launched what the Phoenix Gazette trumpeted as “the greatest manhunt in Arizona history.” Soldiers, FBI agents, sheriff’s deputies, police, border patrol, and customs agents all joined the search for the nineteen Germans still at large. Ranchers and Indian scouts, drawn by the $25 reward posted for the capture of each escapee, carried newspaper clippings bearing mug shots of their quarry. “We didn’t think we were that important,” Guggenberger remarked later.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, had repeatedly warned the American public about the dangers posed by escaped German prisoners. In reality, there was not a single recorded instance of sabotage or assault on an American citizen by an escaped POW. Any crimes committed were typically the theft of an automobile or of clothing needed for the getaway.

In any case, public reaction in Arizona soon focused less on any possible menace to law-abiding citizens than on outrage over all the provisions the newspapers reported found on the recaptured POWs, including rationed or otherwise hard-to-get items like cartons of cigarettes, packages of chocolate, coffee, sugar, and even ten pounds of pork fat. One Phoenix resident wrote the Arizona Republic: “Now isn’t that a hell of a state of affairs when we, the tax-paying citizens, cannot get a single slice of bacon for weeks on end when we come home from working in a defense plant and then read in the papers that prisoners of war can get away with slabs of it?”

After Christmas, most of the remaining nineteen prisoners hiked south each night as far as they could. Capture was a possibility at any moment, and they were also alert to very real physical danger. During the war, no fewer than fifty-six escaped German POWs were shot to death—the great majority by authorities but some at the hands of trigger-happy civilians.

On January 1, 1945, a pair of escaped officers decided they could go no further. Captain Kraus and his second watch officer on U-199, Lt. Helmut Drescher, had been covering up to ten miles a night, but Drescher now had a swollen foot and hobbled along using a forked stick as a crutch. In the morning they approached an isolated ranch house and knocked. When a twelve-year-old boy trailed by two much younger siblings answered the door, Kraus explained who he and Drescher were and said that they wanted to surrender to local police. The boy said his parents were away but should be home soon.

The Germans made themselves at home. They brewed coffee, shared their remaining chocolate with the children, and then regaled the kids with stories about life on a U-boat. When the parents came home around eleven that morning, they found everyone sitting in the kitchen. Their son hurriedly explained the situation. The father pulled from his pocket a folded sheet of the newspaper with mug shots of the escapees. He took out a pencil, looked at Kraus and then Drescher, and drew a big X through each of their pictures.

That same day, a Papago Indian discovered another pair of prisoners as they were sleeping, less than thirty miles from the Mexican border. Four days later, bounty-hunting Papagos caught another pair asleep in the same area, and an army patrol from the POW camp at Florence nabbed three more.

The following day, the two captains who had been first out the tunnel—Quaet-Faslem and Guggenberger—were awakened by a group of Indian scouts. “And Captain Quaet-Faslem,” asked one of the scouts, “did you have a good sleep?” Quaet-Faslem was astonished to see that it was one of the same men who had captured him in Mexico eleven months earlier. With the capture of yet another pair of Germans two days later on January 8, only a half dozen POWs—two three-man teams—remained at large.

One of the teams consisted of the “three mad boatmen,” Clarus, Günther, and Utzolino. They thought they had made good use of their boat’s canvas skin on their first day of freedom by sleeping under it and staying dry in the rain. But when they reached the banks of the Gila River four days later and started to assemble their craft, they discovered the canvas had shrunk in the rain. Then, after they shortened the wooden struts to accommodate the shrunken canvas, they found that the Gila, which had looked so large and inviting on their maps, was more mud than water. As soon as they loaded their gear into it, the boat sank to the muddy bottom. “We should have known that the Gila wasn’t much of a river,” Clarus said later. “Of course, everyone who lives in Arizona knows that.”

Over the following two nights, they succeeded in floating the craft for only short stretches of the river. Finally, the trio abandoned the plan that had sustained them through so many weeks of labor back in camp. They destroyed the craft and set out on foot. A week or so later, near Gila Bend, some cowboys spotted one of them washing his underwear on the bank of an irrigation canal and called the police.

For the next fortnight the whereabouts of the final trio of escapees remained a mystery. The team consisted of Capt. Jürgen Wattenberg and two of his crewmen from U-162, Walter Kozur and Johann Kremer. Wattenberg had been the senior ranking officer in the compound and quickly built a reputation as the leading troublemaker by submitting extensive lists of complaints about camp food, recreation, and anything else he could think of. The Papago Park commander referred to him as “the No. 1 Super-Nazi of this camp.”

After his escape, Wattenberg delayed heading south and explored the area. Kozur and Kremer even ventured into Phoenix one night, visiting a bowling alley and enjoying a few beers. The trio holed up in a shallow cave on a slope in the mountains north of the camp almost within view of Papago Park. From there Kremer pulled off the most bizarre caper of the entire escape. Every few days he joined up with one of the work details sent outside Papago Park. He exchanged places with a friend who spent the night in the cave while Kremer sauntered back into the camp with the work detail. There, he gathered news and food. He would then either join a work detail to get out of camp, or send food out with a member of the detail and remain in the barracks.

On January 23, a month after the escape, a surprise inspection revealed Kremer’s presence in the camp. The following evening, Kozur left the cave and made his way down to an abandoned car where friends on work details stashed provisions for the trio. Instead of food he found three American GIs with rifles pointed at his head. Only Wattenberg was still at large.

Four days later, on January 27, Wattenberg ate his last piece of food, shaved, put on a clean shirt, and hiked into Phoenix. He had seventy-five cents in his pocket, most of which he spent on a restaurant meal. He slept for a while in a chair in a hotel lobby and then, walking the streets during the night, asked for directions from the foreman of a street-cleaning crew. The foreman thought the accent suspicious and alerted a policeman. By nine that morning, Wattenberg was back at Papago Park.

Their great escape was over except for the punishment, which turned out to be surprisingly light. Despite the egregious lapses in security, no American officer or guard was court-martialed. And though some of the escapees half-expected to be shot—rumor had it that Germany had executed American POWs in retaliation for the bombing of Dresden—they were merely put on bread and water for every day one of them had been absent from camp.

Still, it had been worth it. Years later, Clarus said of the tunnel: “Conceiving of it, digging it, getting out, getting back, telling about our adventures, finding out what happened to the others…why, it covered a year or more and was our great recreation. It kept our spirits up even as Germany was being crushed and we worried about our parents and our families.”

This article was written by Ronald H. Bailey and originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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