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The battle of Alcatraz, 1946: the most violent escape attempt in the prison’s history

On 2 May 1946, several prisoners held at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary enacted a plan to escape the island prison. The ensuing 48-hour siege was the most violent in the prison's history, resulting in five deaths and more than a dozen injured. Emma Slattery Williams takes up the tale of the incident later dubbed the 'battle of Alcatraz'...

Black and white image of island prison, taken from the sky
Published: December 16, 2021 at 10:39 am
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What is Alcatraz?

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary sits on its own island in San Francisco Bay, off the coast of California. A maximum-security penitentiary that operated as a civilian prison between 1934 and 1963, it became notorious for housing high-profile prisoners such as American gangster Al Capone and convicted murderer Robert Stroud. Its island location, combined with the cold water and strong currents of the San Francisco Bay, meant that it was widely believed to be impossible to escape from. The more than a mile swim was no easy task, let alone for unfit prisoners.

Ringleaders of Alcatraz: Marvin Hubbard, Bernard Coy and Clarence Carnes were the ringleaders of the attempted escape. (Photo by Getty Images)
Ringleaders of Alcatraz: Marvin Hubbard, Bernard Coy and Clarence Carnes were the ringleaders of the attempted escape. (Photo by Getty Images)

Who planned the 1946 escape from Alcatraz?

Prisoner Bernard Coy planned the 1946 escape – he had arrived in Alcatraz in 1938 after being sentenced to 25 years for a bank robbery. He was joined in
the attempt by fellow prisoners Marvin Hubbard, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson and Clarence Carnes, the latter holding the dubious title of Alcatraz’s youngest prisoner, convicted at 18 and serving a 99-year-sentence for kidnapping and a life sentence for murder. Joseph Cretzer was a member of the Cretzer-Kyle gang, a criminal group that carried out bank robberies along the West Coast of the US. Sentenced for murder, Cretzer had escaped his first prison before being recaptured and sent to Alcatraz. He and three others had already attempted to break out from Alcatraz in 1941, an act that had landed him in the high security unit, D Block, for five years.

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Coy began deliberately losing weight so that he could squeeze through the bars of the gun gallery

Coy – who served as a cell-house orderly, a job that allowed him more freedom to move around the prison’s main cellblock – first came up with his escape plan after watching the guards, noting weaknesses in their routine and the prison’s security. He spotted that the gun gallery was only protected by bars, without any mesh or additional obstacles in front of it. The guards had a regular routine, so it was easy to observe when the gallery would not be watched. Coy began deliberately losing weight so that he could squeeze through the bars.

What happened during the 'battle of Alcatraz' escape attempt?

At around 1.30pm on 2 May, Hubbard set about distracting prison guard Bill Miller, allowing Coy to attack him from behind. Coy and Hubbard beat Miller unconscious and stole his keys. After springing Carnes, Thompson and Cretzer from their cells, Coy used pliers and pipes to spread the bars of the gun gallery until they were wide enough for him to squeeze through. He’d also covered himself in axle grease to make the escape easier.

By now, the armed gun gallery guard had returned, and he was strangled with his own necktie until he was unconscious. The prisoners then raided the gallery for weapons and ammunition before moving on to the second stage of their plan – using hostages to commandeer the prison boat to get off the island.

Residents of San Francisco could hear the prison’s sirens sounding out from across the bay

Coy made his way to D Block and, using a pistol, forced another guard to release more prisoners – many swiftly returned to their cells, but Shockley joined the would-be escapees.

The group soon had nine guards as hostages and locked them in cells. The only problem was that none of prison guard Miller’s keys appeared to open the cell door into the recreation yard – he had carefully hidden the correct one in the cell he was being held in.

By now, the breakout had been discovered and residents of San Francisco could hear the prison’s sirens sounding out from across the bay, signalling an emergency situation. People gathered along the waterfront to catch a glimpse of the commotion, and members of the coastguard and Marines were mobilised to assist the prison officers.

Now realising that their initial plan would not succeed, the prisoners decided to shoot their way out, and Coy began firing on guards in nearby watchtowers. Egged on by some of the others, Cretzer fired into the cell in which the guards were being held and fatally wounded Miller.

How long did the battle of Alcatraz last?

Meanwhile, on the outside, work was underway to get the situation under control. A group of military, police and prison guards began to attack the cellblock with grenades, causing the island to light up from afar. In the gunfire that followed, 14 guards were seriously injured, and officer Harold Stites – who had previously stopped an Alcatraz escape attempt in 1938 – was killed trying to regain control of the cellblock and rescue the guards. Explosives rained down on D Block and it began to flood as the plumbing was damaged.

By the morning of 4 May, after a nearly 48-hour siege, the cellblock was raided and the bodies of Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were found – full of bullets and shrapnel. The three surviving escapees, realising they had no choice but to surrender, had returned to their cells.

Although the most violent in the prison’s history, the battle of Alcatraz was just one of 14 escape attempts from Alcatraz during its 29 years in operation

Thompson and Shockley were later executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison for the murder of Miller. Carnes, who was believed to have attempted to stop the killing of the guards – escaped the death penalty but had 99 more years added to his sentence.

Although the most violent in the prison’s history, the battle of Alcatraz was just one of 14 escape attempts from Alcatraz during its 29 years in operation. In June 1962, three men did manage to escape the island – brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris sailed away on a raft. Their fate is still unknown. Of the 36 inmates who staged escape attempts, 23 were recaptured, six were shot and killed, two drowned, and five have been listed as ‘missing, presumed drowned’.

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Emma Slattery Williams is staff writer on BBC History Revealed

Authors

Emma Slattery WilliamsStaff Writer, BBC History Revealed

Emma is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirates queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiles HistoryExtra’s Victorians newsletter and can be heard interviewing historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.

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