Alcatraz—aka “The Rock” is an island compound that has served as a fort, a military prison, and a maximum security federal penitentiary.
“The Rock” sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and as a prison, it originally held Civil War prisoners. In 1934, Alcatraz was re-fortified into the world’s most secure prison of its time, just in time to help house inmates of the prohibition era crime wave.
In its retrofitted form, it held ‘public enemy number one’ Al Capone, criminals who had a history of escapes, and the occasional ecsentric like the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
Alcatraz, by virtue of being on an island in the middle of the bay and surrounded by cold water, was virtually escape proof. Several guard towers, high tensile steel cell bars, strict inmate behavior standards, and rigidly structured guard walk rotations, made it seem escape-proof.
Despite all the safeguards in place, from 1934 until it closed in 1963, according to the FBI, 36 inmates tried 14 separate escapes. Nearly all were caught or didn’t survive the attempt.
Of the 36 who tried, three inmates were never captured, and remain at-large – although most people presume they died in the attempt. The frigid water of the San Francisco Bay, tides, and the wind, all factored in against a successful trip to dry land. The FBI also cites reports that a Norwegian freighter’s crew spotted a body in the Pacific Ocean six weeks after the escape; they didn’t report the body at the time, so no attempt to recover the body could be made.
On June 12, 1962, the morning bed check found that the three inmates were missing; John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris.
The trio had fabricated realistic looking plaster heads, complete with hair from the prison barber shop, and placed them in their beds to fool nighttime guard’s checks.
Within two days of the escape, a packet of letters sealed in rubber and traced back to the inmates was recovered, as were rubber parts of a homemade raft, along with what investigators believed to be homemade wooden oar parts. No other items associated with the escape were located.
Piecing together the plan; the synopsis below is quoted from the FBI
The escape. On the evening of June 11, they were ready to go. The prison informant, though, did not have his ventilator grill completely removed and was left behind. The three others got into the corridor, gathered their gear, climbed up and out through the ventilator, and got on to the prison roof. Then, they shimmied down the bakery smoke stack at the rear of the cell house, climbed over the fence, and snuck to the northeast shore of the island and launched their raft.
- The group had begun laying plans the previous December when one of them came across some old saw blades.
- Using crude tools—including a homemade drill made from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner—the plotters each loosened the air vents at the back of their cells by painstakingly drilling closely spaced holes around the cover so the entire section of the wall could be removed. Once through, they hid the holes with whatever they could—a suitcase, a piece of cardboard, etc.
- Behind the cells was a common, unguarded utility corridor. They made their way down this corridor and climbed to the roof of their cell block inside the building, where they set up a secret workshop. There, taking turns keeping watch for the guards in the evening before the last count (see the crude “periscope” they constructed for the lookouts), they used a variety of stolen and donated materials to build and hide what they needed to escape. More than 50 raincoats that they stole or gathered were turned into makeshift life preservers and a 6×14 foot rubber raft, the seams carefully stitched together and “vulcanized” by the hot steam pipes in the prison (the idea came from magazines that were found in the prisoners’ cells). They also built wooden paddles and converted a musical instrument into a tool to inflate the raft.
- At the same time, they were looking for a way out of the building. The ceiling was a good 30 feet high, but using a network of pipes they climbed up and eventually pried open the ventilator at the top of the shaft. They kept it in place temporarily by fashioning a fake bolt out of soap.
- Thanks Plenty of people have gone to great lengths to prove that the men COULD have survived, but the question remains: did they? Our investigation at the time concluded otherwise, for the following reasons.
- Crossing the Bay. Yes, youngsters have made the more than mile-long swim from Alcatraz to Angel Island. But with the strong currents and frigid Bay water, the odds were clearly against these men.
- Three if by land. The plan, according to our prison informant, was to steal clothes and a car once on land. But we never uncovered any thefts like this despite the high-profile nature of the case.
- Family ties. If the escapees had help, we couldn’t substantiate it. The families appeared unlikely to even have the financial means to provide any real support.
- Missing in action. For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas.