Battle at Alcatraz Prison
May 2, 1946, started as a normal day on the job for William Miller. Well, at least as normal as any day could be on “the Rock” – what most people called Alcatraz Prison back then. Situated on a tiny island just off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz was a harrowing prospect for federal criminals. It boasted zero successful escapes, although many inmates had tried. The guards easily stopped and apprehended most of them before they even made it off the island. Some tried to make a swim for it but got shot in the water. Some disappeared into the icy San Francisco Bay, and were never seen or heard from again.
William Miller worked at “the Rock” as a guard in the cell house. And just after lunch hour on that day in 1946, things felt relatively quiet. A long-time and well-known prisoner named Bernard Coy worked his detail mopping the C Block floors. Another inmate, Marvin Hubbard, had just finished his lunch shift in the kitchen. Now, he wanted back into the cell block, so he approached Miller for the routine pat down.
That’s when things turned ugly. While Hubbard distracted Miller, Coy attacked the guard from behind. There was a brief struggle before Miller got knocked out cold. The rogue prisoners dragged his unconscious body to an empty cell and slammed him in.
The Battle for Alcatraz Prison had just begun.
Coy had planned this day for months. A Kentuckian-turned-bank robber in the 1930s, he had been given a twenty-five-year prison sentence, and was transferred to Alcatraz in 1938. His model behavior elevated him to the position of prison orderly. He became extra familiar with the prison’s floor plans. Especially the gun gallery – a room loaded floor to ceiling with rifles, clubs, and tear-gas bombs for the guards. Coy had noticed its sole security deterrent was bars that could be widened with a bar spreader – perhaps wide enough to let a small man through. If he could fashion a device, and lose enough weight, he could gain entrance into the gallery. It would give him an edge over any man who had ever tried to escape Alcatraz – Firepower.
An escape plan was born, and Coy tapped assistance from other inmates. Along with Marvin Hubbard, he chose Joseph Cretzer, a fellow bank robber who had a credit on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He also chose Clarence Carnes, a nineteen-year-old Native American serving a life sentence for murder. Together, they hatched up a plan that was far-fetched at best. Once armed by the gallery, they would take guards as hostages and attack the towers outside. Once they successfully captured those, they could add assault rifles to their arsenal. With those, and their hostages as human shields, they could board the daily barge bound for San Francisco. There was one small but essential part of this elaborate plan. The escapees needed to secure the key to the prison yard, which was their only door out of the prison.
But to do that, Coy and Hubbard needed the rest of their team. Once Miller was down, they used his key to spring Cretzer and Carnes from their cells. Next, the team went after the coveted gun gallery. They arrived just as planned, while the guard was still at lunch. Using a makeshift bar spreader crafted by one of the prisoners, Coy wedged open the bars. He coated himself in oil, and sucked in his gut which he starved himself for weeks to shrink. Then, he wriggled inside.
When the guard returned from lunch, Coy greeted him by banging the heavy gallery door right in his face. The blow staggered the guard, and an intense struggle broke out. Coy eventually knocked this second guard out, tied him up, and dumped him in the same cell as Miller. Coy and his band of convicts were now armed to the teeth, and they also had the keys to the entire cell block.
Using their newly-acquired arsenal, Coy and his team sprung several other prisoners from their cells, including Miran Thompson and Sam Shockley. They rounded up more stunned guards and tossed them into the hostage cell. By this time, word had spread all over the prison that inmates had overtaken the gun gallery. Some prisoners, like Thompson and Shockley, armed themselves and joined Coy’s team. Others hunkered down in their cell for the storm about to break.
So far, things looked pretty good for Coy, until he realized the crucial prison yard key was not on the ring he had taken from the gallery. Miller, probably fully aware that Coy couldn’t escape the prison without that key, had slipped it in his pocket when he was taken hostage. Once he regained consciousness, he tucked it under the bed in his cell to keep it concealed. After scrambling to find the missing key, patting down all the hostage guards, and trying several others on the stubborn door lock in the prison yard, Coy realized the escape was foiled before it even began.
However, he decided they weren’t going down without a fight. So instead, they waged an all-out war. Coy opened fire on the guards in the towers, wounding one of them. Associate Warden Ed Miller came into the cell block, and also had a violent confrontation with Coy. He escaped with a tear-gas bomb that went off in his face, and then sounded the alarm.
With the alarm blaring across the island, order dissolved into chaos. Cretzer made the decision to kill the hostages, to keep them from later testimony against him. By this time, nine had been crammed into the tiny cell, one of them being the captain of the guards. Cretzer sprayed the cell with gunfire, which wounded all the hostages, some critically. They feigned death, which sent Cretzer moving onto his next targets. The first real death came soon after. A host of armed guards entered the cell house, and in the exchange of gunfire with Coy and his bandits, long-time guard Harold Stites was killed.
With blood spilled and armed prisoners running amok, Warden James A. Johnston called in a local detachment of Marines. Hardened veterans from the Pacific War, the Marines set up a perimeter, herded the rest of the prisoners into the yard, and tried to take back Alcatraz from the outside. They cut the power and showered the place with gunfire. Windows shattered, bullets bounced off cell bars, and the odor from gas shells pierced the air. Prisoners stuck inside crouched in their cells with their mattresses as their only barrier.
Meanwhile, the world outside got their first headlines that a riot was ongoing at Alcatraz. Fishing boats swarmed the island for a glimpse of the violence. Flashes from the gunfire could be seen all the way in San Francisco. Hilltops across the city soon crowded with people who watched the events unfold.
It would be a long show too, going well into the next day. Using tactics they had deployed against the Japanese, the Marines drilled holes in the roof of the prison, and then dropped in grenades to corner Coy and his gang into a narrow corridor. Then, they showered the cell block with a constant gun barrage until 9:00pm that evening. Prison guards entered the war-zone corridor on May 4th, where they found the bullet-riddled corpses of Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, and Marvin Hubbard.
The Battle for Alcatraz was over. It left three inmates and two guards dead – Harold Stites and William Miller. Over a dozen people were wounded, some severely. The surviving participants in the riot, Thomas Shockley and Miran Thompson, were later tried and executed in San Francisco. Clarence Carnes got an additional life sentence, but earned parole in 1973. He was in and out of prison for the rest of his life, and died in 1988.
Alcatraz prison was closed in 1963, but it still stands today. Instead of prisoners, it hosts a whole new type of people – tourists. On a cold and cloudy day in 2010, I boarded the Alcatraz ferry for a look at the infamous prison. I toured the empty cell blocks and the silent mess halls. I stood in the shadow of the toppling guard towers. I went inside a dark and gloomy cell covered with rust and corrosion.
To me, the most chilling part of Alcatraz was the view outside the windows. San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge, the bright lights, the steep slopes… freedom. It beckoned from just a small ferry ride away. It must have been maddening to prisoners to have it so close, yet so unattainable. Perhaps it drove them so mad that they stooped to violent measures to attain it – measures like starting a war on a Rock from which they knew there was no escape. Because no matter what they had done, some humans can’t endure being caged.
Go and visit the Rock. Have San Francisco beckon to you from those gray, chilling, and concrete walls. Then ask yourself… what would you do?
“Battle at Alcatraz” – Ernest B. Lageson
“A Brief History of Alcatraz” – U.S. Dept. of Justice
Alcatraz Island National Park
Alcatraz History (www.alcatrazhistory.com )
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on California, please visit my photo gallery.