“Great Escape” — German Style

J urgen Wattenberg was born in Lubeck, Germany on Dec. 28, 1900. Upon entering the German Navy, he was assigned to  the Crew (Class) 21 at the German Naval Academy in Flensberg/Murwik. On April 1, 1923, Wattenberg was promoted to Fahnrich zur See (Officer Cadet). By 1930, he had attained the rank of  Oberleutnant zur See and was serving as a cadet training officer aboard the cruiser Emden. His next promotion, however, would not be until Oct. 1, 1938, when he was promoted to Kapitanleutnant.

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Kapitanleutnant Jurgen Wattenberg, commander of U-162, led a breakout of 25 German POWS in December 1944. Author’s collection

    Wattenberg was serving as navigations officer on the “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee when it, along with the supply ship Altmark, sailed from Wilhelmshaven, Germany, in Aug.1939. By the time the war started on September 1, 1939, the Graf Spee and Altmark were operating in the south Atlantic.

    On Dec. 13, 1939, the British cruisers HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles made contact with Graf Spee off Uruguay. In the Battle of The River Plate, the Graf Spee was damaged after which she put into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Because it was a neutral port, the captain of the Graf Spee, Kapitan Hans Langsdorff, was granted 72 hours for repairs. On Dec. 17, Graf Spee left the harbor of Montevideo with a skeleton crew aboard. Three miles from the harbor the skeleton crew left Graf Spee and the ship was scuttled by explosives. After the crew was interned, Langsdorff shot himself in his hotel room on the 20th. Wattenberg managed to escape internment and returned to Germany to a hero’s welcome.

JOINS THE U-BOAT FORCE

    In October 1940, Wattenberg joined the U-boat force. After a period of training, he commissioned U-162, a Type IXC boat on Sept. 9, 1941. He was attached to the 2. Flottile and made three war patrols between Sept. 9, 1941, and Sept. 3, 1942, sinking 14 ships for a total of 82,027 tons.

    On September 3, 1942, U-162 was in the Caribbean Sea near Trinidad when she was attacked and sunk by the HMS Vimy, Pathfinder and Quentin. Forty nine of the 52-man crew were rescued and became prisoners of war.
   
PRISONER OF WAR

    Although Wattenberg was captured by the British, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp at Fort Hunt, Virginia. He was transferred to a POW camp at Crossville, Tenn. in October and promoted to Kapitan zur See on April 1, 1943. He was considered a trouble maker and on January 27, 1944 he was transferred to a German naval prisoner of war camp at Papago Park, Ariz., 13 miles from Phoenix.

    The Americans thought that the ground at Papago Park was too hard and rocky, making escape all but impossible. Wattenberg and other naval officers searched the camp for blind spots where they would be hidden from the guards as they dug an escape tunnel. They found two spots, one for the entrance and the other for an exit to the east of the compound.

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Entrance of the tunnel through which the 25 German POWs escaped on the night of December 23/24, 1944. National Archives

    The Germans asked their guards for permission to build a Faustball field (an old German game similar to volleyball). The guards thought that this was an excellent idea as it would keep the prisoners occupied. The guards gave them tools for the work and the prisoners began work on the field–as well as a tunnel which they named the “Faustball Tunnel.”

    The tunnel entrance was located behind the camp bathhouse and hidden by a shallow box built by Seaman Walter Kozur. He put dirt in the box and planted grass, watering it regularly. When the box was in place, the tunnel entrance was completely hidden.

    Using three shifts, the prisoners were able to dig two or three feet a night. The dirt was put in prisoners’ pockets, which had holes at the bottom, and sprinkled the dirt on the Faustball field. Some dirt was even flushed down the toilets.

    The prisoners were able to steal electric wire, light sockets and light bulbs. The electric wire was then plugged into the bathroom wiring for their electric power.
   
    They constructed a small, four-wheeled cart to travel along tracks in the tunnel. This, however, meant more dirt. Kapitanleutnant Jurgen Quaet-Faslem spoke to the camp commander about low areas on the Faustball court and he agreed to have dirt brought in to level the  playing field. Dirt was brought in and dumped in a pile on the field. At night, the Germans would secretly spread the dirt and replace the dirt pile with dirt from the tunnel. The guards got so used to seeing a pile of dirt on the field that it was ignored, not realizing that it was dirt from a tunnel.

    The tunnel was 178 feet long, three feet in diameter and 8 to 14 feet below the surface. It  went beneath two prison fences, a drainage ditch and a road. The exit was in a clump of brush 15 feet from the west side of the Cross Cut Canal. Another box was built and planted with weeds to conceal the tunnel exit.

