German POWs Escape

How the German POWs got called, "The Crazy Boatmen"

An Arizona native is likely to be aware of the dryness of the Salt River. Nevertheless, the German POWs thought they could use the river to escape.

When the U.S. government sought a home for German U-boat sailors taken as prisoners-of-war during World War II, it found the ultimate contradictory landscape for the young mariners from the verdant nation along the Rhine: Phoenix's Papago Park.

The exotic red sandstone buttes and prickly Sonoran Desert flora of the park may have seemed inhospitable at first, but the German submariners quickly adapted to life in the desert. In fact, the involuntarily land-based naval personnel enjoyed relative autonomy in their daily activities at the somewhat lackadaisically-run camp, permitting them to engage in productive activities such as farming--as well as more sinister endeavors, such as planning a water-based getaways despite their location in the arid Salt River Valley. Accustomed to the mighty rivers of Europe, the POWs logically assumed that the Salt and Gila rivers shown on maps of the Valley could lead them to the Colorado River and onto freedom in Mexico. However, this hope was discovered to be nothing more than a desert mirage, as described in the tale of "The Crazy Boatmen."

This prison break was deemed "The Great Papago Escape" though it did not last very long. The prisoners tunneled out of the prison on the night of December 23rd, 1944 and 25 German POW fled into the desert. The men would make a break into the desert and attempt to head for Mexico, 130 miles from the camp, though all were recaptured without spilling blood.

The last man recaptured was the man who started it all, Captain Wattenberg, he was captured a month after the initial escape on January 28, 1945.



German POW Escapees, or, The Crazy Boatmen
A recounting of the infamous and ill-fated December 1944 Papago Park POW camp escape. Written by John Larsen Southatd; narrated by Jim Garrison. Recorded at Scottsdale Channel 11; courtesy of the Papago Salado Association.
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