Monday, July 24, 2017

The Creation of Fort Belvoir, Virginia (1918)

     The federal government acquired the Belvoir Peninsula in 1910 with plans to develop the area into a reformatory.  Local citizens banded together with patriotic organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in opposing the establishment of a reformatory so close to Mount Vernon.  The reformatory idea was scrapped and Congress transferred the property to the War Department in 1912, following a request by the U.S. Army's Engineer School to use the area as a training site.  The Army’s Engineer School, located in Washington, needed field training areas and rifle ranges.  The Belvoir Peninsula provided challenging terrain where soldiers could build pontoon bridges and conduct rifle practice.

     America entered World War I in April, 1917.  In January 1918, camp A.A. Humphreys, named after Union Civil War General and former Chief of Engineer Corps Andrew A. Humphreys, was established on the Belvoir Peninsula.  Within only four months of the start of construction, Camp A.A. Humphreys was in operation. Over the course of eleven months, extensive camp facilities were constructed, with most of the heavy labor being done by segregated African-American service battalions.  To accommodate the twenty thousand troops who were to use the camp, seven hundred and ninety temporary wood-frame buildings were constructed. A newly constructed dam across Accotink Creek and a water filtration plant assured a steady flow of fresh water.  Transportation systems and utilities were also improved.  The unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway was surfaced in concrete within six months and a plank road was built linking the camp to the Highway. Standard gauge and narrow gauge railways followed.  Building these transportation systems facilitated deliveries to the camp, and provided engineer training experience for troops being sent to Europe. During 1918, some sixty thousand troops received training in engineering, trench warfare, and gas warfare.  After the war Camp A.A. Humphreys became a permanent installation and was renamed Fort Belvoir in the 1930s.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Creation of Quantico Marine Base (World War I)

     America entered World War I in April, 1917. Told to expand its training capabilities, the U.S. Marine Corps began inspecting promising sites in the spring of 1917.  Some five thousand acres along Quantico Creek in Prince William County, Virginia, were leased from an ailing development company which had been promoting the area for recreation.  The area was largely uninhabited.  There was an officially incorporated town, a shipyard, and a small hotel that had been built to attract tourists.  The first Marine contingent to arrive consisted of ninety one enlisted men and four officers.  Soon thousands would come pouring in for training.  There were not enough barracks, and the troops did their laundry in the river.  Troops unaccustomed to a Virginia summer complained, “Quantico was hotter than a pistol and muddier than a pigsty”.

   Aviation first arrived at Quantico in July 1918, when two kite balloons were flown to spot artillery fire. Soon four seaplanes were assigned to Quantico. Naval aviation actually began in 1911, only six years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight, with a Congressional appropriation of $25,000.  This money went for the purchase of three aircraft, one from the Wright brothers themselves.  The first Marine aviator (he was the fifth Naval aviator) was 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham.  On December 7, 1917, the Marine aviators were ordered overseas to fight in France, and to take part in anti-submarine warfare.  In 1919, a flying field was laid out at Quantico and land leased to accommodate a squadron returning from combat in Europe. The facility was later named Brown Field, in memory of 2nd Lt Walter V. Brown, who lost his life in an early accident at that location. 

     By 1920 Quantico Marine Corps Base had become a permanent fixture in Northern Virginia, as Marine Corps schools were founded and the Corps embarked on the mission to, “make this post and the whole Marine Corps a great university."

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.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis

Artist John Trumbull served in the Revolutionary War as an aide to George Washington.  After the war he pursued a career as an artist.  In 1785 he began sketching out ideas for a series of large scale paintings to commemorate the major events of the American Revolution.  In 1791 he went to Yorktown, Virginia to sketch the site of the British surrender to General George Washington.

Some twenty five years later, Congress commissioned Trumble to paint four large paintings to be hung in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, one of these, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis was completed in 1820, and depicts the surrender of Lt. General Charles, the Earl Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.  Trumbull received $8,000 for the painting (which would be approximately $200,000 in today’s money).

George Washington did not think that Yorktown would be the last battle of the Revolutionary War, and felt that it was his duty to keep the Continental Army together until a final peace treaty was signed.  Despite the devastating loss at Yorktown, loyalist militias continued to fight throughout the back country.

Peace talks began in April 1782.  A preliminary treaty finally came on November 30, 1782, more than a year after Yorktown. The final treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, and ratified by the Continental Congress early in 1784.