Rights offering detail :
Still Nachte
June 27, 2017
William Hazelgrove
Non-fiction: Narrative
The movie The Great Escape enthralled people all over the world with the story of daring American and British pluck in tunneling out of a German POW camp and making a run for freedom. The Americans and British built an elaborate tunnel, made civilian clothes, created identification, dispersed tons of dirt from the tunnel in the camp, and did this all under the nose of the camp guards. But there was a German version as well.

During World War II, 425,000 Germans were imprisoned in 700 camps in the United States. These numbers were never revealed to the public for fear such a large number of German prisoners might incite panic among civilians. The camps were scattered around the United States away from major population centers. Many were in the more temperate parts of the country in consideration of heating and construction of the camps. The West was considered ideal.

Germans for the most part found accommodations in the prison camps very favorable. Many found the camps better than their cold-water flats in Germany and were awed at the size and industrial might of America. They were amazed that luxurious Pullman cars transported them from Liberty Ships to the camps and that their meals were substantial and camp life relatively pleasant. Labor details were not strenuous and they had health care, books to read, and even were allowed outside the camps on an honor system.

But there were Germans who saw it as their duty to escape as did American prisoners of war. On December 23, 1944, the German POWS in the Navy’s Papago Park Prison outside of Phoenix had a Christmas party. The carol Stille Nacht or Silent Night was sung by all and the guards outside the wooden barracks could hear the throaty German voices. It was cold out and the guards paused to listen to the old carol of their youth not hearing the sound of twenty-five men passing beneath them in a tunnel the Germans had been working on for five months.

The sixteen foot deep and 178 foot long tunnel had lights and fresh air pumped in and could fit a three person kayak built to ford a nearby river leading to Mexico. The men had identification and civilian clothes and were led by a charismatic U-boat commander, Jurgen Wattenberg who had a reputation as a Super Nazi, a man who could not be contained in American POW camps.

The story of the escape parallels the American Great Escape with the same problems of disposing of dirt under the nose of the American guards and how to dig without the Americans becoming aware. Construction of a volleyball court would allow most of the dirt to be deposited into an excavation meant for the prisoner’s exercise.

The story of Wattenberg who had lost his U-boat to British destroyers is of a man who would never give up and who brought all his ingenuity into this elaborate escape that would free twenty-five Germans. The Americans launched a massive manhunt and widespread panic swept Phoenix. The U-boat commander would be the last to be caught and would live in a cave outside of Phoenix for a month and go into the city and mix with the local population.

The Great German Christmas Escape was just as detailed, just as ingenious, and amazingly similar to the Allied breakout in Germany. The German escape was planned by a U-boat commander with meticulous attention to detail that allowed twenty-five Germans to escape in a single night in 1944. The escape that began on December 23 shows the improvisational ingenuity that imprisonment brought to both sides of the war and the strange intersection of war with civilian populations.
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