San Francisco was the cruelest trick ever played on the prisoners of Alcatraz Island.
The city was less than two miles away, so close if the wind was just right the cons could hear music and voices and laughter emanating from that glittering jewel of a city. On those nights John Anglin, prisoner number AZ1476, lay in his cot and covered his ears with a pillow because he couldn't bear the sound of all those happy, free voices. But tonight, as he stood at the water's edge of Alcatraz Island, he strained into the breeze, wanting to hear all those sounds because soon he, too, would be free.
Free. Yea, sure, he and the other men on the beach were probably crazy to think this plan would work, that they would succeed where dozens of others had failed... and died. Go ahead, call them crazy but, screw it, John couldn't go back to that crummy little cell on this crummy island, not with all that freedom just a couple of miles away.
Standing near John was his brother Clarence. As they rubbed their arms and stamped their feet to keep warm, they watched the third member of their group, Frank Morris, connect a hose to a concertina he had cleverly modified into a pump. At the other end of the hose was what was supposed to be a raft, the result of six months gluing together strips of rubber from dozens of prison-issued raincoats. But right now, all they had was a mass of blue-green rubber lying flat and inert on the ground. It sure as hell didn't look like a raft. John saw his brother's lips moving in silent prayer as Frank slowly pulled on both sides of the concertina, filling the bellows with air.
“Okay, here we go,” Frank said as he brought his hands together, compressing the fabric between the handles. Nothing happened. The thing on the ground was still just a useless lump of rubber. Frank grimaced and pulled out on the instrument's handles and then back in again. Clarence saw it first, in the light of the moonlight, bulging out like the neck of the bullfrogs they used to catch back in Georgia, the rippling blue-green fabric getting larger. The raft was slowly inflating. John couldn't help himself from saying out loud what they were all thinking. “Holy shit, this is going to work.”
As Frank continued to manipulate the concertina's handles and blow up the raft, Clarence nudged his brother with his elbow. “Hey John.” “What?” “Look back up there,” Clarence said, motioning behind them to the prison complex they had just left. Clarence was almost giddy. “They don't know. No alarms or searchlights or anything. They really fell for those heads we made –”
“It's ready.” They turned and in the dim light saw the rare sight of a smile on Frank's face. On the beach it sat, just like a real raft, inflated and ready for action. “Let's get it in the water,” they heard Frank say. The three men gently lifted the raft and carefully, as if carrying a newborn, brought it to the edge of the rocky beach. “Don't stop,” Frank said. “We need get in deeper water so the bottom doesn't get cut by the rocks.” John nodded, grudgingly. Frank was right. Again. After all the work that went into making the raft it would have been cruel for it to rip open before they even got it into the water. “Come on. And don't splash. We can't afford to make any noise.” The three men gingerly crab-walked about ten feet from the shore, where the water was just over their knees.
“Okay, this is good. Grab your paddles and get in,” Frank said. This was it. The final test. Clarence Anglin drew in his breath. Slowly, as if lowering himself into a bathtub of hot water, Clarence got into the raft. He looked up at his brother and nodded. It was still afloat. So far, so good. Then John got in, followed by Frank. For a few seconds they said nothing as they bobbed gently in the water. Even Frank – dour, single-minded Frank – seemed to be enjoying the moment.
Then, without saying a word, all three men thrust their paddles into the water and stroked. The raft slowly moved forward. “Angel Island, here we come,” the brothers heard Frank say as the darkness enveloped them.
From WATD comes a recent interview with David from Boomer host Leslie Noymer
Listen as David tells the amazing true story of how Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin escaped Alcatraz prison in a homemade raft.