PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- A popular Phoenix landmark, full of hiking trails and subdivisions, has a little known secret that a Valley firefighter is bringing to light.

Near 66th Street and Oak, there are rows of homes and a walkway along a canal. A couple blocks away sit a baseball and softball stadium, an archery range and the iconic red butte formations.

[VIDEO: How Papago Park used to be a WWII prisoner of war camp]

This is Papago Park.

“They run on this path. They ride their bikes on this path, and they have no idea that it’s at this very spot here is where a very incredible piece of Arizona history occurred," said Queen Creek Fire Department Capt. Keith Lloyd.

[READ MORE: Good Morning Arizona stories]

Lloyd wrote and published a book on what used to be here.

During World War II, Papago Park was home to a prisoner of war camp for roughly 3,000 Germans.

There were more than 20 POW camps in Arizona.

Lloyd gathered photos in his research from the national archives in College Park, Maryland.

Prisoners were transferred here to harvest crops in Queen Creek, Eloy, Chandler, Mesa and Litchfiled Park.

“They lived in fairly harsh conditions. There’s no air conditioning back then. They lived in primitive huts," said Lloyd.

At what is now a subdivision of homes, sat Compound 1A. This was a place for prisoners who were dubbed the troublemakers, political agiators, hardcore nazis and escape artists.

“The problem was that they took very intelligent, highly trained, technically competent German naval prisoners, and they put them in a compound together with nothing to do," said Lloyd.

In Lloyd’s book, The Great Desert Escape, he shares the story of how months of planning among 25 prisoners led to the largest POW escape on American soil during World War II.

“They dug a 178-foot tunnel, and it ended here on the Arizona Crosscut Canal," said Lloyd.

Once they crawled through the tunnel, most of the prisoners headed south for Mexico and were later captured, but three went north to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and hid in a cave for several days.

They were known as the "crazy boat men."

“They actually made a handmade canoe and they took it out through the tunnel. They had seen a blue line on the map of Arizona that was the Gila River, and they thought it would be a great idea," said Lloyd.

Their plan was to float down the Gila River, to the Colorado River, then down to the Sea of Cortez, and eventually to freedom.

“Well, they carried the boat to the Gila River and saw that it was a dry bed, so they had to walk,” said Lloyd.

They were later recaptured around Gila Bend.

Today, the only remnants of this piece of Arizona history left is the officer’s club, which is now the Elk’s Lodge at 64th Street and Oak.

 


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