It was 50 years ago this week, and German sailors at the Papago Prison Camp were having a rowdy good time, singing, drinking and breaking bottles.

Their American guards thought it was a patriotic demonstration. But it really was just a distraction --25 of the German prisoners were quietly scurrying through a hand-dug tunnel into the chillly waters of the Arizona Cross Cut Canal.The Great Escape had begun.

Within 48 hours, all of Phoenix was on the lookout for the POWs who orchestrated one of the most dramatic escapes from an American military compound during World War II.

It would be more than a month before the last of the prisoners, U-boat commander Jurgen Wattenberg, was captured after asking a Phoenix resident for directions.

"Warnings were on the radio that dirty Nazis were on the loose," said Lloyd Clark, a Phoenix historian who has devoted his life to researching the escape. "They were described as mean and terrible, but they weren't intending any harm. They were escaping to get back to their home country."

Carrying rucksacks filled with clothing and supplies, the Germans crawled ghrough a 180-foot tunnel that they had begun digging in August with spoons, cans and tools supplied by American officers.

The officers thought the POWs were building a court for "fist ball," a game similar to volleyball. The prisoners stuffed their pockets with dirt and later dumped it on the fist-ball court, while wood from a coal box was used to make a wagon to haul dirt.

Military officials weren't aware of the escape until Herbert Fuchs, a U-boat crewman, hitchhiked a ride into Phoenix and surrendered at the sheriff's office the next day.

Larry Jorgensen, 85, of Scottsdale, was one of the guards who found the tunnel.

"It was narrow and I could hardly turn around," he said. "At the deepest section, which was 16 feet under the perimeter road, my head was rubbing underneath the tunnel. My chin was in the water, and I was on all four legs. I was afraid I would drown."

Earlier this month, nearly 100 people gathered near the site of the camp, which housed more than 2,000 German POWs from late 1943 to early 1946. These days, the area-- near the Phoenix Zoo-- is residential, full of ranch style homes and towering palm trees.

Wattenberg, 94, was unable to travel to the ceremony but wrote a letter expressing his appreciation for the friendship America and Germany now share.

Alfred Dietrich, one of the POWs who helped make the noise that covered up the escape, said the war and the years he spent at the camp taught him to appreciate freedom.

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"To know what freedom is, one has to be in America," he said.

"One should never forget what has happened. All the more reason to enjoy the present in working together."

Dietrich, 71, spent 14 months at the camp and said he has more friends today in Arizona that his hometown of Essen, Germany.

"The prison guards are now the greatest friends," he said. "I can visit places where I was a prisoner, and now I'm a guest."

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