Camp Papago Park
While most of the 700 POW camps scattered across the United States maintained a calm, peaceful existence, there were definitely instances of unrest. None was more notable than what occurred at Camp Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona on December 23, 1944. That night, a group of 25 imprisoned German military members made a daring escape into the deserts surrounding Phoenix.
Camp Papago Park was different from other POW camps in the U.S. in that the imprisoned Axis soldiers were not forced to work or study. This gave the prisoners a lot of free time, which they eventually used to plot their escape. Papago Park consisted of five compounds, four for enlisted soldiers and one for high-ranking Nazi officers. This turned out to be a mistake on the Americans’ part. The Nazi officers, led by naval Captain Jurgen Wattenberg, put their heads together and began to plan an escape from the camp. The officers told their American guards they wanted to build a volleyball court, and they were given shovels and picks to construct the court.
The Americans didn’t pay attention to the massive piles of dirt that kept accumulating around the Nazi officers’ barracks, believing it was due to construction of the court. Beginning in September 1944, Captain Wattenberg and his men started tunneling out of the camp. By late December, the tunnel stretched 176 feet. The Nazis decided that the evening of December 23 would be the date of the escape. American guards at the camp didn’t realize that the 25 prisoners were missing until 7 p.m. on December 24. The Germans were long gone by that point. They had broken up into small groups and fled in different directions. Their ultimate goal was to get back to Germany through Mexico.
The search for the missing Germans was called the largest manhunt in Arizona’s history at the time. Some of the German escapees were recaptured or surrendered relatively quickly. The harsh desert environment and terrain around Phoenix caused many to abandon their dreams of returning to Germany quickly. Others stayed on the run for quite some time. On January 1, 1945, some of the men were captured only 30 miles from the Mexican border. The final German POW captured was the mastermind of the escape, Captain Wattenberg. He was on the run for over a month, until he was captured in Phoenix on January 28. The escapees feared harsh punishments after they were captured, but their only discipline was being put on a bread and water diet for the number of days they were missing from the camp.