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The Great (Desert) Escape

Whenever I visit my grandchildren, I know I'll be kept busy. I also know that I'll be tired at night because I've been so busy during the day. So I don't bother taking any work or reading materials with me because I know I won't have any time--or energy--to do any!

This is in stark contrast to when I visit my 97-year-old father-in-law. I'm an early riser, getting up around 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. against his 8:00 a.m. And he turns in around 7:00 p.m. whereas I'm up until 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. So I always take work--and a book or two plus several magazines--whenever we visit him. And I usually finish them.

So when we visited one set of grandkids last week, I didn't bother packing any reading material. But once we got there, my daughter almost immediately handed me three books. Two were for me to keep; the third was different.

"Here. I think you'll enjoy this," she said as she handed me the third book. "I read it, and it's really interesting. But read it here. I want it back."

I took the book from her, wondering silently when I would find time to read it during the next five or six days. I looked at the cover. The Great Desert Escape: How the Flight of 25 German Prisoners of War Sparked One of the Largest Manhunts in American History, its title read.

Having discovered on a 2019 trip "out West" about POW camps throughout the South and Southwest, I was immediately curious. I had learned that one of those POW camps had been in Crossville, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up in Knoxville and later worked as a senior technical editor in the nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge. I had subsequently done extensive research on the murder of one German POW by his hard-core Nazi comrades in the Afrika Korps because they thought he had "cooperated" with their American captors.

Despite being on "vacation," I arose early each morning and read the book, never really expecting to finish it before we had to return home. But the chapters were short, and the reading went fast. The deeper I got into it, the more interesting it got and the faster I read.

I read early in the mornings. I read at least a chapter (sometimes more) before turning out the light at night. I read in the brief moments when the grandkids were swimming or doing things I couldn't. And on the last day before we left to return home, I finished it.

I had never read anything else by the author, Keith Warren Lloyd. He is a Navy veteran, a graduate of Arizona State University, where he studied history and political science, and a retired firefighter.

Lloyd has also written several other books, including Above and Beyond: The Incredible Story of Frank Luke Jr., Arizona's Medal of Honor Flying Ace of World War I; The Greatest POW Escape Stories Ever Told; Avenging Pearl Harbor: The Saga of America's Battleships in the Pacific War; and Dark Nights, Deadly Waters: American PT Boats at Guadalcanal.

The Great Desert Escape reminded me in many ways of the movie The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen. But Lloyd's book tells about the escape of German POWs who were members of the Kriegsmarine, U-boat crewmen and officers, not American POWs. It also reminded me of my earlier research into the control over the lives of other German POWs by the hard-core Nazis among them.

When the escape from Camp Papago, north of Tempe, Arizona, occurred, Army officials had to alert not only local, state, and national law enforcement agencies of the escape but also the general public. The press quickly learned how Axis POWs were being treated, and accusations soon erupted that the Army was "coddling" the very enemies who were killing Americans' sons, fathers, brothers, and other relatives in Europe.

The book details how the German prisoners, led by Captain Jurgen Wattenberg, masterminded the escape, arranged for the precise calculation and digging of a tunnel that exited Camp Papago within mere centimeters of their calculations, and eluded capture as they dealt with the harsh desert topography and climate of southern Arizona.

Most of the escapees--tired, hungry, and unable to deal with the desert conditions--turned themselves in or were captured within a few days. But several of them blended inconspicuously for several days into the communities through which they passed. (I couldn't help thinking of how easy it would be for the innumerable terrorists who have entered the United States illegally over the last several years similarly to blend in until they spring their diabolical plans on an oblivious and unsuspecting public.) Wattenberg was the last escapee to be captured.

History buffs and general readers alike would enjoy Lloyd's book. I certainly did. But don't take my word for it. Get a copy and read it for yourself. Then you'll know.

Meanwhile, now that I'm back home, I think I'll dive back into the book I was absorbed in before we left to visit the grandkids, Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy. The chapters are longer than Lloyd's, but the subject matter is no less interesting.

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