Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Prisioners-Strikes, Riots, And Escapes


Of all the escape attempts, the most serious one by far occurred in May 1946. Before it was over the United States Marines, the United States Air Force, and Lieut. Gen. Joseph Stillwell were involved, to one degree or another. By the end of the bloody two-day affair, two officers and three prisoners were dead, another 17 officers and one prisoner wounded, and later, two convicts were executed for their participation. Director Bennett of the Bureau of Prisons, referred to the incident as the "Battle of Alcatraz."

When D-Block was remodeled into tool proof isolation cells, a concrete wall replaced the wire mesh that closed it off from the C block cells where the bulk of the prisoners lived. This concrete wall ran through the gun gallery at the West (mess hall) end of the cell house. However, a door in the wall allowed the guard in the gun gallery to pass back and forth from D to Block C. On the afternoon of May 2, Officer Bert Burch was stationed in the lower tier of the West gun gallery. Officer William M. Miller was patrolling the floor of B and C Blocks unarmed, and officer Cecil Corwin was patrolling D-Block. Most of the prisoners were out of the building at their work assignments. A few were locked in their cells in B and C Blocks for one reason or another. And about 25 men were shut up in isolation located in D-block.

Prisoner Bernard Coy, a Kentucky bank robber, was at work polishing the floor in the B and C block area. Accounts of the events of that afternoon varied greatly in their details, but a general picture of what happened has been pieced together. Officer Burch, in response to a call from Officer Corwin, walked into the D block portion of the gun gallery, closing the door behind him. At that time Officer Miller let prisoner Marvin Hubbard into the cell house from his kitchen detail. Coy and Hubbard "slugged" Officer Miller, mortally wounding him, and took his keys. They immediately unlocked the cells of two men: Joseph P. Cretzer, who had tried to escape in 1941, and Clarence Carnes, a Choctaw Indian. Coy, naked and covered with grease, then climbed up the outside of the cage protecting the West gun galleries to the very top. Using a homemade bar spreader, said to have been made from parts of the toilet in a pair of pliers, he succeeded in spreading the curved bars at the top in order to drop inside the upper gun gallery (an earlier part of this study described the 1934 construction of the gun gallery cages).

Coy climbed down the stairs to the lower gallery and waited for Burch to return from D block. When Burch came through the door, coy slugged him and capture his rifle, pistol, and ammunition. He threw the pistol and a key for cellblock D down to Cretzer, then entered the “D” portion of the gallery where he covered Officer Corwin with the rifle while Cretzer and Hubbard entered the floor from C block. Corwin was forced into the same cell in which Miller had been dragged earlier. Cretzer then entered D block and freed some of the prisoners in isolation, including Sam Shockley who had been in on the plot (the official report said that 12 were released; the newspapers reported that about 60 men were released from all three cellblocks). About that time, Coy let Miran E. Thompson and C block - Thompson had feigned illness that afternoon in order to remain indoors.

During the next few minutes, three officers (innocently entering the cell house one by one) were captured and they too were locked in a cell. However, a custodial officer in the basement barbershop discovered the uprising and telephone the armory, advising of the trouble. By this time, the ringleaders realized they did not have the key they needed to get out of the cell house.

The armory officer called the cell house phones but received no answers. Captain Weinhold, entered the cell house to see why the phones were not answered. He too was captured, beaten, and thrown into a cell. Unbelievably, three more unarmed guards entered the cell house and met the same fate. At this point, Coy open fire through a window at the guard towers, wounding an officer. While the ringleaders were still trying to get out of the cell house, the escape siren started sounding. Associate warden Miller decided to enter the cell house alone. Coy fired at him but missed. However, a gas Billy that Miller was carrying exploded seriously burning his face. Miller succeeded in getting back to the administrative unit without further injury. Shortly thereafter, egged on by a half crazed Shockley, Cretzer fired into the two cells holding the captured officers.

At 3:30 PM motorists on the Golden Gate Bridge heard the first of the shooting, and by 4 PM patrol boats were circling the island. The evening papers announced the riot and San Franciscans gathered on the waterfront in on the hills to watch. A detachment of 30 United States Marines from Treasure Island was brought to the island to guard the working prisoners, at first in the laundry and later in the recreation yard. At 5 PM and assault team of guards stormed the West gun gallery from the outside entrance. Officer Harold P. Stites, a member of the assault team, was fatally wounded in this effort, but by evening both gun galleries were under the control of the officers. The Chronicle reported that "thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” Heavy clouds of smoke were said to pour from the cellblock, the only fire was in the shrubbery. Officers families on the island took refuge in the "air raid shelter," the magazine of the old case mated barracks. School children and wives who had been in San Francisco that day were not allowed to return Alcatraz. The Red Cross took care of some of them. At 5:45 PM Warden Johnston telegraphed the Bureau: "Our situation is difficult and precarious. Our officers are being used in every place that we can man. The armed prisoners on the island are still eluding us so that at the moment we cannot control them." An emergency group of doctors and nurses were sent to the island from the Marine Hospital; the islands to doctors were trapped in the prison hospital. But one of the greatest problems facing the Bay Area that night was the rumors. Rumors as to the number of prisoners involved in the uprising, the number of guards captured, and simply wild rumors of what was happening on the mysterious island, where floodlights shown on the gray walls of the prison.


