The men who broke out of Alcatraz with a spoon

When the BBC’s Charlton visited the site, a year after its closure, he was well aware of the prison’s formidable reputation for unrelenting guards, harsh conditions and the punishing sea winds that the convicts had to endure. “A relentless wind which never seems to stop, howls and echoes through the bars,” he said. “Built over the rambling passages of an old fort… the foundations today of Alcatraz are rotting and breaking up.”

An elaborate plan

With Morris taking the lead, the four prisoners began to concoct an elaborate and audacious plan to escape. Over a period of several months, the men chiselled away at the salt-damaged concrete around the air vent under their sinks. Using metal spoons purloined from the dining hall, a drill made from a vacuum-cleaner motor and discarded saw blades, they dug through to an unguarded utility corridor. To mask the noise of the drill, Morris would play his accordion during the daily hour set aside when music was played to the prisoners. Once they had created a hole large enough to crawl through to the corridor, they climbed up to the empty top level of the cellblock and set up a secret workshop. To hide the cell-wall holes, they fashioned fake papier-mâché grills from prison library magazines. Once they were in their workshop, they set about constructing a 6x14ft makeshift rubber raft and life-vests made from more than 50 stolen raincoats. To seal the rubber, they melted it using the prison’s hot steam pipes. They then converted a concertina into a tool to inflate the raft and fashioned paddles out of bits of plywood.

But while they worked, they needed to conceal their absence from the guards who periodically made night-time checks. So, they sculpted papier-mâché versions of their heads from soap, toothpaste and toilet paper. To make them look more realistic, they used real hair from the prison barbershop floor and painted them in flesh tones using stolen art supplies. These they would then place in their beds, with bundles of clothes and towels under their blankets in the shape of their bodies to make it look like they were asleep. As they worked on their makeshift escape gear, they were also looking for a way out. Using plumbing piping as steps, they climbed 30 feet (9.1m) and prised open the ventilator at the top of a shaft. They crafted a fake bolt out of soap to keep it in place.

More like this:
• How D-Day began with a death-defying mission
• The US couple who survived the Alaskan wilderness
• Britain’s mysterious WW2 ‘island of death’

Finally, on the night of 11 June 1962, they were ready to put their ingenious plan into motion. Leaving the dummy heads in their beds to fool the guards, Morris and the two Anglin brothers crawled out through the holes on the cell walls. West’s escape was scuppered when he was unable to get out of his cell in time, so the others left without him. They climbed up to the cellhouse roof, ran across it – carrying their makeshift boat, in sight of the guard tower – shimmied down an outside drainpipe, crossed the prison yard, scaled two successive 12-ft (3.7m) barbed wire fences and scrambled down a steep embankment to the north-eastern shore of the island. At the water’s edge, they inflated their boat and disappeared into the night. The alarm wasn’t raised until the following morning, when the decoy heads were discovered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *