The Great Papago Escape of 1944 – When 25 German POWs escaped in America!

Not many Americans are aware of the fact that the US held over 370,000 Germans in over 500 camps in 45 states during the WWII. Two days before Christmas in 1944 at a prisoner of war camp in Phoenix, 25 German POWs made their escape. It was the biggest breakout of them all.

It took almost 24 hours for camp guards to realize the escape. Their plan was to walk the 130 miles to the Mexican border to get out of the US.

The blame for the escape was placed on the camp officials administration, but a major mistake was made by camp commander Col. William A. Holden. He thought it best to keep the more experienced breakout artists together in a centralized compound which became known as Compound 1A.

Compound 1A collectively came up with the plan to tunnel out of the camp. There was a recreational area in the compound where they essentially dumped dirt from the tunnel they were digging.

The FBI was notified at 8pm on Christmas eve. One of the escaped POWs had already been in custody by then. All but one was caught with the help of soldiers, citizens and Papago Indian scouts looking for them.

Fregattenkapitän Jürgen Wattenberg was the only POW of the escaped who never got caught. After running out of food and having no other option, he turned himself into a policeman in downtown Phoenix. It had been over a month after his escape, the AZ Central reports.

More can be read on this in Geraldine Birch’s book, “The Swastika Tattoo,” a historical novel set at Camp Papago Park and Nazi Germany.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE