Papago Park POW Camp
So what is left of the most famous World War 2 POW (Prisoner of War) camp in America? Remember, we are talking of a place where over 2,000 people lived in hundreds of building over an area of almost 1 square mile just 60 years ago (Notes: both the total number of prisoners and/or largest quantity at any one time vary considerably according to the source. I have seen these estimates: 1,700, 2,500, 3,600, 4,000 and 5,000).
The answer is: Not much, not much at all. On site all that remains of the hundreds of buildings, not counting shacks, sheds, outhouses, guard towers and miles of barbed wire fence is... exactly one building and the foundations of one guard tower, plus about ten thousand small chunks of concrete scattered over the desert. Even up until the 1970s, the skeleton remains of buildings and fallen abandoned barracks were still scattered around the park to the east of 64th street. Fifty years after it was deactivated, a person looking at the area would not know it had ever existed. Even for a person living in the area who has read much of the literature, it is difficult to imagine not only how it looked, but even where it was situated.
POW Houses in early 2004, near the corner of Scottsdale and Thomas Roads.
In the last few years, even the remains of the buildings removed from the camp are slowly slipping away. The five "houses" on Scottsdale road, former barracks and officer's quarters, are now gone. Over a period of two years I visited them many times and took pictures as they were removed at different times. The owner even offered me one. The redwood would have made a great floor somewhere after sanded and varnished. By the end of 2005 all of these buildings had been moved to new locations - to private owners and to Scottsdale McCormack Railroad Park. At least they were not destroyed.
POW huts, mid 2005 - going, going...
I leave near to this location, so I was able to follow the drama of some of the few remaining parts of the camp. By the middle of 2005 two huts were taken away and the other three were being put on transport for removal. The owner told me the first three were taken by private parties to be used as a garage and guesthouses.
By December 2005 the last three huts were gone. They were taken by the City of Scottsdale and will be renovated and relocated to McCormick Park where a POW exhibit is planned...
So why is the Camp so famous?
Well, for many reasons. Papago Park is the site of the most famous POW escape in all of American history - a story that always reminds me of a real-life Hogan's Heroes TV series, except in many ways ever more funnier. It is also the infamous site of a not-so-funny murder that lead to the last mass execution of prisoners in the US - which I believe is indirectly linked to the escape. It is also famous for the black troops that were stationed there before the camp was converted to POW use. Last of all, the POW camp is famous simply because it is in Papago Park, one of the most wonderful and strange places in all of Arizona.
So what is left?
Well, let us classify this in two categories: a) on site, at the original location, and b) removed from the park.
(a). On site we have one building: the Officers Club (building No. 40 on the thumbnail image below). It is now inhabited by Elks. Of the human kind. It is Lodge No. 2148 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America on 63rd and Oak Street. It has a membership of several nice, relaxed, friendly folks. The interior has probably not changed much, even if a back area porch has been added on to the original building. On the wall just behind the entrance is a map with a blueprint of the camp as built dating from 1945. This is one of two copies of this map I have seen (the other in the University of Arizona library in Tucson). The only other somewhat intact remains are the four foundation legs of a guard tower [marked as (A) in the image] just behind and the Sgt. William C. Barnes Army Reserve Center building at 6201 E. Oak. That is it.
Location of the POW camp.
This map is the reason for this page. It shows the POW Camp superimposed over a modern aerial photograph of the area. I am proud of this map! (Note: It is a large image!)
I was sure there would be more remains if one knew where to look. The problem was to determine where the camp was actually situated. So I took a copy of the 1945 blueprint at the Elks Club, traced the outlines of about 250 buildings, and the roads and wire fences and came up with the image you see here (or will see if you click on the thumbnail icon at left). This is the only true representation of the POW camp as situated in reference to the neighborhood area as it is in 2005. So we have the blueprint superimposed over an image of the Papago Park area downloaded from Google Earth. Finally, I had an idea where all of the camp buildings were situated. Adjusting the sizes of the two images, things lined up quite nicely using the Officers Club and the canal as reference points. The position of the single remaining guard tower (indicated with an (A) on the map) matched perfectly, and the alignment of the City of Phoenix water tank was close. At last I had an idea of where things were. Quickly it became apparent that most buildings were torn down to build the Hyview Neighborhood just east of 64th Street in the 1960s. There is no chance of finding anything there. The Camp Pima compound area is now a big commercial area occupied by Blood Systems Inc, also known as UBS - United Blood Services. Nothing is there, at least on top of the pavement. (PS: I am still mad at UBS for rejecting my blood 10 years ago because of tropical diseases. You would think they never had seen someone who had both Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever).
Many camp ruins were still visible into the 1970s...
Soon after the war, the camp began to be torn down. By 1949 most of it was gone (see photo) although a few shacks remained until the early 1970s. Note: On the image I have added the original building numbers from the blueprint to the main buildings in the camp, with a legend identifying each. The POW installations are of pink color and the Army ones are shaded in yellow. The outlines of the patrol roads, main streets, and the barbed wire fences are shown, as well as the locations of the guard towers.
The first thumbnail here shows the sole existing guard tower foundations, behind the Army Training Center near 64th and Oak Street. After walking around the area for a few hours, I did find a few more pieces, as follows: four tower foundations bulldozed off to a location beyond the first curve on the road to the archery field, shown in the middle image - and marked with a (B) on the map above. I also found a single round concrete tower post at the location marked with an 'x' next to the parking lot (the third image at left), and a square one just off McDowell road from Compound #6, also marked with an 'x'. That is it! So, out of 250 plus buildings, what is left on location is 1 building, 1 tower foundation intact, 1 set of uprooted tower foundations (all four posts) and two other single tower foundations in two locations. Not much!
(b). What was moved off site... In the 1950s people could buy a hut for almost nothing, if they were willing to move it themselves. Since most (if not all) of the construction was wood frame and sides, it was relatively easy to move the structure. Many of the barracks and officers quarters were bought by private owners and moved to nearby locations - the most famous and last of these were the five buildings on Scottsdale Road. Actually there were several more next to them at one time, where the McDonalds now stands. Some buildings were given to schools and other government organizations. Perhaps the two most famous buildings off-site and still in use are the Recreation Building, or Gym (Building number 32 on the image) and another administrative building still in use as the Phoenix Zoo, also in Papago Park.
The Great Escape
Old pictures of POW Camp at Papago (Az Republic).
All things considered, life was probably not too bad at the POW Camp, at least from what formers prisoners say in their visits to the Valley of the Sun. Yes, it was a little cold in the Winter and a little too hot in the Summer, but for 8 months of the year, the weather was great, the work easy and the food, bearable. Discipline was not too harsh, and sports and games were common to keep the POWs occupied. During the day, some POWs would leave the camp to work at local farms or do odd jobs for local inhabitants. They would write letters, admire the fabulous local scenery of Papago Park, including the butte nearby which they called "Die Schlafender Indianer" (actually Barnes Butte) and plan the rest of their lives. There are even stories of POWs having outside girlfriends and amorous encounters. Most records tell us that almost all POWs were German sailors, mostly from captured U-boats. However, I have been told by a long-time local, who remembers going down to the Recreation Hall to watch movies with the prisoners that one man would yell out the dialogue translation in German and another in Italian as the movie played. Laurel and Hardy movies were everybody's favorites. There are also stories that local kids even admired the Germans so much they would wear the letters 'POW' on their jackets, which caused the local guard officials to issue orders prohibiting this, so as not to confuse the guards. Even so, there were a few Germans that just had to cause trouble. These were put in a part of Compound 1 at the North end, conveniently located near the outer perimeter of the camp.
40 years later...
As required in all POW movies (at least those made by Hollywood) the Germans started a tunnel. For about four months they dug their way from an opening near a bathhouse towards the Crosscut Canal, under two fences and a patrol road. As with the numbers of prisoners, the estimates of the length and depth of the tunnel vary considerably: 125 feet, 200 feet and even 400 feet. One source says they went "under the canal." I doubt very much that the Germans would dig under the canals - they would have gotten wet, very wet. In fact as they approached the canal, I bet there was some very interesting conversations at night as to exactly how close they were to the water.
The best diagram of the tunnel.
How did they do it? Easy. The Americans assumed the soil was too hard to dig. Wrong. So what did they do with the tons of dirt? They convinced the guards they were devotees of volleyball and they wanted to build a volleyball court. I really can't imagine how they were able to sell this story or explain all the dirt out on the courtyard, since the land is very level in the first place. The Germans even called their project Der Faustball Tunnel (The Volleyball Tunnel). It must have been an 'elevated' volleyball court with about 2 feet of base dirt. I am told the court was built in the athletic field directly north of Compound 1, outside the main perimeter of the camp. Unbelievable!
I always watch Ebay for Papago Park POW and map items. This is a homemade "New Years" card drawn by a German prisoner and mailed from Papago Park in January of 1945. I bought it from Germany. I have no idea what it says, but it is clear what was on the guy's mind.
By Christmas 1944 the tunnel was complete and the POWs were ready. The prisoners held a loud, wild party to cover the getaway. In the late hours of December 22th, 1944, under cover of the sound of either Stille Nacht (Silent Night) or Lili Marlene, depending on the source, twenty-five Germans slipped out of the hole on the banks of the canal and disappeared into the night. The plan was escape to Mexico, possibly by stealing a boat and floating down the Salt River. It would have been a great plan except there weren't any boats, and there was no water. As everybody in Arizona knows, just because a map has a something called a 'river' on it, it doesn't mean that it has water in it. Well, the POWs escape and take off in different directions. Back in camp the party ends and everybody goes to bed. The camp guards settle down for a quiet night until the base commander starts getting phone calls from residents and police in Tempe and Phoenix. People were complaining about Germans knocking on their doors asking to be returned to the Papago Park POW camp. It was at that time that the Army realized that they might have had an escape. Evidently it was a cold night and some of the POWs missed their bunks and blankets. There were some POWs, however, that were made of much sterner stuff. A few got as far as Gila Bend and the German leader managed to hide out for 32 days, probably staying in a cave near Camelback Mountain before being arrested in a hotel lobby in downtown Phoenix. Thus ended the Great Papago Park POW escape. Well maybe, there are stories that more than 25 Germans escaped, and that was number only reflects the ones captured and this was used by the Army to hide their incompetence. Some say their were 35, 45 or even 60 fugitives. For years and even decades after the war, there were stories of escaped POWs that either lived out in the boondocks or had assimulated into the local population.
In late March of 1944 the Papago Park camp received a new inmate. Six hours later he was found dead in a shower room of Compound 4. Somehow the POWs had learned the man was a collaborator, having either given information on U-boats to the Americans or even having helped interrogate other German POWs. Camp authorities quickly found the 7 Germans who participated in the murder and put them on trial. The war was over at this time, but the Army sentenced the Germans to death. After a controversial trial, in which it was made clear that the victim should not have been put in the camp with his fellow prisoners, and in fact the authorities had even been warned not to do so, the accused men were convicted and sentenced to death. They were hung in an elevator shaft of a building at Fort Leavanworth in Kansas on August 25, 1945. It was the last mass execution in the US. It is my opinion that the death of these men was at least in part an act of revenge for the humiliation caused to the Western US army command by the escape. If it had not occurred, possibly the sentences would have been commuted, or not as many men put to death.
African-American Troops and Arizona's only WW2 battle
Arizona is famous for having one Civil War battle. Well, I guess you can say we also had a World War II battle. One cannot talk about Papago Park and the Army in Phoenix during WW2 without mentioning certain events that occurred near downtown Phoenix on Thanksgiving of 1942, in which the US Army used half-tracks and jeep mounted machine guns - on Americans - to restore order.
The actual facts relating to what happened are rather vague. It was wartime and there was censorship. Also there is the fact that the soldiers were African-American negros, or "Colored," and therefore subject to discriminatory treatment. Anyway, in late November of 1942 there was a fight either between the troops or between a soldier and a woman - depending on the story. When the PMs (Military Police) arrived to arrest a soldier he resisted and was shot. The other troopers protested and soon over a hundred soldiers (some sources say almost 200) were rounded up to be sent to the stockade at Papago Park. Somehow another fight broke out, the prisoners escaped and scattered, taking refuge in homes around 12th Street and Washington. Note that this was the northern end of the negro part of Phoenix at the time. The PMs and the Phoenix police department then cordoned off about a square mile and sent in jeeps and half-tracks with machine guns to flush out the soldiers. I cannot even imagine firing a 50-caliber machine gun near civilian houses, but evidently it happened. That type of bullet will go through five walls and kill a mile away. The actual number of victims is unsure. Officially only 2 or 3 people died and a dozen were hurt, including a man sitting in a car a mile away. There are unofficial reports that up to 19 people were killed. The leaders of the riot were court-martialed and the rest were let go. The colored troops of the 364th Infantry regiment, most of whom had been quartered in barracks at the Arizona State Fairground, were soon transferred to other duties. Instead of guarding POWs and railroads facilities in sunny Arizona, they found themselves guarding trees in freezing Alaska.
So we have the Thanksgiving Day war, the Easter murder and the Christmas Escape.
Black Army Jazz Band from Ebay
I always watch Ebay auctions to see if I can find stuff relating to Rio de Janeiro, old Arizona and Papago Park, mostly maps or old pictures. Well, in July 2006 there were a few items taken by a Williams Army Airforce Base photographer that were up for sale. There were pictures of planes, the airfield and base and also some taken at Papago Park. This is a picture of the Ebay screen. I couldn't resist after seeing the picture. Who is that big guy? I bought the three pictures and now I will try to see if I can figure out who they are.
The title of the auctioned item was: Williams Field Party 1943 negatives Black Officers band. The item description was as follows: This is for a historian. These are 3X4 inch negatives taken by the base photographer of Williams Field, Mesa, Arizona. This party was held at Papago Park in Phoenix in 1943, original negatives. I do not know the occassion but there are black officers, wives, a jazz band with sheet music I can read: Jersey Bounce.
Here are the three pictures.... (Click on the image for larger versions)
What I would like to do is identify the people in the photos - any of them, but specially the big black guy or the MC holding the microphone, or even the Master Sergeant on the right. Notice also that the audience in the middle picture is a mixed race group. I count about 6 whites in the photo, on the left side. The tune "Jersey Bounce" was very very popular in the 1940s. It was sung by the greatest singers of the time and played constantly by the Big Band or Swing groups of the era (including Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Ella Fitzgerald and so on...). The term also also has sexual connotations, I understand.
They call it the Jersey Bounce,
A rhythm that really counts
The temperature always mounts
Where ever they play the
funny rhythm they play.
It started on Journal Square.
And somebody heard it there.
He put it right on the air,
And now you hear it everywhere.
Top Secret WW2 Army Project in Arizona
Just for fun I thought I would include this... There was one other item that was somewhat interesting being sold at the same time by the same vendor from the same lot on ebay, also taken by the same military photographer. I guess it wasn't all hard work and long marches, or maybe this was some secret military project. Anyway, here is the a picture of the screen for another item being auctioned at the same time: 1943 stripping nude negatives, odd bunch of photos WWII. Description: These came with a group of 4X5 photos of military aircraft taken during WWII at Williams Field, Arizona. You can see from the clothes that the pictures are from the early 40's and everything in the album was from 1943. Pay attention, these are not original negatives of the woman, these are 4X5 negatives, cut in two, of photographs in an album, but taken in 1943, so they are not going to be very sharp. There are 12 poses from fully clothed to totally nude on 6 half negatives. Like I said, probably some kind of secret military project to win the war. I did not buy these pictures. (Note: I usually do NOT put pictures of nude and naked women on my sites, but this page has two items, the POW card above and the ebay item. Sorry - but they are a part of Papago Park history and I apologize if I have offended anyone.. Anyway, both images are vague enough not to cause any damage to young or sensitive people).
Some more information...
Here are more two maps of the POW camp. The first is a small one I found somewhere years ago. The second one is a detailed copy of the official blueprints of the camp, from copies at the Elks Club and the University of Arizona Special collections. This is the map I used to make the overlay used above to locate all camp installations and buildings.
All 'Papago Park' Pages
Here are all the pages on this site that relate to the history, development, attractions and even the future of this area: