Sunday, May 10, 2015

Prisoners of War in Arizona

German POWs
Camp Shelby, Mississippi
Did you know that during World War II, German prisoners of war were kept in America? 

Japanese Fire Balloons
Launched in the Jet Steam to land in America 
I have a vague recollection of a Junior High lesson discussing Japanese ballon bombs and a German POW escape attempt in Arizona. It turns out both are true and I have retained some of my long term memory! 

German Football Team
Camp Shelby, Mississippi
Per the Office of the Provost Marshal General and Wikipedia, there were 425,000 German prisoners in America. They were housed in 700 camps in 46 states and private employers were allowed to contract for labor. 

Mess hall at the Hellwig Brothers Farm
Gumbo Flats, the Missouri River 
By the end of the war, 96% of enlisted POWs were participating in the labor program. The minimum pay was 80 cents a day, the equivalent to the pay of an American private. Part of the wages went to the POW program and the rest could be spent at the camp canteen.

German POW in a Missouri Camp
"When I was captured I weighed 128 pounds. After two years as an American POW weighed 185. I had gotten so fat you could no longer see my eyes."

"Colored" Military Police
Columbus Georgia 
Depending on the location, some POWs had access to community activities and services. Black American guards noted that German prisoners could visit segregated restaurants where they were not allowed.

German captives, boarding a train to POW camps
Two noteworthy escapes happened outside of Arizona. (I'm getting to Arizona because it is a great story! Give me a minute.) 

Infantry Sergeant Reinhold Pabel left a camp in Illinois. He read a magazine article by J. Edgar Hoover on FBI procedure for escaped POWs and avoided recapture until 1953. He was deported back to Germany but was allowed to return a year later to rejoin his American wife and two kids. (I am so happy that Hoover's efforts actually assisted someone.) 

Georg Gärtner was even more successful. The FBI stopped looking for him in 1963. Coordinating with the release of his biography, he surrendered to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1985. 

3,000 German POWs were housed in Papago Park, Arizona. Twenty-two POWs dug an escape tunnel and planned to hike the 130 miles to the Mexican border. Three others planned to float to Mexico on the Gila River and they made a raft that could carried in separate bundles. The guards we're told it was an arts and crafts project. 

Handmade Christmas Card from German POW
It was typical for the American military to take photos of the prisoners and encourage the prisoners  to mail them home to Germany to show that they were being treated well. The POWs were able to use the snapshots and made forged documents. 

POW Canteen coupons for Papago Park POW Camp 
The German hated commercial white bread but the escapees toasted pieces and packed the crumbs in waxed paper. The crumbs could be mixed with milk or water to make a mash. In addition, they had collected some cash by creating fake Nazi paraphernalia to sell to the guards.    

Camp layout and tunnel entrance

The prisoners escaped the camp at 2:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve. 

The Captain of the camp was a WWI veteran, an ex-police detective and had once robbed a bank while serving as a general in the Mexican army. He called the FBI that evening and was interrupted with a call from a Phoenix sheriff. Two of the POWs had hitchhiked to the police station to surrender. During the evening, four other escapees surrendered to private homes in Tempe. 

German U-Boat

On New Year's Day, two escaped prisoners walked to an isolated farm house and found a teenage boy watching his younger siblings. While they waited for the kids' parents to return, the Germans shared chocolate and told the kids about living on a U-boat. 

Gila River, Arizona 

The three Germans who headed to the Gila River discovered that it was not as navigational as it looked on the map. Their raft kept sinking and they were eventually captured. 

Wonder Bread, Military Promotional cutouts 

Within a month of the escape, all of the POWs were back in the camp. They were put on bread and water for every day they had been absent from camp. 

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