An offhand comment from a park visitor unveiled the untold story of a secret Virginia facility where clever interrogation techniques and good old-fashioned eavesdropping helped secure victory in World War II. Now the Park Service is racing to unearth all the details before the last remaining witnesses vanish.
By Heidi Ridgley
It’s a steamy summer night in 1943 in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital, and another Army bus with dark windows is rumbling down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, headed for a nearly forgotten fort dating back to the Spanish-American War. The frequent arrivals at Fort Hunt no longer raise an eyebrow among locals, who assume the newly constructed facilities, complete with barbed wire fences and guard towers, simply support a World War II officer’s training school. But there’s a lot more to the story.
More than 65 years later, the activities conducted at Fort Hunt are emerging as one of the best-kept secrets of the last century: The men and the few women assigned here took oaths of secrecy to their graves. When the government began bulldozing the 100 or so buildings in 1946, this quiet spot along the Potomac became a place for simple Sunday pleasures like picnics and softball.
Since 1933, the plot of land has been managed by the Park Service, but during World War II, the War Department took it over to house a top-secret military intelligence center, referred to then as P.O. Box 1142. The site included prisoner-of-war interrogation programs run by the Army and Navy known as MIS-Y (Military Intelligence Service-Y) and Op-16-Z (Operation-16-Z).
From July 1942 to November 1946, the U.S. military shepherded more than 4,000 prisoners of war (POWs) through Fort Hunt, housing, interrogating, and surreptitiously listening to the highest-ranking enemy officers, scientists, and submariners. Notable members of the Third Reich questioned here include rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, spymaster Reinhard Gehlen, and Heinz Schlicke, inventor of infrared detection.
The intelligence that American military personnel uncovered primarily focused on the Germans’ rocket and submarine technology, which was superior to the Allies’. It may have played a role in the decision to bomb Hiroshima and the subsequent victory for the Allies, helped rocket the United States to the top of the space race, defined Cold War strategies, and was a forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency. Amazingly, the site’s historical significance might have been lost forever had it not been for a serendipitous moment between a park ranger and a park visitor three years ago.
In late 2006, a ranger told a tour group about Fort Hunt’s history as part of George Washington’s farm, as a hospital and camp for World War I vets marching on Washington to demand their war pensions, and as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s, and one of the visitors offered, “My neighbor used to work here during World War II.” The neighbor’s name was Fred Michel, and he had since moved to Louisville, Kentucky. When park personnel phoned him, he revealed, “Yes, I worked at P.O. Box 1142 during World War II, and I’d love to tell you everything about it,” recalls Vincent Santucci, chief ranger at George Washington Memorial Parkway, the park unit that oversees Fort Hunt. “We did some great stuff there,” Michel told park staff. “But I signed a secrecy agreement.”
P.O. Box 1142 documents were declassified in waves, starting in 1977 and continuing through the 1990s. “But no one had told the vets that,” says Santucci. “They lived in isolation, not even telling the closest people in their lives.” P.O. Box 1142 veteran Wayne Spivey, 89, a chief clerk who managed the database of information gathered during Nazi interrogations, says, “I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t think anybody would believe me. When people asked me what I did during the war, I told them I was stationed at P.O. Box 1142,” he says. “One fellow thought I worked for the post office, and I just let it go.”
To assure veterans like Spivey and Michel that they could talk freely, Santucci and other Park Service personnel had to go to great lengths. As far as these veterans knew, their work at P.O. Box 1142 remained classified, their sworn oath to secrecy still a matter of national security. Then, about two years ago, Santucci appealed to the military intelligence community for help. The result: The chief of Army counterintelligence wrote letters to each veteran, encouraging them to share their stories with the Park Service, telling them, “We need to preserve the important information and the lessons learned from the work that you did,” says Santucci.
It wasn’t a moment too soon. In fact, with so few World War II vets still around, it’s actually about 10 years too late, says Santucci. “This information is going extinct like an endangered species,” he says. (Fred Michel died as this article was being written.) “The things these veterans told us need to be in the history books,” he adds. “We’ve now interviewed more than 50 veterans, and we’ve found out about multiple top-secret programs.” But those who worked in one program didn’t know about the other programs or even what others in their same program were working on. “It was very compartmentalized,” says Santucci. “That’s the way intelligence works.” Further confounding matters is how hard it is to track down living vets: Separated by their secrets, few stayed in touch.
But this much we know: P.O. Box 1142 housed two military intelligence programs in addition to MIS-Y and Op-16-Z. The MIS-X (Military Intelligence Service-X) program helped American personnel overseas to evade capture and communicated with those held captive. This was the stuff of James Bond—or Hogan’s Heroes. The duty of an American POW was to escape or cause enough chaos in the prisoner camp to keep the German soldiers preoccupied and off the frontlines. With the help of several manufacturing companies, personnel at 1142 sent care packages to American POWs containing items like cribbage boards and baseballs with radio receivers that could tune in to the BBC for coded messages. Decks of cards, pipes, and cigarette packs might contain hidden escape maps, saws, compasses, or money to help POWs escape.
Another key program was MIRS—the Military Intelligence Research Section—which studied documents to support tactical decisions but also aided efforts to extract information from POWs. This group armed American interrogators with details that made them appear to know far more than they actually did. For example, after Army researchers spotted a newspaper photo of German General Erwin Rommel surrounded by other generals at his daughter’s wedding, they used it to corner a general who was eventually captured and delivered to 1142. “An interrogator would say, ‘We already know most of the information we need,’” says Santucci. “‘And by the way, how was the wedding? We know you were standing next to general so and so, who was also captured and gave us plenty of information, so you might as well talk.’”