Bernard Coy


Joseph Cretzer


One of the hostage cells where Joseph Crezter shot the officers in cold blood.

During the night before us of several guards succeeded in entering the prison house, locating the imprisoned officers, and freeing them. Most of them were wounded and were rushed to San Francisco as quickly as possible. Throughout the morning of the second day grenades were dropped through the roof ventilators and holes cut in the roof over B and C Blocks, and rifle grenades were fired through the windows of D block, but about noon, Marines and guards were ordered to hold their fire. The officials were almost certain now that the convicts were in the utility corridor of C- Block. After prisoners were rounded up from various places and placed in their cells, the attack on the C utility corridor was resumed. Grenades continued to be dropped through the roof. Army planes buzzed the building for psychological effect. General Joseph Stillwell, commanding the sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco, arrived on the island during the day and offered his services to the Warden.

As the hours passed and the prison officials learned more about what they were dealing with, the sense of dire emergency eased considerably the guards finally decided that there were no more holdouts in D block. They concentrated on C Block with one last fusillade of shots being fired into the utility corridor. 9:15 AM, May 5, 1946, guards opened the door to the corridor and found the bodies of Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard. The Battle of Alcatraz was over. Three other prisoners were placed in solitary for having taken part: Clarence Carnes, Miran "Buddy" E. Thompson, and Sam Shockley.

The trial of Thompson, Shockley, and Carnes for the murder of the guard, Miller, began in a federal court in San Francisco in November 1946. The jury was composed of six men and six women. The prisoners entered the room manacled and heavily guarded. They were starkly dressed in black suits, ties, and shoes, and white shirts and socks. Thompson, the toughest of the lot, pretended indifference; Carnes, a Choctaw Indian, stared at the ceiling and yawned; but poor Shockley, whose "IQ" was reported to be 54, hardly knew where he was. For some time Shockley had believed that he was a radio receiver and walked around Alcatraz picking up news items from what he described as-he got that way because the minerals in his food. Shockley thought the trial should be moved to Spain or Mexico, since Alcatraz belong to one or the other. Many members of the prison staff and a large number of the prisoners, including Robert "Birdman” Stroud, appeared as witnesses during the trial. The old story of Spanish dungeons came up in the course of the testimony. When Carnes took the stand he said that he had participated in the riot because he did not think anyone would get hurt: "They’s picked their way out of the walled up tunnels of the ancient Spanish dungeon and simply sneak away."

The jury deliberated 26 hours. All three men were found guilty of murder and first-degree. Thompson and Shockley were sentenced to death Carnes had a second life sentence added to his life sentence plus 99 years. These were the first (and only) death sentences given to Alcatraz prisoners. Thompson continued his bravado, saying:" Hell, I'm not afraid to die. If I was, I wouldn't be in this racket." But he was; he continued his appeals to the final moment. The two were transferred to the condemned row at the state penitentiary at San Quentin California. They were reported as saying they liked it better than Alcatraz because they had radios, magazines, and ham and eggs twice a week.

In June 1948, two years later, they were sentenced to die on September 24. Their attorneys announced that they would seek a presidential pardon. The date was later changed to December 3, 1948. On December 1, San Francisco's famed attorney, Melvin Belli, telephoned President Truman asking for pardon. Clemency was denied. That night, Thompson continued to turn out pages of words, still hoping for a stay. As the hours passed more and more discussable Shockley for his indifference to their fate. At 10:04 AM, December 3rd, cyanide pellets were dropped into a solution of sulfuric acid and water the fabricated grin disappeared from Thompson's face as his head snapped back. Poor Shockley sat slumped in silent at 10:12 AM both were dead. And Alcatraz prison guard was a witness. When it was over, he said: "That makes it 5 to 2. It's a little more even now."

The last 27 convicts left Alcatraz in leg irons and handcuffs on March 21, 1963. In a way, they too were escaping from the Rock. The last prisoner to get on the boat, Frank C. Weatherman, said when asked how he felt about leaving: "Good… Alcatraz never was no good for nobody."

Director Bennett was relieved to see the doors close on Alcatraz for the last time is a federal penitentiary. He later wrote:

“In 1963, Attorney General Robert F Kennedy approved its abandonment even though there were many congressmen, including the powerful chairman of the House committee on appropriations, Clarence Cannon, who believed that Devil’s Islands of this type were the only answer to the escalating crime problem. There will always be the need or specialized facilities for the desperados, the irredeemable, and the ruthless, but Alcatraz and all that it had come to mean now belong, we may hope, to history."