The Not-So-Great Escapes
One of my favorite World War II movies is The Great Escape—Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, David McCallum (remember him from The Man from UNCLE?—he’s 87 now). I’ve probably watched that movie at least a half dozen times over the years since it was first released in 1963. Based on a true story, the film portrays how seventy-six British and American prisoners escaped through a tunnel from Stalag Luft III, a POW camp in the German province of Lower Silesia (now part of Poland), in March 1944. What isn’t perfectly clear at the end of the movie is that only three of the seventy-six escapees actually made it to freedom. The rest were recaptured, and fifty of those were eventually killed by the Gestapo on direct orders from Adolf Hitler.
Speaking of escapes from POW camps, I bet you’re wondering if there were any attempts at Camp Algona. As a matter of fact, there were. Not many, and all escapees either returned to camp of their own volition or were apprehended and returned by the authorities. Adequate security measures, contented prisoners (for the most part), the location of the camp (in the middle of America), plenty of extra-curricular activities, and a relatively busy work schedule for many of the prisoners were no doubt some of the reasons for the low number of escape attempts. But camp officials took these attempts seriously, as they interrupted routines, usually involved civilian law enforcement personnel, and caused concern among the local community.
In July 2016, I discovered several Camp Algona documents at the National Archives that addressed various escape situations.
Before the mid-June 1944 arrival of Camp Algona’s new commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur T. Lobell, three POWs had made escape attempts from the camp. Two men cut a hole in a fence during a big rainstorm, headed west to Whittemore, and ended up on a farm east of West Bend. A farmer called the authorities in West Bend, and the prisoners were taken there for the night. Camp officials were notified the next day and immediately arranged to have the two men returned to the camp. I don’t think the FBI was involved in that particular escape.
The FBI was involved in the next one, though. After the evening headcount on May 30th, a prisoner escaped through a large rainwater culvert. He spent the night in a wooded area just outside Algona’s city limits. The next morning, he walked into town, came upon a man sweeping his sidewalk, and asked him to call the sheriff. The sheriff contacted the FBI in Des Moines, then he escorted the prisoner back to camp. Officials at the camp were not aware this man had “left confinement without permission.” Surprise!
On a summer night in 1944, one prisoner managed to leave the camp for a few hours and return undetected. He wanted to meet up with a woman who was a civilian employee at the camp. It was a complicated plan, but he succeeded because he was able to squeeze his slender body through a space that would have stopped a larger man. The woman and her brother found him on the road, and they spent a couple of hours together before he snuck back in. Not long after that adventure, the prisoner was transferred to a camp in Minnesota. The following summer, he attempted another escape, but that time, he was caught.
There were escape attempts at several Camp Algona system branch camps in Minnesota—at Fairmont, Bena, Faribault, Owatonna, and New Ulm—where security was not as tight as it was at the Algona base camp. In all cases, the prisoners were apprehended and returned to camp for punishment. Most of the escape adventures lasted less than twenty-four hours; however, in late October 1944, two men from the Bena camp in northern Minnesota got out and managed to remain undetected for six days. Bad news from home gave them reason to plan their escape. They intended to find a small rowboat and travel down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico where they hoped to find a ship bound for a neutral port in Europe. Bad weather (a snowstorm—they’re in Minnesota, remember) thwarted their journey, and they finally surrendered to officials near Grand Rapids, about thirty-five miles from Bena.
According to a document from the Geneva Convention, Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 27 July 1929, punishment for those who attempted to escape from a prisoner of war camp amounted to no more than thirty days of solitary confinement and food restrictions (bread and water) for no more than two weeks. If a prisoner was absent for a short time (a few hours), and he was able to convince the commanding officer that he intended to return to the camp, the confinement was often less than thirty days.
Ten thousand German prisoners were confined at Camp Algona and its branch camps from April 1944 to February 1946. During that time, only eighteen POWs managed to escape. None of the escapees intended to do harm to civilians or their property. The system worked.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.