Battle at Alcatraz: A Desperate Attempt to Escape the Rockby Ernest B. Lageson
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One of the bloddiest battles in the history of American prisons occurred at Alcatraz in May 1946, when prisoners staged a breakout, obtaining guns from the gun gallery and taking nine guards hostage. The escape attempt was the cumination of months of methodical planning. But, when a last-minute glitch foiled their escape, inmates shot the hostages in effort to leave no witnesses. Before order was restored, thousands of rounds were fired by federal prison personnel and a detachment of the U.S. Marines. Among the guards who survived the shooting was Ernie Lageson, Sr. the author's father. Now in Battle at Alcatrz, author Ernie Lageson Jr. passes on his father's story. Meticulously researched, this compelling story offers an insider's perspective on both the notorious riot and life inside the most infamous prison in America. Eight pages of photos.
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Battle at Alcatraz
A Desperate Attempt to Escape the Rock
By Ernest B. Lageson, Bob Hogenmiller
Addicus Books, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Ernest B. Lageson
All rights reserved.
Ernie Lageson stepped out of the shower. He had a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could sense trouble brewing in the Alcatraz cell house where he worked as a guard. Nothing he could put his finger on, really, but the inmates had been far too quiet. Something was brewing.
He glanced at the clock. Almost 5:45 A.M. Time to get moving. He slipped into his officer's uniform — a freshly starched gray shirt, gray trousers and jacket, and black tie. He quickly buffed his already shining shoes, a longtime habit reinforced by his recent Navy duty.
Ernie went to the kitchen to join his wife and son for breakfast. The family of three made their home in a modest apartment on the top floor of a three-story apartment building on Sacramento Street, between Franklin and Van Ness, in San Francisco. The breakfast conversation quickly turned to baseball. Thirteen-year-old Ernie Jr. was a great fan of the San Francisco Seals and followed the local team and the Triple-A Pacific Coast League closely. San Francisco was leading the league by three games over arch-rival Oakland and was four games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels. Tonight they were playing the Angels in the third game of a seven-game series. The Seals had lost the last two games.
Ernie Sr. couldn't resist a little playful teasing, even though he, too, was a Seals fan, especially of Seals manager Lefty O'Doul.
"Looks like L.A.'s got the Seals on the run, Pal. If the Seals drop tonight's game, that'll be three losses in a row. Looks like a three-way race to me. Both Oakland and L.A. are coming on stronger than the Seals."
"Don't worry, Dad. Ray Harrell is pitching tonight and Cliff Melton on Friday night. Besides, two losses in a row is freaky, the first time it's happened all year."
"I'm not worrying, Son. It's you Seals fans who have to worry," Ernie laughed.
Listening to Ernie Sr. and their son banter, Eunice Lageson hadn't said anything. She sipped the last of her coffee and sighed. "It's time for me to leave," she said. She kissed both Ernies as she left to catch her bus to her clerical job in the alcohol tax section of the Treasury Department.
Young Ernie washed the breakfast dishes — one of his regular chores — then hustled out the door for school. "See you tonight, Dad," he called and went downstairs, hurrying to catch the H Car, the first of the streetcars that took him to Marina Junior High School.
Just before he, too, left the apartment, Ernie Sr. took the eight-inch, leather blackjack that hung on the back of the bedroom door and slipped it into a special pocket sewn into his right trouser leg. Firearms were not permitted on the cell-house floor at Alcatraz, so Lageson carried the blackjack for protection.
Outside, the morning breeze was cool on his face. He could smell fresh-baked bread at a nearby bakery. Lageson caught the H Car. Fifteen minutes later, he reached the end of the line and walked down the long hill toward Pier Four.
He walked past the municipal pier, built during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the San Francisco Maritime Recreational Area. The entire facility was appropriated by the Army during WWII and was now being redeveloped for civilian use. Fishermen were already using the pier, setting up their crab nets and smelt lines in the early morning hours. This morning, as always, when Lageson and the other Alcatraz guards collected at Pier Four, they were greeted by the friendly fishermen.
It was still a few minutes before the 6:55 boat from Alcatraz would dock. Ernie's thoughts turned to the unlikely chain of events that had brought him to San Francisco, Alcatraz, and his job as a prison guard.
Ernie certainly had never intended to become a prison guard. He was born and raised on the North Dakota prairie, the son of Norwegian immigrants. His parents valued education highly. Although Ernie wasn't a serious student, he received outstanding grades in high school and was urged by his instructors to go to college. He worked as a field hand on local farms during school vacations and borrowed extensively to finance his education at Concordia College, just across the state line in Moorhead, Minnesota. His parents wanted him to study medicine, but he instead chose education.
