One escape attempt I found especially interesting occurred at Camp Algona’s branch camp in Bena, Minnesota in October 1944. The camp was located in a heavily wooded area in northern Minnesota, at the headwaters of the Mississippi river. German POWs Walter Mai and Heinz Schymalla escaped through a hole they made in a fence on the east side of the camp. They took with them some food they saved from rations, extra clothing, and various other items such as knives, cigarettes, a dictionary, and medicine. They then found a boat named “Lillie Marlene 10” that POWs at the camp built and used and set out on Lake Winnibigoshish. They decided to try to boat down the Mississippi river to New Orleans and then across the Gulf to Mexico and board a neutral boat to Germany as stowaways or purchase passage with money they hoped to earn along the way.
After a few days the POWs ran into an old man fishing on the lake. The man questioned them and left, saying he was going home. The POWs started packing their luggage to continue their journey on foot on a nearby road. However, after only traveling about 500 yards, a police car came, blocking their exit out of the woods. Two policemen emerged from the car. At that point, the POWs thought they had little chance of escape and called out to the policemen from their hiding spot.
The POWs were returned to the camp. They were punished with 30 days confinement. 14 of those days they were placed on a restricted diet of bread and water (as long as the Post Surgeon deemed them physically able to withstand the diet).
The POWs asserted they wanted to escape so they could continue fighting for Germany in Europe. Heinz Schymalla stated in his testimony, “I can’t see why my father has to fight at 60 years old and also my brother.”
The artifact of the week (see document below) is a translation of the letter the Schymalla and Mai left behind at the camp, detailing their reasons why they wished to leave Camp Bena as well as hints of their (at the time) escape route.
Why do you think escape attempts are so fascinating? Would you like to see more information about escapes? Do you think Camp Algona POW Museum should have a temporary exhibit on escape attempts at the branch camps? Comment below!
If you would like to learn more about escape attempts at Camp Algona, please come visit us!
-Annette, the Intern