Dramatic, highly readable, and fresh, The Great Desert Escape brings to light an illuminating and little-known account of how twenty-five determined German U-Boat crewmen tunneled from American POW camp, crossed the unforgiving Arizona desert, and attempted to return battle. It was the only organized, large-scale domestic escape by foreign prisoners in U.S. history.
Painstakingly wrung from contemporary newspaper articles, interviews and first-person accounts from escapees and the law enforcement officers who pursued them, The Great Desert Escape brings history alive.
From 1942 to 1946, the United States swarmed with captured enemy troops. Nearly 400,000 German soldiers and officers were held in more than 500 POW camps throughout the country.
One such camp was the U.S. Army’s prisoner of war camp at Papago Park just outside of Phoenix, Arizona, where on December 23, 1944 25 German Kreigsmariners tunneled free, determined to reach Mexico and find sympathizers who would get the back to the Fatherland.
For the prisoners, life was at the best of times uneasy. On the outside of their prison fences were Americans who wanted nothing more than to see them die slow deaths for their perceived roles in killing their fathers and brothers in Europe. Many of these stranded German prisoners had heard rumors of castrations and worse for those who had escaped.
On the inside were on occasion rabid Nazis determined to get home and continue the fight. At Papago Park in March of 1944, a newly-arrived prisoner who was believed (correctly) to have divulged classified information to the Americans was murdered--hung in one of the barracks by seven of his fellow prisoners.
The Great Desert Escape sheds new light on the little known chapter in World War II history.
Papago Park housed nearly 4000 German POWs, most of whom were U-boat crewmen. Until the arrival of a new American commander, it had been a very inefficient and haphazard operation. Author Keith Warren Lloyd describes the culture of complacency that had developed among the guards and their officers. Before the Great Desert Escape, several other attempts had been made. As a dramatic backdrop to the main narrative, Lloyd describes the life of one of the escapees: his service as an officer aboard a U-boat, his final patrol where his U-boat is sunk, his capture and interrogation, his arrival at Papago Park and finally his involvement in the escape.
In September 1944 the senior POW officer, Jürgen Wattenberg, directed that tunnel should be dug from the bathhouse to the Arizona Crosscut Canal, which ran along the northern edge of the camp. The prisoners obtained digging tools from the guards, telling them that they wished to construct a volleyball court. They would go into the bathhouse at night to work on the tunnel. The soil around Papago Park was extremely hard and full of rocks, so the guards never expected them to be digging. The tunnel, six feet deep and 178 feet long, was completed in December of 1944. The plan was to escape to Mexico and locate people sympathetic to Germany (the reasons for their sympathy will also be described) who would arrange passage for them back to the Fatherland.
Three of the escapees had built a collapsible raft and planned to float the Salt River to the Colorado and then to the Gulf of California, having seen the Salt River on a stolen map. They didn’t know that one could step easily across the Salt River at that time of year. Discouraged, the 25 prisoners scattered. The Great Desert Escape recounts the flight of the prisoners. One U-boat officer found himself sitting at a lunch counter next to a suspicious Phoenix Police officer. Another asked for directions from a street cleaning crew, his accent betraying him. The cold and rainy weather caused several of the escapees (who by then had been acclimated to the desert) to turn themselves in. Still others lived like coyotes among the rocks and caves overlooking Papago Park before being rounded up. All of the escapees were eventually re-captured within six weeks.
The book will then describe the inquiries and investigations by the army and the FBI in the aftermath of the escape. It is an ideal addition to Lyons rich military history list, including The Long Walk, which has sold more than 300,000 copies.
Keith Warren Lloyd resides in Arizona. He is a professional firefighter, an independent writer, and a U.S. Navy veteran. Lloyd graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in Liberal Studies with an emphasis on history and political science.
He is author of Above and Beyond, the biography of Frank Luke Jr., the World War One ace known as the "Arizona Balloon Buster" and the first aviator to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.