His first teaching job was in Kloten, a small farming community in east-central North Dakota. There he met and married Eunice McLean, a grade-school teacher. Ernie smiled as he thought of the pert, petite blonde and her lovely smile. She's still pretty, even at thirty-seven. During the next ten years, at a succession of jobs, Lageson the teacher became Lageson the superintendent in ever-increasingly large rural school districts in North Dakota. He was superintendent of the Clyde School District when the Great Depression finally made untenable trying to manage a school with dwindling resources and trying to manage his own life on the meager pay he and Eunice received for their efforts. At Clyde, Lageson not only ran the school district as superintendent but also taught several courses at the high school and coached the high-school basketball team. Eunice taught in the elementary grades, where their son Ernie was a student. Lageson even became somewhat of a community hero when he coached one of the finest high-school basketball teams in local history.
But the future for a young school superintendent was bleak in Depression-ravaged North Dakota. So Lageson investigated a federal civil-service job as an educational/custodial officer at Alcatraz Island Prison. The job description presented what seemed to him an outstanding challenge. He could work with some of America's most hardened criminals. He was captivated with the possibility of turning their lives around and returning even a few of his charges to society as productive citizens.
Of course, the job meant a move to California and a substantial increase in salary, too. The extra money would help him pay off the money he still owed for his college education after all these years. His friends, particularly those with whom he worked, argued against the move. Eunice and young Ernie, though, were in favor of it. California! The dream of every dust-bowl plains dweller. After all, if the job didn't work out, he could always go back to teaching, but this time in California instead of the dreary North Dakota plains.
Lageson took the job. He, Eunice, and young Ernie sold everything that wouldn't fit in a couple of suitcases and headed for San Francisco and Alcatraz Island.
Disillusionment set in early. Ernie found out that penology, at least as it was practiced at Alcatraz, was not what he expected. Although the work was interesting, the educational and rehabilitation programs at Alcatraz were almost nonexistent. Prisoners at Alcatraz were not trained or rehabilitated. They were simply warehoused. Ernie found himself to be nothing more than a prison guard, guarding men who were very nearly all beyond rehabilitation. True, many of the prisoners were highly intelligent, and Ernie enjoyed discussing intellectual and philosophical subjects with them. But the fact remained: Ernie was a prison guard, his duties primarily custodial.
Then World War II intervened. Although his job exempted him from military service, Ernie volunteered. He joined the Navy. But he was too old for officer-candidate school. Despite his degree, Ernie became an enlisted man. He found boot camp an enormous physical challenge but performed as well as the other trainees, many of whom were fifteen years younger. Both the officers and enlisted men called him "Pappy" Lageson. He became a physical education instructor for aviation cadets.
Ernie had a lot of time to think while he was away from his family and away from his job. He decided that he wanted to return to education. When he finally returned to Alcatraz, he checked the job market in the Bay Area and decided to go back to school to get his general secondary credential, which would allow him to become a California high-school principal. It would take two summer sessions of graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, but he could use the GI Bill, so his tuition and books would be free. He and Eunice decided that he would leave Alcatraz in a year, attend both summer sessions, and return to teaching in the fall of 1947.
Ernie was confident and enthusiastic about the future. His plan of action was clear. In the meantime, he would continue at Alcatraz, and do the best job he could. For now, his work day was about to begin. The 6:55 boat from Alcatraz was nearing Pier Four.CHAPTER 2
Most of the incoming passengers on the 6:55 launch from Alcatraz Island were working wives who lived in civilian quarters on the island but worked in the city, the wives of guards and other prison employees. The launch crew consisted of a boat operator and one prison guard. The guards were assigned this duty on a rotating basis. As the boat slid alongside the pier, boat officer Bob Sutter stepped ashore to secure it to the dock and helped the women passengers ashore.
Ernie and the other day-shift guards made up the entire passenger load to Alcatraz Island on the 6:55 return run. He and several of the other guards helped load the fresh milk, vegetables, and the morning newspapers that were ferried to the island each day. Ernie felt a soft spray of saltwater on his lips as Alcatraz Island loomed out of the morning fog.
Alcatraz Island was initially named Islos de los Alcatraces in 1775 by a Spanish Lieutenant, the first European to sail into San Francisco Bay. He named the barren rock for the large number of pelicans living there, alcatraces being the Spanish word for pelican. The Army first developed a fortification on the island in 1853; by the 1860s, the Army was housing military prisoners there.
Then, during Prohibition, federal law enforcement authorities decided the increase in crime called for an escape-proof penal facility to hold a new breed of criminal.
The newly-appointed director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was calling for aggressive measures to incarcerate such gangland characters as "Machine Gun Kelly," John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson, and others who were cast in Robin Hood-like roles by the national press. Despite objections by Bay Area politicians who argued against construction of a "Devil's Island" in the middle of scenic San Francisco Bay, the Federal Bureau of Prisons swiftly moved forward with plans to develop Alcatraz into a maximum- security prison.
