Many of you may not know about this but there is a beautiful place called Papago Park that used to actual be a German Prisoner of War Camp. I like that the media and the military where aware of people with delicate sensibilities would become outraged, unsecured and pissed, if this military was called what it actually was, a Nazi Prisoner of War Camp.
From January of 1944 to March of 1946, about 2,5000 prisoners of war, mostly German sailors, were confirmed to a compound of barracks and barbed wire at Papago Park. This place is located in Phoenix, Arizona. 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.
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, non-commissioned officers in 1B.
The escape began at 9:00 PM on December 23 and by 2:30 AM on December 24, Wattenberg and twenty-four others had made it through the tunnel without alarming the guards. Inside the Cross Cut Canal, the Germans headed south towards the Salt River. A few of the men, Captain Wilhelm Günther and Lieutenants Wolfgang Clarus and Friedrich Utzolino, built a collapsible raft out of wood and scraps of rubber, hoping to float their way down the Salt River, then down the Gila River then down the Colorado River and into the Gulf of California.
However, there was very little water in the Salt River and they ended up abandoning the raft after a short time. The others split up into pairs and small groups and went their separate ways, avoiding trains and buses.
It wasn’t until about 7:00 PM on December 24 that Captain Parshal was certain that some prisoners were missing. Soon after, several hundred soldiers, FBI agents, and Papago Indian scouts were mobilized for what the Phoenix Gazette called “the greatest manhunt in Arizona history.” It was, however, hunger, the cold and rainy weather, and being unfamiliar with the terrain, that led to the recapture of most of the escapees. Many surrendered within the first few days after escaping, but a few others held out for much longer.
On January 1, 1945, two unnamed prisoners were captured by Papagos less than thirty miles from the Mexican border. Soon after, Captain Lieutenants Friedrich Guggenberger and Jürgen Quaet-Faslem were captured within ten miles. Günther, Clarus, and Utzolino, were caught on January 8 after the latter decided that a certain canal near the town of Gila Bend would be a good place to wash his underwear. Some Cowboys spotted the group at the Crosscut canal and alerted the military.]
The final holdout was Captain Wattenberg, who was captured over a month after the escape on January 28, 1945. Instead of heading south, Wattenberg and two of his subordinates, Walter Kozur and Johann Kremer, made shelter out of a cave in the mountains north of Phoenix. From there they explored the area and even dared to venture into the city. According to author Ronald H. Bailey, Kremler “pulled off the most bizarre caper of the entire escape.” Every few days he would make contact with one of the German workers sent outside of the camp’s perimeter and exchange places with him. The exchanged prisoner would spend the night in the cave with Captain Wattenberg while Kremer slipped back into camp.
Inside, Kremer would gather food and information. To deliver the food he would either join a work detail and escape again or send it out with another worker. This continued for some time until January 22, when a surprise inspection revealed Kremer’s presence in camp. Kremer must have given his captors information, because on the following night Kozur was captured by three soldiers at the abandoned car used to hide the provisions. Four days later, on January 27, 1945, Wattenberg cleaned himself up and then hiked into Phoenix.
He had 75¢, most of which he spent on a meal at a restaurant. He slept in a chair in the lobby of a hotel for a few hours, and then got up to walk around the streets at night. While doing so, he stopped to ask for directions from a member of a street cleaning crew. The cleaner thought that Wattenberg’s accent was suspicious, so he called the police and the latter was arrested by 9:00 AM on the next morning.
At least some of the escapees expected severe punishment for escaping – they had heard rumors that American prisoners of war were executed by their German captors in retaliation for the bombing of Dresden – however, their only consequence was to be put on bread and water rations for as many days as they were absent from camp. None of the American guards received serious punishment either, although the FBI launched an investigation into the “lack security” at Arizona’s prisoner of war camps.
Today, the site of Camp Papago Park is used as an Arizona National Guard base, among other things, and the Arizona Military Museum, located on the base, features a display depicting the camp and the story of the escape.
Today, the P.O.W. camp has been replaced by neighborhoods and baseball fields. But from 1943 to 1946, this is where Italian and German P.O.W.’s were incarcerated, west of the Crosscut Canal on both sides of 64th Street between McDowell and Thomas Roads.
*** This was the largest POW escape in the United States that many of you have never ever heard about. And the questions still stands at why they were here on American soil in Phoenix, Arizona?