The 1946 Alcatraz Prison Escape

The 1946 Alcatraz prison escape attempt was the bloodiest in the prison's history. It resulted in the deaths of several guards and three of the prisoners that took part.

In May of 1946, Alcatraz prison had been open for just over twelve years. On the 2nd of that month, a bold escape attempt was begun, one that had been in the works for an amazing nine years.

The escape was planned by a Kentucky bank robber named Bernie Coy, who was serving 25 years. He had enlisted the help of five other prisoners, who were serving sentences for crimes ranging from robbery to murder. One of them, Joseph Cretzer, was known as a ruthless robber and murderer who had been involved in a fatal Los Angeles bank robbery. The others, Marvin Hubbard, Miran Thompson, Sam Shockley, and Clarence Carnes, were all serving long terms. Carnes had made history months earlier when he became the youngest person ever to be imprisoned on "The Rock" as Alcatraz was known.

Coy, who knew the various rotations and movements of the guards, had a job as a cellhouse orderly, mostly delivering books from the prison library. He realized that the key to the escape would be that he and his fellow escapees would have to arm themselves with guns. The only guns in the prison were located in the gun gallery, a caged area above the cellhouse floor. Coy's knowledge of the guards' rotations was excellent. He knew there was a period where the gun gallery was left unguarded.



Shortly after 11:00 a.m. that day, Coy knocked out a guard on the cellhouse floor. Most of the other guards were rotating for a shift change. he then freed the other prisoners who would participate, then climbed to the gun gallery. Using a homemade bar spreader, Coy vigorously spread the bars apart just enough for him to squeeze his thin body in between the bars. He took a rifle and waited until the guard of the gallery came through the door to start his shift. Coy clubbed him unconscious, then tossed guns down to his colleagues.

Other guards were clubbed unconscious and hearded into a vacant cell. Unfortunately, one of the prisoners could not open the massive steel vault of a door that led to the prison yard. The necessary key for the door could not be located. Other keys were tried, but they succeeded in doing nothing except for jamming the door.

By now the alarm had sounded, and preparations were being made to subdue the rebellion. The prisoners feared that if any of the guards they had hearded up lived, each of them would blame the prisoners. Joe Cretzer, sensing this, grabbed a gun and incredibly began firing at the guards at point blank range. Amazingly, several lived, and one of them began scrawling the names of the prisoners involved in the break on the wall of the cell.

Over the next two days, the marines and national guard were brought in. Thompson, Shockley, and Carnes returned to their cells, crestfallen that the escape had failed because of a jammed door. Hubbard, Coy and Cretzer were cornered in a corridor behind one of the cell blocks. They were killed by the dropping of grenades and the fire of machine guns from guards and military personnel.

After the rebellion was halted, guards trudged through the massively damaged cell block and rounded up Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes. After trials, Thompson and Shockley were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Carnes was convicted, but his life was spared. He was eventually paroled in the early 1970s.

Other prison riots have been bloodier, but Alcatraz would see nothing like this during the remainder of its time as a prison. It was closed in 1963 by the order of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and today is a tourist attraction.

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