The island was an ideal prison site. It was situated one and a half miles from San Francisco, the nearest mainland point, and even further from Marin County and the East Bay. Because of the powerful tidal currents and chill water, only expert swimmers could swim from Alcatraz to the mainland. The steep, rocky shore of Alcatraz made it extremely difficult to operate a boat close to the island and nearly impossible to land a vessel on the beach.
Over the years, construction and development created three levels on the island. At water level on the north side of the island was the dock and freight-loading installation for the prison launch and larger boats carrying freight, passengers, or water. (The island had no natural water supply, so all fresh water was carried to the island in water tankers.) The powerhouse, which generated the island's electrical supply, was also at water level at the northwest end of the island.
The second level was residential. On the east end of the island were several single-family dwellings and a new apartment house. A duplex at the east edge of an old Army parade ground was occupied by Associate Warden E.J. Miller and his wife, and Captain Henry Weinhold and his family. The concrete parade ground was the only large, open space where children could play.
At the west end of the island on the two lower levels were two large buildings that housed the prison industries. There, between 100 and 125 inmates worked in various shops. The largest prison industry was the laundry, which washed thousands of tons of laundry annually for military and government installations in the Bay Area as well as for Alcatraz prisoners and residents. Prison uniforms and other government uniforms were produced in the clothing shop. Also among the industries were a tailor shop, shoe shop, furniture factory, and a mat shop that manufactured rubber mats for the decks of Navy and merchant marine vessels. There were also a machine shop, a dry-cleaning plant, and a cargo-net factory that produced cargo nets for government ships.
The third level of construction on the island, known to residents as "up top," contained the massive cell house, with its cells, kitchen, dining hall, hospital, administrative offices, and storage and support areas. Immediately adjacent to the west end of the cell house was the prison recreation yard, surrounded by a fifteen-foot wall and affording dramatic views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin County. Also up top were the lighthouse, Coast Guard station, and the elegant homes of the warden and the prison doctor.
Scattered throughout the western two-thirds of the island were security towers, most of which were manned around the clock by trained and heavily armed officers. The most strategic of these towers was the Dock Tower, where the keys to the prison launch were kept when the boat was not in use. The entire dock and adjoining work area could be observed from this tower. The Road Tower was located immediately adjacent to the yard, connected to the top of the yard wall by a catwalk. The officer in this tower maintained the key to the yard-wall gate, through which the prisoners passed each day going to and from the work areas.
The Hill Tower stood west of the yard, overlooking the prison industry area. This tower was also connected by catwalks to the top of the yard wall. The officer on duty in the Hill Tower controlled movements through the gates to the work area.
There were also the Model Shop Tower, located on top of one of the prison-industry buildings at the far west end of the island; a tower located near the powerhouse, also at the west end of the island; and the Main Tower, which was directly on top of the cell house. Individual guard houses were installed on top of the yard wall.
Each of the tower and yard-wall officers was armed with a Thompson submachine gun, a Springfield 30-06 rifle, and a .45-caliber automatic pistol.
The cell house was by far the largest building on the island. It was the heart of the prison. Ernie could see it now as the launch chugged closer to the island.
The ferry ride had taken ten minutes. The boatman maneuvered the launch around the southwest corner of Alcatraz and into its mooring slip. Ernie and the other prison guards walked up the ramp to the dock and through the metal detector at the dock office. The dock lieutenant noted each arrival in his card file. Since the prison launch was the only way on or off the island, by noting all departures and arrivals the prison administration could always know who was on the island.
From the dock, most of the guards boarded a small bus that carried them to the cell house. Ernie usually chose to walk. Unless it was raining, he climbed the steep paths and 300-odd stairs that led from the dock to the prison entrance.
"Just another way to keep in shape," he'd respond when the other officers chided him for turning down a ride. At thirty-seven, Ernie was in good shape, even better since returning from active Navy duty. He was five-feet, eight-inches tall and strode purposefully up the hill.
At the main entrance to the cell house, Ernie met Don Martin, his closest friend on the island. Martin and Lageson had trained together. The Martin family still lived on the island. Elnora Martin ran the small Alcatraz post office. Don Martin worked the morning watch from midnight till eight o'clock, but he was going home early today.
"They're still there, Ernie. Take care of them till I get back tonight," Martin called out.
"Yeah, I'm sure they're still here, and I hope they'll be here tonight, too," Ernie said, laughing along with Martin.
Excerpted from Battle at Alcatraz by Ernest B. Lageson, Bob Hogenmiller. Copyright © 1999 Ernest B. Lageson. Excerpted by permission of Addicus Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ernie B. Lageson is a retired attorney, nationally recognized for is his work in civil-jury and non jury cases. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
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