The Great Desert Escape
How the Flight of 25 German Prisoners of War Sparked One of the Largest Manhunts in American History
Keith Warren Lloyd
Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2019, 251 pages
Book Review published on: August 16, 2019
The Great Desert Escape is an extremely well-written account of the planning, execution, escape, and eventual recapture of twenty-five Kriegsmarine (German navy) prisoners of war (POWs) in December 1944 from Camp Papago Park. Camp Papago Park, located just east of Phoenix was an Axis POW camp that primarily housed crewmembers rescued from sunken German U-boats.
Without the book being a history lesson, the author Keith Lloyd provides his readers with the perfect amount of background information on the U.S. War Department, Germany’s U-boat fleet, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Office of the Provost Marshal General, and Axis POWs in America during World War II. He brilliantly chronicles life inside and around Camp Papago Park, from the absolute absurd lack of accountability and discipline displayed by American soldiers guarding the German POWs to the local law enforcement and civilian population that had to live with nearly 1,500 Nazis in their backyards.
The book’s title immediately brings to mind a book of the same name: The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill. However, instead of British POWs tunneling out of the Allied POW camp Stalag Luft III, in Lloyd’s book, German sailors tunnel out of the Arizona desert in ground referred to as “caliche”—ground that was so hard the Army Corps of Engineers ditched their jackhammers in favor of dynamite in order to make fencepost holes.
The Battle of the Atlantic, one of the longest campaigns of World War II, mainly pitted German U-boats against Allied shipping convoys attempting to resupply forces in the European Theater of Operations. Although the Germans were initially successful in sinking merchant vessels, by mid-1943, amid staggering U-boat losses, the Battle for the Atlantic was essentially over. The Great Desert Escape details the process the captured German submariners underwent from their questioning at the secretive Joint Interrogation Center at Fort Hunt, Virginia, to their trek across country to one of the more than five hundred POW camps located in the United States. Many Americans do not know that every state except Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont had at least one POW camp within its borders. At its peak, the POW camps housed over 425,000 German, Italian, and Japanese POWs.
Camp Papago Park was a 160-acre plot of land carved out of the arid, sun-scorched Arizona desert of what is now a ten-block section of Phoenix between N. 58 St. and N. 68th St. As Lloyd describes, the German POWs coined Camp Papago Park as Schlaraffenland (Cockaigne)—the mythical land of milk and honey. Prison standards to include contraband alcohol and daily mustering were remiss, and prisoners were not required to perform physical labor, although many did to cope with the monotony and boredom of captivity. Several of the prisoners even drove themselves off the camp in Army trucks on work details with no guards providing supervision. Lloyd candidly details the abject ineptitude of the officer cadre in charge of overseeing Camp Papago Park and the cunning ingenuity of the German naval POWs. One cannot help but see the uncanny similarities, in total reverse of course, between Camp Papago Park and Stalag Luft 13 in the CBS sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. The main difference was that Col. Wilhelm Klink’s camp had a perfect zero-escape record, whereas the colonels in charge at Camp Papago Park had no idea who escaped from their camp on any given day, let alone when and where they did so.
Lloyd grapples with the incompetence and bungling leadership assigned to Camp Papago Park but is perhaps most astounded that no one was ever held accountable for the mass escape that occurred. After three-and-a-half months of digging a 3 feet wide, 6 feet deep, and nearly 200-foot long tunnel, the escape itself commenced on the Christmas eve of 1944 at approximately 6:30 pm. One by one, under the cover of rowdy POW demonstrations from compound 1B, the twenty-five members of the Fluggruppen (flight group) slipped out of Camp Papago Park into the cool, sodden Arizona landscape. Once outside the fence, the escapees, in groups of twos and threes, split up in different directions to head, a mere twenty-five miles southwest of Camp Papago Park, to their primary destination: Mexico. Their plan was to link up with Nazi sympathizers in Mexico who would assist them in returning to the Fatherland. Lloyd masterfully details each escape groups’ peregrination across the harsh Arizona landscape, the fear felt by the local populace, and the recapture of all twenty-five escapees by FBI agents, local police, and Tohono O’odham Native American trackers. The Arizona desert, as the Germans soon found out, was no Schlaraffenland, with many escapees turning themselves in within hours or days of their breakout.
The Great Desert Escape is an enlightening, enjoyable, and extremely quick read that brings to life the little-known history of Axis POWs held in American camps during World War II. Although there are no footnotes, I found myself tearing through the extensive sources section (bibliography), researching and fact checking the author repeatedly on some of his most far-reaching, almost astonishing assertions. If your measure of an interesting book (that also holds your attention) is that it makes you read more information on the various topics discussed within, then The Great Desert Escape is for you.
Book Review written by: Capt. James F. Buckley, U.S. Navy, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia