Did You Know: Papago Park Was A Prisoner Of War Camp

September 20, 2013

The camp opened nearly 70 years ago and was located just north of where KJZZ Tempe studios are located today. The prisoner of war camp was one of 500 across the country.

Prisoners A newspaper article with pictures of the escaped POW fugitives courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society. (Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez-KJZZ)

There were POW camps in many major U.S. cities. Arizona was the home to 24, one right here in the Valley at Papago Park. Did You Know Papago POW Camp was one of the largest in Arizona?  

“The camp at Papago was for naval personnel only. This was the same type of structure of allied prisoner of war camps in Germany," said Steve Hoza. "Papago was a camp for German Naval personnel like U-Boat Captains, their crews, merchant mariners and land-based naval personnel that were captured in North Africa."

Hoza is the author of the book "PW: First Person Accounts of German Prisoners of War in Arizona." It is a collection of stories and letters told by many POWs stationed in Arizona.

Hoza said Papago was first an Italian camp between November 1943 to June 1944. Shortly after, it became a POW camp for Germans. He said all the camps in Arizona were mini cities.

”The camps were self-contained towns. They had their own hospitals, fire department," Hoza said. "The prisoners put out their own newspaper. They had their own power plants, sewage system.”

Papago held 31,000 POWs in one square mile area. The boundaries were Thomas Road on the north, McDowell Road to the south, Galvan Parkway on the east and the Buttes, where today’s Arizona National Guard is located, on the west.

Hoza said Papago was a lax POW camp. The prisoners were allowed to work outside the compound.

”I knew prisoners who worked at the Biltmore Hotel as gardeners, they worked in laundries in downtown Phoenix. They worked on the irrigation canals,” Hoza explained. “They were paid an hourly wage to maintain the irrigation canals if the canals were full, and they say after two to three weeks the people didn’t take notice of them.”

The Papago POW Camp is most notable for the Arizona version of "The Great Escape," well, actually it is the "Not-So Great Escape." More than two dozen Germans broke out through a tunnel that took them three months to dig. The men decided to take along a kayak they built and carried it out in pieces.

They saw a map showing a flowing Gila River and decided that would be their escape route but were forced to walk after realizing there were only puddles in the river. All were captured in less than two month. Hoza said only two made it as far as 10 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border.

"One of the prisoners told me, 'You know I can laugh about it now, but at the time we were very down heartened,'" Hoza said. "They look at it as more as almost a fraternity prank than anything else. They really didn’t think that they could go anywhere, but they had to.”

There are a few remnants of the camp that still exist today. The Elks Club Lodge near 64th Street and Oak Street was the American Officers Club on the camp. South of there is the foundation for one of the guard towers. Just two weeks ago the last living escapee that nearly made it to Mexico died in Germany. 

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