POWs and Agriculture

The prisoner of war camp that once stood in Papago Park was the site of stories like that of the ill-fated 1944 escape attempt of the "Crazy Boatmen," who planned on floating hand-made boats down the rivers they saw on their maps of the Valley. Though the bone-dry riverbeds thwarted the boatmen's plans, tales like theirs adorn the memories of the POW camp. However, for most of the inmates life at the camp was more mundane.

One former POW, Heinrich Bangert recalled being a "former sailor prisoner in Papago" and that many of his friends had come from "Africa Corps, at Litchfield Park No6." He remember that we "had been a fine time in Papago, we cropped a lot of cotton and played a lot of handball. I remember it very well. I still have the old colored fold wallet." (See the comments below for Mr. Bangert's reminiscences.)

Opened in January 1944, the prisoner of war facility was situated on land just north of Papago Park along what is now 64th Street. Prior to being put to use as a POW camp, the grounds were used as a training facility for American soldiers and, briefly, a compound for Italian POWs. In contrast to the raging battlefields of Europe, life inside the camp walls proved pleasantly safe and peaceful for the nearly 1,500 German sailors detained out of their element in the arid Sonoran Desert. While perhaps surprising to many of the incarcerated U-boaters, the parched terrain they viewed from their wartime home yielded significant quantities of long-staple cotton --a much-needed commodity for numerous essential military supplies including tires and uniforms.

Cotton, however, is a labor-intensive crop. This presented a serious challenge for many Valley farmers supplying the federal government with bales of their fibrous bounty. Ironically, many of the German detainees housed at Papago Park stepped in to assist with the cotton harvest. Some estimates credit POW labor with picking 90% of the Valley's cotton crop, thereby ensuring a steady supply of the raw material used in the effort to defeat their home country and, indirectly, aiding in the Allied victory that released the German submariners from their accommodations in the Arizona desert.

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