Personnel also interrogated prisoners and monitored them covertly. “They even bugged the trees,” says Santucci. “Although it’s hard to believe they called them bugs—they were two-feet long.” Often the agents eavesdropping had little or no understanding of the details they were recording or the significance of the information, which was then passed on to other agents. Take the V1 and V2 rockets, the weapons of mass destruction at the time. Set on a course toward England, the world’s first long-range missiles flew until their engines gave out and then simply fell wherever they were. At 1142, monitor Werner Moritz recalled overhearing two German naval officers talking in their room: “Don’t worry, once the work at Peenemunde prevails, Germany will be victorious.” It took the Allies about a month to determine Peenemunde’s location, where the rockets were being made; soon after the British bombed the site.
In another instance, George Mandel, now 85, was assigned to a POW working on purifying uranium, though at the time Mandel had no idea why. “In my mind, I was just writing reports,” he says. “Of course months later, when Hiroshima happened, it all made sense.”
At first, the prisoners were primarily U-boat captains and crew members who had surrendered in the Atlantic. But as the war’s end neared, prominent scientists surrendered or were recruited with the promise that if they talked, they could pursue their studies in the United States. “The Russians captured more German scientists than the Americans,” says Santucci. “But we captured the hall-of-famers to help in the Cold War.” One such person, believed to have passed through 1142, was Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist who would eventually become a key part of NASA’s efforts to put a man on the moon.
General Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s top spy against the Russians, also surrendered to the Americans and ended up at Fort Hunt. “He probably should’ve gone to Nuremberg and been prosecuted for war crimes,” says Santucci. “Instead he became chief of Russian counterintelligence during the Cold War. That could be another reason why the military wanted to erase the things that happened at Fort Hunt years ago.” Mandel says Nazi party membership was overlooked in some cases because the U.S. military was already gathering intelligence on its next immediate worry: containing the Russians. “We didn’t like the idea that we were treating Nazis well,” says Mandel. “Many of us were Jewish—not necessarily religious—but we knew how the Germans had made life difficult for Jews in Germany. Still the feeling was that we should extract as much information as we could.”
In fact, many men stationed at P.O. Box 1142 were refugees from Germany—Jews who were young boys when their family fled from Hitler in the late 1930s. Some of them, like Henry Kolm, 84, lost relatives to the Nazis. These men were selected for their loyalty and their basic science skills but also for their proficiency in German and their cultural background, which could prove useful during interrogations. For example, Kolm recalls a conversation he had with one of his “customers” while playing chess. In an age when discussions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” have arisen regarding the Middle East conflict, POWs housed here were wooed with kindness and camaraderie. If they coughed up information voluntarily, they might get treated to a dinner in town or a shopping trip into Washington, D.C. In this case, Kolm’s colonel reminisced about his favorite remote mountain lake in Austria. Coincidentally, it was the same vacation spot Kolm’s father had taken the young Kolm, so he knew exactly what it looked like—down to the two small sleeping huts. The stunned colonel was convinced “ever afterwards that American intelligence had a dossier on every detail of his entire life,” says Kolm. “Very useful for my interrogation.”
Even as the war came to an end, the work continued. When Germany accepted defeat and the U-234 submarine surrendered at sea, the entire crew was transferred to 1142. Among the sub’s cargo: an unassembled jet fighter and a load of uranium oxide. “Not the stuff you could make a bomb out of,” says Kolm. But it indicated the Germans were on the right track. Interrogators found out the submarine’s destination had been Japan. “If that had gotten to Japan, we would’ve been facing kamikaze pilots flying rocket planes,” says Kolm.
Mandel recalls interrogating a prisoner about faster planes and proximity fuses that could blow things up simply by getting close to a target. “We didn’t have any of that,” he says. “German fighter planes suddenly became so much faster we couldn’t catch them. So I asked a German prisoner what was happening and he told me their planes didn’t use propellers anymore—they had jet engines.” It was this sort of technological ingenuity that almost allowed the Germans to win the war. But as we know, that didn’t happen. The Allies defeated Hitler thanks to innovative interrogation techniques at Fort Hunt. But the site’s crucial role in the war would have been lost forever had it not been for the persistence of park staff who, once they discovered the secret, doggedly pushed for more, realizing their race against time. “We’re losing the last generation of World War II vets,” says Santucci. “We need to find as many as we can and hang on to their stories. Thousands and thousands of books have been written on WWII, but what we’ve uncovered at Fort Hunt is changing what we knew about military intelligence history. It’s a shame it didn’t occur 10 years ago when more veterans were around. But we’ve got it now and we’re never going to let it go.”
SIDEBAR: TELLING THE REST OF THE STORY
Now that the secret’s out, there’s a big story to tell at Fort Hunt. The Park Service’s plan is to create a visitors center at Fort Hunt, perhaps in a 1903 building used during the World War II era—the noncommissioned officers’ quarters. If funding is found, park personnel plan to install interpretive signs, old photographs, and maybe even some war paraphernalia. Although the men who served at P.O. Box 1142 were instructed not to take photos or mementos, many veterans have a small stash that they have since shared with the Park Service.
The Park Service is also hoping to mirror the experience of those agents eavesdropping on the German POWs, by allowing visitors to don headphones and listen in as if they were monitoring a conversation. Using actual transcripts from 1142 recovered at the National Archives, they hope to hire native German speakers to record the original dialogue in the mother tongue, so visitors can listen in and read the English translation in front of them. For now, visitors will find little more than a public park with a flag, a plaque, and a few interpretive panels. But with any luck, the full story will be told here within a few years’ time.