It’s a steamy summer night in 1943 in Alexandria, Virginia,…and another Army bus with dark windows is rumbling down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, headed for a nearly forgotten fort….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 is a lot more to the story. 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 National Park Service (NPS) had managed Fort Hunt located near Washington, DC. On May 15, 1942, the War Department assumed control of the fort to operate a joint Army-Navy interrogation center called PO Box 1142. Two months later the government announced the completion of the prison, functioning of listening machines and installation of telephones, including a direct line to the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) headquarters and to the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). From July 1942 to November 1946, over 4,000 prisoners of war (POWs) went through 1142. The MIS and the ONI housed, interrogated and surreptitiously eaves dropped on high-ranking German officers, about 500 scientists, and submariners.
For a long time, little was known about Fort Hunt’s World War II history. Records were negligible and structures were gone. The veterans who had served there lived with secrets of what had happened at 1142—until the National Park Service (NPS) stumbled across its history in 2006 and began digging deeper through an oral history program.
At its peak, P.O. Box 1142 had long, wooden frame barrack-type buildings for the American enlisted men along with headquarters buildings, offices, and smaller buildings for a total of eighty-seven structures. The POWs lived in standard manufactured small cabins with two per cabin.
Wayne Spivey had been a chief clerk, supervising information gathered from interrogations. Like other veterans he had kept quiet, telling an interviewer, “’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….One fellow thought I worked for the post office, and I just let it go’” Another veteran told an NPS ranger, “’We did some great stuff there. But I signed a secrecy agreement.’” Once the chief of army counterintelligence reassured the veterans they no longer had to honor those agreements, stories unfolded of secret German submarines, nuclear devices and German rocket scientists who had been held as POWs at 1142.
Many of the POWs were part of Operation Paperclip, a stealthy campaign to get the best German scientists to America before the Russians got them. George Mandel was assigned to work with German scientists whose expertise was in rockets and rocket engines. The twenty-year-old Mandel, also German, felt credulous when interrogating several of the Third Reich’s leading scientists. One of them was working on enriching uranium. Mandel did not understand why anybody would want to do that. His job was to find out what the scientist was up to and report what he learned to the Pentagon. When the US bombed Hiroshima a few months later it all made sense to Mandel.
John Gunther Dean also served at P.O. Box 1142. Born in Breslau, Germany, as John Gunther Dienstfertig, he enjoyed a good life until Hitler and the Nazis began their power-hungry drive to annex adjacent nations followed by oppressing, enslaving, and killing Jews in their path. In the winter of 1938-1939, his family fled to America, changing their surname. As a young man, he enlisted in the Army. While other soldiers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, were sent overseas Dean was given a nickel and a phone number and then covertly dropped off in Alexandria. From a local drug store, he called the number. Dean was told to go outside; someone would pick him up in a staff car. That is how he wound up at 1142 in late 1944.
Dean made “friends” with German engineer Dr. Heinz Schlicke, an electronic warfare expert who was involved in one of the most infamous cases of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The incident happened on May 15, 1945, when Schicke headed the surreptitious journey of German submarine U-234 on its way to transport a technically-rich payload from Hitler to Hirohito. The voyage was the dawn of modern stealth technology and atomic energy.
Fortunately, the USS Sutton captured U-234 off Newfoundland. Among the cargo were plans for the: V-1 glide bomb (forerunner to cruise missiles); V-2 rocket (forerunner of the short-range, tactical ballistic surface-to-surface missile-SCUD); Me262 fighter aircraft (the first combat jet fighter); low observable submarine designs and boxes filled with uranium oxide, a crucial element of atomic bombs. The uranium oxide surprised the Allies who believed Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had nuclear programs but thought they were undeveloped. Historians have speculated on whether or not the US government used this uranium to drop atomic bombs on Japan.
Dean told the interviewers that he and Schlicke played tennis and rode horses. It took sometime before Schlicke was ready to cooperate. The scientist wanted to get his wife and family to America. Dean was sent to Europe to find them. Typically the interrogations seemed almost amiable. Veterans said their sociable behavior frequently resulted in getting the choicest material.
Watch a NPR video to learn more about PO Box 1142.
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