Saturday, August 8, 2009

75th Anniversary of Alcatraz - Alumni and Untold Escape Story

It is the escape story from Alcatraz that's 'never been told,' said former guard, Bill Long, today, speaking on the Rock as part of the celebrations of the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the federal penitentiary.

The untold story concerns the most ingenious of escapes, that of the Anglin brothers and Frank Lee Morris.

Also giving their stories were ex-bank robber Darwin Coon and other former guards and their families who lived on the Rock during its illustrious penitentiary days from 1934 to 1963. Another ex-con, John Dekker, also a bank robber, was due to be there but was ill.

The Alcatraz Alumni as they are known have been gathering annually since the 50th Anniversary in 1984. The anniversary event was a sell-out, giving 5,000 people the chance to meet over 75 former residents of the Rock.

The story, however, that has
not been told is what happened on the evening watch of June 11, 1962, the night of the escape. Up until now it has been thought that the prisoners escaped without being noticed at all. But, says Bill, they were heard by two officers who failed to react to warning signs.

'I was the one that discovered they were gone,' he said.

In 1962, John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Lee Morris had burrowed through their cell walls by enlarging vents at the back, giving them access to a cavity in the cell block. They made false wall segments to cover the holes. From there they scaled up pipes to an air vent and cut away metal bars, using the prisoners' 'music hour' to cover the noise, to be able to get onto the roof.

On the night of their escape, they placed dummy heads in their beds made with real hair and painted flesh colour, so that they weren't missed until morning.

That evening Bill was five minutes late arriving for his shift due to the fact that he was working a double shift. The report when he took over was that all was routine. 'It was actually anything but routine,' he said.

Minutes before he reported for duty, his fellow guard - the strict term was Correctional Officer - had heard a loud noise like a hub being dropped on the ground.

One of the escapees had dropped the cover off the air vent as they were removing it. 'It rumbled,' he said, and was heard by inmates.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, an officer working in the prison hospital heard footsteps on the roof and notified the control center. Nothing happened. Ten minutes later, the hospital officer called again.

This time a lieutenant got a key and went to the hospital. He couldn't hear any footsteps, said Bill, but of course the Anglins and Morris were not there by then. They were out and down by the shore.

What the lieutenant should have done, said Bill, was to 'make sure there's a man in every cell,' by doing a stand-up count. If that had happened, the escapees would have been caught on the Rock. Instead, the officer in charge 'came back down and ignored the whole thing.'

At 7.15 am the following morning, a sergeant 'hot-footed' it to Bill: at the stand-up count three men weren't responding.

Bill went along to the cells. Then he knelt with his head against the bars and with his left hand struck one of the men's pillows hard - the pillow not the head, he stressed. 'The head flopped over on the floor. That's when the shit hit the fan,' he said.

How did he react to that?

'Ma'am, that would give you a shock! They said I jumped back about four feet, and I was kneeling!' he said.

Whistles blew then, Bill notified Control Room and 'we started looking at every nook and cranny.' The errant lieutenant was never disciplined.

'I've never really told this story much before,' said 85-year-old Bill, speaking in a corner of the prisoners' dining room to a small cluster of journalists and cameramen.

As Bill spoke, it became apparent that quite a large number of inmates had been aware of the impending escape. Why, he was asked, did it remain unknown from the guards and those in charge?

'They must have had everyone pretty well scared,' said the questioner.

'The whole group were rooting for someone who would be able to make the break,' said Bill, to prove that it was possible to escape. That's why even their regular, reliable snitch - he didn't name a name - kept quiet.

Another factor was the unusual method that they used - to chisel through rock at the back of the cell with sharpened spoons and other implements.

'For years and years we checked the bars, but we never checked the back (of the cell), it was meant to be solid rock,' he said. Every so often guards were required to tap the metal bars with a rubber hammer. If they vibrated, all was secure.

But checking the backs of the cells? 'It never entered anyone's mind. It was quite clever the way they got out.'

Bill enjoys his story-telling. 'I'm the guy that knocked the head off....I enjoy it (the story telling) in fact,' he said. Now living in Pennsylvania, he handed out a business card that describes him as a historian and story teller.

He arrived at Alcatraz with his wife, 18-month-old daughter and six-month-old son in 1953 and stayed until it closed in 1963.

The mystery surrounding the escape of John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Lee Morris has never been solved. Did they make it to Angel Island and Marin County where they were heading for, or San Francisco, and to freedom, or did they drown?

For Bill's views and those of Darwin Coon and former guard Frank Heaney, and to discover who was the real mastermind behind the escape...see next blog

pics by Chris

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