German POWs in North America

Escapes - Part II

Escape from the POW Camp

Like their American counterparts in Nazi POW camps, German prisoners preparing to escape were governed by an internal "Escape Committee." This powerful committee had to approve all plans and carefully study all preparations made by the prisoners. It determined if the men had the proper supplies, information, money, and other items before they were allowed to leave, and in case of failure, the committee made a thorough review of the entire effort. The wide spectrum of specialists in the prison community enabled the committee to draw upon a variety of talents. Tailors manufactured such articles as civilian suits; carpenters built tunnel shoring and trap doors; and tinsmiths, chemists, cartographers, photographers, and linguists provided the many details required for a successful escape. Former architects and artists were responsible for counterfeiting the documents that would enable escaped prisoners to move easily in American society. Social Security cards, military orders, drivers' licenses, letters of identification were often ingeniously forged with little more than an engraved plate carved on a piece of linoleum, India ink, salvaged cardboard, and an intricate "rubber stamp" carved from a raw potato. Yet, desplite the apparent crudeness of these makeshift items, hundreds of escaped prisoners had little or no difficulty in crossing the United States on trains and buses or in applying for employment on farms or in large cities. In the final analysis, however, no matter how thorough the preparation, or how convincing the camp-made civilian clothing and identification papers, the first and foremost problem was the actual escape from the POW camp.

"It was not complicated to escape," recalls former Afrika Korps major Tilman Kiwe in reflecting on his many escape attempts from Camp Trinidad, Colorado, and Camp Alva, Oklahoma. About his third attempt, he recalled:

"The organization of the camp first obtained an American uniform for me that the guards must have traded for our military decorations or pretty wood sculptures. A tailor in the camp fashioned a very smart civilian raincoat. The problem was that it was grey-green, but we were not short of chemists in the camp. With boiled onions they obtained a marvelous shade of orange-yellow, and with tea they darkened it a bit to a perfect, inconspicuous color.

Before leaving this time I worked to perfect myself in English, especially in American slang. There was a prisoner in the camp who had spent 23 years in America; he was an interpreter and he took me well in hand. I could soon pass absolutely for an American.... Preparations were making progress. The organization had furnished me with the necessary money-about a hundred dollars.... The day was set for the escape.... I slid under a barrack. They were all on blocks; though there wasn't much room, I changed clothes, and stepped out in the uniform of an American Lieutenant. I waited until around 10:30 and went to the guard post. The sentinel must have thought I was taking a walk. I gave him a little sign with my hand, said "Hello," threw him a vague salute, and hop! I was outside!"

Although the majority of escapees left merely by absenting themselves while the guard's attention was directed elsewhere. Many times more ingenious methods were employed. The prisoners cut wire fences, passed through the camp gates in makeshift American uniforms, smuggled themselves out of camps aboard commercial delivery trucks, jumped over the compound fences from barrack rooftops, climbed out of hospital windows, and tunneled like moles. At Camp Mexia, Texas, a group of prisoners decided to break out by constructing dummies which their comrades stood up at the back of the line during morning inspection so that none of the guards would know that the men had gone. "It worked fine," said former POW Werner Richter, "until one of the dummies fell over." At another Texas camp at Hearne, six German prisoners spent part of every day constructing a makeshift boat in a hidden area along the nearby Brazos River; it was a remarkable craft made of waterproof GI ponchos with umbrellas for sails. One night they escaped and sailed their improvisation down the Brazos, hoping to reach the Gulf Coast. It was an ambitious project, but they were apprehended less than five miles downriver from the camp. At Camp Somerset, Maryland, one prisoner made several "practice escapes" during which he actually left the camp and returned before making his final escape. A far more spectacular escape occurred on December 24, 1944, from Papago Park Camp not far from Phoenix, Arizona. While the guards were preoccupied with controlling a volatile POW demonstration with tear gas and clubs, 25 German prisoners, mostly submarine officers, escaped through a 200-foot tunnel which had been bored through rocky soil. "Construction of the tunnel must have taken many months," Colonel William A. Holden, camp commandant, confided to the press. "The tunnel started underneath an outdoor coal box and went from twelve to fifteen feet below the ground ... we believe the prisoners may have had only coal-stove fire shovels for tools in cutting the rock." The three U-boat captains who led the mass escape, for example, had first made a trial run all the way from the POW camp, 130 miles, to the Mexican border. They were more than 40 miles into Mexico when they were finally captured by the authorities and returned to camp with all information required for the later mass escape. Moreover, when the 25 escapees were finally recaptured, some were carrying packs of nearly 100 pounds, containing spare clothing, cereals, canned goods, medical supplies, maps, and cigarettes."

Similar tunnels were discovered at several other camps across the country. At Fort Ord, California, near Monterey, American authorities aborted an escape by some 500 German POWs when they stumbled upon a 120-foot tunnel running five feet underground from the edge of the compound toward the stockade limits. Working at night, the prisoners had dug through the sandy soil with garden tools, disposed of the excavated dirt by scattering it throughout the compound, and had shored the walls of the two and a half-foot wide tunnel with boards from fruit boxes, scrap lumber, and flattened tin cans. Much relieved at having frustrated the escape, the camp authorities called in the Army Engineers to dynamite the nearly-completed tunnel, and the prisoners were put to work filling in the excavation. A far more sophisticated tunnel was found at Camp Trinidad, Colorado, with the accidental discovery of a hidden, electrically-lighted, 150-foot tunnel which extended a full 65 feet beyond the fence. "The entrance to the tunnel was located beneath a trapdoor in a closet of a barracks building in the German officers' compound," explained camp commandant Lieutenant Colonel William S. Hannan, "and the exit was covered with foliage growing in dirtfilled boxes which would be lifted out by the escaping men." There was, in fact, no end to the variety of escape methods utilized by determined prisoners, and where ingenuity left off, persistence alone often succeeded. For Major Tilman Kiwe, however, now transferred to Camp Alva, Oklahoma-a site reserved for obdurate cases-success was still elusive:

"This time I prepared my escape more seriously. For three months I let my beard grow, and I completely transformed my appearance; I now had lacquered hair, parted in the middle, and glasses. And a real civilian suit this time. And, in order not to make the same mistake twice, I obtained a real American suitcase, so I would look less like a foreigner....

This time I almost made it into Mexico, but was arrested by the Border Patrol at the Rio Grande River.... And once again I found myself back in the prison camp, with my thirty days in jail as expected."

Indeed, through the war the majority of escapes, 65 percent, occurred by getting through, under, or over the stockade fence. This included tunneling, slipping through the gates in trash containers, hanging beneath trucks and jeeps, and every imaginable scheme in between. The second category, comprising 30 percent of the escapes, occurred by leaving work sites, by diverting the guard's attention, hiding among the agricultural produce, or simply walking away. The remaining 5 percent were listed by the War Department as "Miscellaneous," and generally comprised those escapes which occurred without the knowledge of the camp commander and came to light only on the capture of the escaped prisoner.

The War Department also noted that with regard to the type of prison camp from which these escapes took place, 46 percent occurred at base camps, 16 percent from branch camps, and as previously mentioned, 30 percent from work details. Finally, the War Department calculated the percentage of escapes which took place in each Service Command, which, for the month of May, 1944, were as follows:

Service Command Percentage of All Escapes Percentage of Prisoners held in USA
First 8.5 1.0
Second 0.0 2.0
Third 0.0 4.0
Fourth 8.5 18.0
Fifth 5.0 5.0
Sixth 7.0 5.5
Seventh 14.0 15.5
Eighth 43.0 40.0
Ninth 14.0 9.0
  100.0 100.0

Yet despite the dry, bureaucratic manner in which these statistics were noted by the government or the apparently cavalier manner in which Major Kiwe earlier described his many escape attempts, both groups were well aware that in each such escape the prisoner was taking his life in his hands. The wide range of security procedures discussed previously periodic searches, night patrols, guard dogs, and so forth-were primarily designed to deter potential escape attempts while still in the planning stage. The moment the plans were actuated, however, and the prisoners made a break to leave the camp, the guards were forced to consider their final option. Every large camp contained a so-called caution line that ran alongside the inner stockade fence or, in some cases, between the two stockade fences. The prisoner who crossed that caution line in an attempt to flee was liable to be fired upon. To prevent any misunderstanding on this point, the War Department took great pains to inform all American guards that they must wait until the last possible second before firing, that they must shout "Halt" at least three distinct times, and that they must remember, above all, that a prisoner's behavior and not his proximity to the fence was the critical factor. The decision was thus placed in the hands of the guards. The War Department further instructed the Camp Commandant to ensure that the POW community understood the significance of the guards' responsibility as well as the numerous variations of the word "Halt" which they might encounter. Nonetheless, by the end of the war, 56 German prisoners had risked the odds in their attempt to escape and had been shot to death. This final and powerful option provided the real force behind the various other security measures and was no doubt responsible for preventing an untold number of prisoner escapes. In the main, it was a judiciously-used deterrent-though there were exceptions.

