Filed Under World War II

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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Cotton Bales at the Scottsdale Cotton Gin<br />
Cotton Bales at the Scottsdale Cotton Gin
Cotton served as Arizona's leading cash crop for much of the early twentieth century. However, much like the cyclical real estate market that has fueled the state economy for much of the post-World War II era, drastic fluctuations in cotton demand created a boom and bust cycle that brought both great prosperity and economic ruin. The cotton gin shown in this photo was constructed in Scottsdale shortly after World War I, when cotton still ranked as a leading driver of the Valley economy. Located near the Papago Park prisoner of war camp, it is likely that this gin processed cotton harvested by German prisoners of war during World War II. Image courtesy of Scottsdale Public Library. Source: Scottsdale Public Library
POW Certificate
POW Certificate Shared with the SRS Team by former POW Heinz Bangert, this certficate documented the former prisoners' possessions upon release. Source: Hanz Bangert Family Documents Creator: United States Government Date: 1946
Organization House at The Wigwam
Organization House at The Wigwam Litchfield Park's iconic Wigwam came into existence to meet the lodging needs of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company executives visiting the nearby 16,000 acre cotton farm owned and operated by the firm. This grand 1929 resort is one of the few remaining physical reminders of the once-booming Valley cotton industry and its ubiquitous fields of white fiber that have now been plowed under in favor of suburban development. Image courtesy of Phoenix Public Library.
Arizona State Seal Mosaic at the State Capitol
Arizona State Seal Mosaic at the State Capitol The Arizona state seal depicts cattle, citrus, climate, copper, and cotton, the 5 Cs of the state economy familiar to anyone who has attended elementary school in the Grand Canyon State. That early leaders chose to enshrine cotton alongside economic drivers such as copper mining and the state's year-round sunny weather speaks to the significant value of the fibrous crop. This image shows the state seal mosaic embedded in the floor of the old state capitol building. While this example includes famously unfortunately prospector George Warren, the bright sunshine for which the state is internationally known, and the expansive cotton fields of the Salt River Valley, it omits two of the five Cs - cattle and citrus. This error came about as a result of an out-of-state contractor working off of a unofficial sketch of the seal, as opposed to an official sample provided by the Arizona Secretary of State. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Metadata

John Larsen Southard and Story Tour Team, “POWs and Agriculture,” Salt River Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://saltriverstories.org/items/show/11.