Filed Under World War II

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.


POWs along the Arizona Canal, 1943
POWs along the Arizona Canal, 1943 Although these Italian POWs viewed significant quantities of water in the Valley's canals, their ill-fated encounter with a dry riverbed as they worked on the Arizona Canal would disabuse them of the notion that all Arizona waterways hold water. This ties to when the German POWs found out how dry the Salt and Gila Rivers were. Image courtesy of Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress. Source: Library of Congress
Creator: Mark Durben, James Eastwood, and Kevin Kriesel-Coons Date: December 1943
German U-boat Sinking a Ship, 1941<br />
German U-boat Sinking a Ship, 1941
While the POWs held at the Papago Park facility are normally thought of as relatively harmless rascals content to cause their captors mischief, many of the internees were actually elite German sailors responsible for sinking numerous Allied ships. The significant loss of life and vital war material associated with Hitler's stealthy and deadly u-boat fleet struck great fear into the hearts of Allied mariners, belying the present-day perception of the Papago Park POWs as a group of vexing but largely innocuous individuals. Illustration by Adolf Bock. Image courtesy of Library of Congress. Source: "Deutsches U-boot versenkt englischen frachtdampfer." Library of Congress Creator: Adolf Bock Date: Between 1941 to 1945.
Japanese Internment Housing, 1942
Japanese Internment Housing, 1942 The arid Arizona desert served as home to more than just German and Italian POWs during World War II. Following Franklin Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942, American citizens of Japanese descent living within a federally-defined zone near borders and oceans were moved to "relocation centers" around the state, like this one near Parker, Arizona, and throughout the nation. The incarceration of fellow countrymen due solely to their national origin continued through the course of the war, and resulted in many internees losing their homes, businesses, and personal belongings in addition to their freedom. Image courtesy of Library of Congress. Source: Library of Congress
Creator: Ariz Parker Date: Made in April 1942


625 N Galvin Pkwy, Phoenix, AZ 85008


John Larsen Southard, “German POWs Escape,” Salt River Stories, accessed May 23, 2024,