On October 15, 1943, at Camp Concordia, Kansas, for example, a German prisoner was shot to death while trying to retrieve a soccer ball. Witnesses to the shooting stated that the prisoners were engaged in a football match and had been warned several times against chasing the ball beyond the caution line. In this case, the caution line was a 2 1/2 foot high guardrail with warning signs in both English and German some 18 feet from the main fence. One prisoner, Adolph Huebner, evidently defied the guard's warning and, according to the authorities, deliberately kicked the ball into the forbidden area. He then hopped over the rail and ran after the ball, looking back over his shoulder and taunting the sentinel. The guard fired once, shooting him through the head. Another incident occurred at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in November, 1944, when two POWs were shot to death by an American guard who was otherwise "unsuccessful in persuading the prisoners to leave the fence." In another case, under different circumstances, a mentally unbalanced German prisoner was shot as he was being transferred from Camp Robinson at Little Rock, Arkansas, to Mason General Hospital, a neuropsychiatric institution at Brentwood, Long Island. Traveling aboard a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train and guarded by two military policemen, Herman Mattschutt evidently went berserk among the crowded civilian commuters and was shot as he fought to climb through a window of the speeding train. During the last days of the war, at the branch camp at Ovid, Colorado, an American guard, newly returned from combat overseas, killed three German prisoners after "they had made threatening remarks and were acting as though they Intended to attack him." Similarly, at a branch camp near Parma, Ohio, an American guard shot and killed a prisoner after the German threatened him and advanced toward him "after being ordered to stop singing a song which ridiculed American servicemen." Such occurrences, however, were rare and involved only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners and American personnel involved.

Assistance by American citizens

Equally rare, though highly publicized, were the several instances in which the prisoners escaped or remained at large with the help of American citizens. The first such case came to the public's attention almost as an afterthought to an otherwise sensational escape and capture. On April 16, 1942, Lieutenant Hans Peter Krug, a German Luftwaffe pilot, broke out of the large POW camp at Bowmanville, Ontario. As part of the British Commonwealth, Canada had long held German and Italian prisoners, transferred to their shores from the overcrowded camps in England. On a far smaller scale, Canada encountered many of the difficulties that plagued the American experience. One such problem was escapes, and while only a handful ever successfully crossed into the United States, one of them was Hans Peter Krug. After stealing a boat near Windsor and paddling to Belle Island in the Detroit River, Krug fled rapidly through Detroit, Chicago, and Dallas en route to Mexico. He was arrested in San Antonio on May 1 when a hotel clerk became suspicious and called the F.B.I., and within days, Krug was back in his Canadian POW camp. Case closed. But, nearly a month later, The New York Times announced that U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle would bring the first treason indictment of the war against a Max Stephan of Detroit for supplying Krug with food, lodging, and money. Max Stephan was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, though this sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Nearly two years later, on February 19, 1944, an American army guard was arrested by the FBI and charged with treason for helping two German prisoners escape from Camp Hale, Colorado. The Germans were apprehended by Mexican authorities three miles south of the Mexican border and returned to American officials. An investigation revealed that one of the prisoners was in fact their U.S. Army camp guard, 23-year-old Private Dale H. Maple, who had provided them with supplies and the opportunity to escape. The guard, it was learned, had a long history of pro-Nazi sympathy and had, in fact, been dismissed from Harvard University's R.O.T.C. program because of his rabid political views. Not one to be caught unaware, the ever-present J. Edgar Hoover announced that Maple's views were known to the FBI as early as 1940, though one is forced to wonder how a man with such visible pro-Nazi sentiments was allowed to become a POW guard over the people he most admired. A month later, yet another revelation was made public: Maple had not been alone-five additional guards and three WACS were also involved in the escape. Within weeks, all nine, including Maple, were brought before a court-martial at Camp Hale, pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and except for Maple received sentences ranging from four to six months' confinement. Private Maple was charged with desertion and aiding the enemy. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. President Roosevelt commuted the sentence to life, and in 1946 it was further reduced to ten years.

In a less sinister case, two guards at Camp Ellis, Illinois, evidently anxious for the company of their new-found friend, provided a suit of civilian clothes to a German prisoner and took him along with them to a tavern for the evening. All three were arrested; the German was returned to camp, and the two guards were sentenced to a surprisingly harsh term of five years at hard labor.

