Friday, July 14, 2017

The Secrets of Fort Hunt (Alexandria, Virginia)


     John Gunther Dean, a young American soldier whose Jewish family had fled Germany in the late 1930s was summoned to the Pentagon, where an Army officer asked him if he knew how to speak German.
      'Yeah, I speak German like a native,'" said Dean.
     Dean was handed a nickel and a phone number and then mysteriously dropped off in the middle of Alexandria.  Dean went into a drugstore and dialed the number.  A voice on the other end said,  “Dean, you stay outside and we'll pick you up in a staff car.”   Minutes later he was being driven south toward Mount Vernon, ending up at Fort Hunt on the banks of the Potomac
     Fort Hunt, a sprawling military base supporting shore batteries on the river, was built in 1897 just prior to the Spanish American War.  In the 1930s the now defunct fort was turned over to the Park Service.  With the outbreak of World War II, Fort Hunt was transferred back to the military “for the duration”.  The fort was turned into a top secret intelligence facility used for the interrogation of German prisoners of war and captured German scientists.    

    Known only by its’ secret code name  “P.O. Box 1142” throughout the war, Fort Hunt mushroomed into a substantial installation with one hundred and fifty new buildings, surrounded by guard towers and multiple electric fences. The intelligence operations being carried out were so secret that even building plans were labeled "Officers' School" to throw curious workmen off the scent.  Nearby residents watched unmarked, windowless buses roar toward the fort day and night.

     The Military Intelligence Service (MIS) had two special operations units working at Fort Hunt known as MIS-X and MIS-Y, one charged with interrogating high level German prisoners of war, and the other devising ways of communicating with and assisting the escape of American POWs held by the Nazis.

     At first, prisoners were mostly U-boat crew members who had survived the sinking of their submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. As the war progressed, P.O. Box 1142 shifted its attention to some of the most prominent scientists in Germany, many of whom surrendered and gave up information willingly, hoping to be allowed to stay in the United States. Germany had superior technology, particularly in rocketry and submarines, and the information obtained at Fort Hunt was critical to the security of the United States as it moved into the Cold War and the space age.  Nearly 4,000 German POWs spent some time in the camp's 100 barracks.  Among the prisoners were such notables as German scientist Wernher von Braun, who would become one of America's leading space experts; Reinhard Gehlen, a Nazi spymaster who would later work for the CIA during the Cold War; and Heinz Schlicke, inventor of infrared detection.

    One of the reasons for secrecy was the fact that the interrogation operations at Fort Hunt were not strictly in accordance with the Geneva Code Conventions.  The whereabouts of the German POWs were not immediately reported to the International Red Cross as required.   Prisoners from whom military intelligence thought it could obtain valuable information, particularly submarine crews, were transferred to Fort Hunt immediately after their capture. There they were held incommunicado and questioned until they either volunteered what they knew or convinced the Americans that they were not going to talk. Only then were they transferred to a regular POW camp and the International Red Cross notified of their capture.

     Although the mere existence of this unit and its intent violated the Geneva conventions on POW protocol, extracting information was done without torture, intimidation or cruelty.  The average stay for a prisoner at Fort Hunt was three months, during which time he was questioned several times a day.  Interrogating officers soon found that they learned more from bugging the conversations of their prisoners than they did from formal interrogation sessions.  Many prisoners spoke freely with each other, providing American intelligence officers with much valuable information on war crimes, the technical workings of U-boats, and the state of enemy morale.  Even rocks and trees were bugged, and the location of prisoners carefully monitored throughout the day to allow the correlation of taped conversations with particular prisoners.

     Almost all of the American interrogators were Jewish immigrants from Germany; some of whom had lost entire families in the Holocaust. They were recruited to P.O. Box 1142 for their language skills and, in the cases of Fred Michel and H. George Mandel, for  their scientific backgrounds.  Any anger toward their captives had to be suppressed.  Some found it difficult to watch German Generals having a dunk in the camp pool as a reward for cooperation.

      Only one POW was shot trying to escape.  Lieutenant Commander Werner Henke, the highest-ranking German officer to be shot while in American captivity during World War II, was killed while attempting an escape from Fort Hunt in 1944.  Henke, the commander of the German submarine U-515 was captured with forty of his crew on April 9, 1944 when his U-boat was sunk.  The British press had earlier labelled Henke “War Criminal No. 1”, for machine gunning survivors of the passenger ship SS Ceramic that U-515 sank on December 7, 1942.  When interrogators threatened to turn Henke over to the British to face war crime charges unless he cooperated, Henke attempted an escape and was shot.

     The unit also provide support to captured American POWs in German hands.  Packages, purportedly from loved ones, contained baseballs, playing cards, pipes, and cribbage boards.  Crafted at Fort Hunt, these innocous items cleverly hid compasses, saws, escape maps, and other items such as wire cutters.

     After the War, Fort Hunt was returned to the National Park Service which continued to develop the site as a recreational area. All of the buildings connected with the interrogation center were demolished.  Not  a single trace of the Top Secret facility remains except a commemorative plaque near the flagpole which honors the veterans of P.O. Box 1142 and their invaluable service to their country.

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