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Pictures of the 19 remaining POWS appeared in the December 28, 1944, copy of the Phoenix Gazette. Department of Libary, Archives and Public Records, Phoenix, AZ

    The prisoners had been able to obtain a map and decided to float down the Cross Cut Canal to the Salt River then to the  Gila River and finally on to the Colorado River, which would take them to Mexico. They constructed a collapsible canoe and tested it by blocking the shower drains.

    After the escape, Wattenberg’s plan called for the POWs to pair off and travel only at night. Each group was responsible for their food, clothing, cigarettes or anything else that may be needed.

    The escape was planned for the night of December 23, 1944. Kapitan Wattenberg ordered the men in an adjacent compound to throw a party on the evening of the 23rd and to make as much noise as they could. At 9:00 PM, the prisoners began crawling along the tunnel. By 2:30 AM on the morning of the 24th, all 12 officers (including six U-boat commanders) and 13 enlisted men had exited the tunnel. It was the largest POW escape in the United States.

    The three men with the collapsible canoe were immediately disappointed to find that the Cross Cut Canal and Salt River were dry river beds. They carried their canoe for 20 miles to the Gila River only to find another dry river bed. They did not realize that a river in Arizona, although colored blue on a map, may only have water in it after a rain.

    Camp officials were unaware that anyone had escaped from the camp until the next day when Herbert Fuchs turned himself in because he had been cold, wet and hungry long enough. That same day, six prisoners were captured a few miles from the camp and several surrendered to a deputy sheriff. Two weeks later and 170 miles from the camp, Kapitanleutnant Friedrich Guggenberger (commander of U-513 and holder of the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves) and Kapitanleutnant Jurgen Quaet-Faslem (commander of U-595) were captured 10 miles from the Mexican border.

    Wattenberg left the tunnel with Walter Kozur and Johann Kremer. Instead of heading for Mexico, they went north into the mountains. By sunrise,  they found an old shack where they took turns on watch and sleeping. Later, Wattenberg found a shallow cave and the three men placed brush and a few boulders at the front to hide the entrance to the cave. Wattenberg stated, “We will live the way the American Indians do.”

    At the POW camp, things were in an uproar. Several agencies had been called in to investigate the escape and guards had been called back from Christmas leave. It was still unknown how the prisoners escaped until Private First Class Lawrence Jorgensen stumbled across the camouflaged tunnel exit cover several days after the escape.

    Prior to their escape, Wattenberg had spoken to one of the men not in the escape group about an abandoned, dismantled vehicle, which could be used as a food drop. Wattenberg asked him to drop food in this vehicle when he was outside the camp on a work detail. On January 18, 1945, Johann Kremer snuck to the vehicle and retrieved fruit and several packs of cigarettes. He left a thank you note for his buddies still in the camp.

    At one point, Kremer even dared to infiltrate a work group and sneak back into camp. He learned  about the others that had escaped, got more food and snuck out with another work detail the next day. However, he was discovered during a surprise inspection on Jan. 23, after escaping detection for three days. The following day, Walter Kozur was captured as he made his way down a hill just after sunset. This left Wattenberg as the only POW roaming free.

    With the dawn of Jan. 27, Wattenberg was out of food and decided to go into Phoenix. He thought that maybe he could find a job as a dishwasher or possibly get help from a Catholic priest, where he would be protected by the Church’s doctrine regarding  sanctuary

    He walked around Phoenix for some time, taking care to avoid U.S. servicemen on weekend passes. He went into a restaurant where he ordered noodle soup with beef and a beer–a meal familiar to a German. After the meal, he went to the Hotel Adams and asked about a room. He was told that all the rooms were taken but one would probably be available by morning. He sat in a chair and immediately fell asleep. He woke up an hour later with the bellboy staring at him.

    After leaving the hotel he asked a street foreman for directions to the railroad station. When Wattenberg walked away the street foreman told Gilbert Brady of the Phoenix Police Department about the man with the heavy German accent. Brady caught up with Wattenberg and asked to see his Selective Service Registration. Wattenberg replied, “I left it at home.” Brady then asked him where is home, and he replied, “Glendale.” Brady then asked, “Glendale, Arizona, or Glendale, California?” Wattenberg answered, “Glendale, back east.” He had been caught. He was returned to the camp at Papago Park where he was put on bread and water for 14 days.

AFTER THE WAR

    In Feb. 1946, Wattenberg was transferred to Camp Shanks, New York, and then to a compound near Munster, Germany,  in the British Zone of Occupation before finally being released in Aug. 1946. He later became manager of the St. Pauli Brewery in Lubeck, retiring as CEO of the company.

    Wattenberg returned to the Papago Park campsite in January 1985 for a commemorative observance sponsored by the Papago Park Prisoner of War Camp Commission. Today, there is only one building remaining from the days of German POWs. The campsite is now covered by the Phoenix Zoo, a subdivision, car dealership and baseball field. Wattenberg passed away on November 27, 1995, a month short of his 95th birthday.

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