It was a routine bed check. That is, until a note was found on the bunk where a German prisoner was supposed to be asleep Up North in a Minnesota lumber camp housing Nazi prisoners of war near the shores of Lake Winnibigoshish.

A second bed, belonging to Nazi Cpl. Heinz Schymalla, 22, was also empty at 9:45 p.m. on Sunday night, Oct. 29, 1944, at Algona-Branch Camp No. 4 near Bena, Minn.

The lightly secured stockade in the woods was one of the World War II prison work camps established in Minnesota, joining facilities in Owatonna, Faribault and Fairmont.

They all used prison labor to offset worker shortages left when lumbermen and farmers were siphoned off to battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. Schymalla and his 21-year-old, note-writing comrade, Walter Mai, were among 208 Germans cutting timber for Minnesota’s pulp industry.

Make that 206.

“Our Fatherland, Our Homeland are now in a very difficult position and needs all available sons,” Mai wrote in German. Mai and Schymalla had been captured in Tunisia in May 1943.

Prisoners of war like Schymalla and Mai earned 80 cents a day in canteen coupons for their sawing and chopping. They also received mail. One letter — detailing how his 60-year-old father and brother had been conscripted to join the beleaguered Nazi military — sparked Schymalla to make his dramatic jail break.

A sense of duty compelled him to hatch a getaway plan to get back to the front. When he whispered his intentions to Mai, they agreed to make a joint run for it.

Mai and Schymalla found some unmarked extra clothing in a supply room to replace their prison garb. They each sneaked bacon, bread and sausages from their daily meal allotments and accepted similar gifts from fellow prisoners.

Armed with a small map, they realized that Lake Winnibigoshish connected with the Mississippi River. If they could make it to New Orleans, they hoped, maybe a neutral ship would ferry them home.

“The assumptions that led the men to such hopes were absurd, but their small maps apparently gave no understanding of the distances involved,” historian George Lobdell wrote in a 1994 Minnesota History article.

The key to their escape was some scrap wood camp officials allowed prisoners to fashion into boats for swimming in the middle of the lake.

Along the lakeshore, Schymalla and Mai covertly hid one of the boats, christened Lili Marlene No. 10 after a popular German folk ballad. The camp gate stayed open until 10 p.m. for workers coming and going. For a couple nights before their breakout, they sneaked supplies to the boat. They didn’t pack lightly, smuggling out a suitcase, blankets, pillows, a cigarette-rolling machine, matches, a dictionary, aspirin — and even a chess set.

They chose a Saturday night, after the 11 p.m. bed check, knowing there would be no Sunday morning head count.

After the only guard made his rounds about 11:15 p.m., Mai and Schymalla dug beneath the wire fence and pulled some strands apart, escaping to Lake Winnibigoshish and their boat.

They had to push their makeshift skiff because its weight threatened to capsize the vessel.

FBI and local law enforcement agents swarmed into the woods by 2:30 a.m. Monday — more than a day behind. Max’s goodbye note, which mentioned the frozen Bering Strait and its proximity to Japanese allies, threw off the searchers. So did a count of the boats that erroneously determined that none were missing.

Traveling at night, by water, the pair made it more than a dozen miles down the Mississippi the first three nights. Late on Oct. 31, Night 4, they floated beneath the Hwy. 2 and Great Northern Railroad bridges to a bend just south of Ball Club Lake — another 8 miles, but still nearly 1,500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, Minnesota weather — what else? — walloped their plans. A windy snowstorm slowed progress that Wednesday. They made it 4 miles Thursday but took a wrong turn into Jay Gould Lake on Friday, missing the Mississippi turnoff. A resort owner named J.G. Shoup followed them, catching up to them as they cooked sausages for lunch.

Just resting, they explained. Shoup called Itasca County Sheriff Otto Litchke, who made a slow search. Schymalla and Mai hid in bushes 15 yards from the sheriff.

Not wanting to get shot, they finally stood up with their arms high and shouted: “Hello, Hello. We are here.”

At a hearing, they were sentenced to 30 days in confinement, including 14 with only bread and water.

All told, 13 German prisoners made brief escapes from work camps in Minnesota during World War II — including three who slipped away from an Owatonna stockade Aug. 16, 1945 — just as the war ended. The trio went to the Steele County Fair and rode the Ferris wheel before being recaptured.

 

Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com.