A rather unusual case of civilian aid to escaping German prisoners occurred the following month in Colorado. Two Afrika Korps corporals, who had escaped from Camp Trinidad, Colorado, were captured by the FBI several days later in Watrous, New Mexico. Among their possessions, the authorities found a photograph showing the two Nazis embracing three Japanese women who turned out to be Japanese-American sisters working on a farm near the camp. The sisters were Nisei who had been relocated from their homes in Inglewood, California, to the Granada Internment Center at Apache, Colorado, and who were, therefore, prisoners themselves. Whether their short relationship with the Germans was ideological or merely biological, the fact is that the Nisei girls aided their escape. At their well-publicized trial, in which the two Germans acted as witnesses against the girls, the jury returned a guilty verdict to the reduced charge of conspiracy to commit treason. The girls each received a two-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.

The sensational publicity which surrounded these infrequent cases of American aid to escaping enemy POWs, and the wide range of sentences meted out revealed a major judicial problem. While there was a law prohibiting any aid to a civilian prisoner escaping from a penal or correctional institution, there was simply no comparable law against aiding fleeing prisoners of war. The escaped POWs, after all, were not classified as fugitives from justice, nor military deserters, nor wanted criminals. Thus, the courts were left to choose between the wartime law against treason (which, under certain rare circumstances, was indeed applicable) or the far less severe charges of obstructing justice or failing to notify the authorities about a military emergency.

The first step toward solving this problem was finally proposed by Attorney General Francis Biddle in May 1944, but the Congress of the United States did not pass such legislation until April 30, 1945! On that date, Public Law 47 was approved, making it unlawful "for any person to procure the escape of any enemy prisoner of war or civilian internee, or to advise, connive at, aid, or assist in an escape, or to harbor, protect, or otherwise conceal an escaped prisoner of war." In short, nearly anyone who knowingly dealt with an escaped POW was now liable under the law, and the maximum penalty was $10,000 fine or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both. The new law was welcome, the more so since there had been several earlier cases in which this legislation would have been used to good advantage. But justice had already been served, however capriciously, and the courts were now to learn that with the war nearly over, the legislation was to be of little value in the few cases that were to occur. Moreover, with the end of the war, the very definition of "prisoner of war" came into question: If the war was over, were these men still prisoners of war? And if they were no longer prisoners of war, how could civilians be prosecuted for treason after aiding their escape? The government's solution to these vexing questions became one of compromise. The few remaining defendants in post-war America would indeed find themselves liable to the provisions of Public Law 47, but with the passage of the war years came a relaxation of the full weight of the statute's penalties. Two major cases at the end of 1945 illustrate the government's post-war position concerning aid to escaped prisoners.

On November 23, 1945, six months after the end of the war in Europe, the FBI arrested Joseph Ottman, an Austrian-born American citizen, and charged him with treason. An investigation revealed that Ottman, a New York subway employee, had befriended two German prisoners who had escaped from Camp Hull, Canada, and had allowed them to use his lodging for a single night before they moved on. The two prisoners were apprehended 24 hours after leaving Ottman's home and disclosed his name. The 43-year-old Ottman was arraigned before the United States Commissioner on May 26, 1946, and charged under the new Public Law 47. Although liable to a penalty of ten years' imprisonment and $10,000 fine, Ottman was finally sentenced to serve one year and two days in the federal penitentiary. He ultimately served his year in prison and was placed on probation until 1950.

The final case, rather bizarre in light of the public's hostility toward the enemy, involved a 45-year-old American woman-the proud mother of three GIs-who was arrested by the FBI and Army intelligence officers for cohabiting with an escaped German prisoner of war. According to the FBI, Mrs. Fannie Welvaert was employed at Lovell General Hospital, Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where she became acquainted with 22-year-old Horst Becker, a German prisoner detailed to the hospital from the nearby camp. In a collaborative effort, Becker escaped from Fort Devens on September 13, 1945, after which the couple moved in with Mrs. Welvaert's parents. A month later, a quarrel with Mrs. Welvaert's mother drove them to a rooming house in Worcester where they were arrested on November 1. She was convicted under Public Law 47 and sentenced on November 10, 1945, to six months on each of two counts. Ultimately, the sentences were suspended, and she was placed on probation for two years running from January 22, 1946, to January 22, 1948. As with the Ottman case, the stringent penalties were greatly tempered by the shift in public interest to bread-and-butter domestic issues as well as the obvious absence of treasonous motivation. Nonetheless, one point should be clearly established. Considering that a total of 1,073 German prisoners escaped between November 1942, and February 1, 1945, the number of cases which involved aid from American citizens was insignificant: less than 20. Thus, between the many security obstacles, including the guards' option to shoot, and the rarity of civilian aid or sympathy, escape was far from a simple matter.


Nazi prisoners of war in America - Krammer
The Faustball Tunnel - Moore
New York Times

Compiled by Glenn A. Sytko