During World War II, Fort Hunt was the location of a top-secret military intelligence installation (P.O. Box 1142), where high value German captives were interrogated, and means were developed for the escape of captured U.S. servicemen. After the War, some German scientists who chose to come to the U.S. rather than go to the Soviet Union were debriefed at Fort Hunt. Thereafter, almost all the buildings were leveled and the servicemen who worked there sworn to secrecy. As a result, no one knew the importance of what had occurred there until the 1990s, when the information was declassified. Even now, information is only slowly coming to light.
POWs and Intel at Fort Hunt in World War II
Evolving Uses of Fort Hunt: Before the War
By 1923, only a caretaker remained at Fort Hunt. From 1931 through 1933, the first African-American ROTC unit in the nation trained and then later drilled at the site.
In 1932, the War Department sold Fort Hunt to the Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, whose functions were taken over by the NPS in 1933.
CCC camps were set up around the country, including the one established at Fort Hunt on October 17, 1933, which was designated NP-6. The CCC was a jobs program authorized under the Federal Unemployment Relief Act of 1933 to address joblessness in the Great Depression. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, NP-6 enrollees increasingly performed national defense work. Along with other CCC camps, NP-6 was terminated in March 1942, as Fort Hunt was made ready for a new and even more significant chapter.
A Top Secret Base Known Only as "P.O. Box 1142"
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the War Department determined that two domestic military intelligence centers would be needed and selected Fort Hunt as the center on the East Coast. On May 15, 1942, the Department of Interior issued a special use permit to the War Department for the duration of the war plus one year for the establishment of the center. The site became known only as “P.O. Box 1142,” the center’s mailing address in Alexandria, Virginia. At its height, P.O. Box 1142 had 87 temporary and permanent structures.
At least three key secret programs were conducted at P.O. Box 1142. The first was a temporary detention center where strategic interrogation of high value POWs was conducted by the US Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). The second program was an escape and evasion (E&E) program, which instructed servicemen before their deployment to Europe on E&E methods and provided them with devices to help to evade capture or to escape if captured. The third program was a military intelligence research service.
The Strategic Interrogation Center (MIS-Y)
While the Army was in operational charge of P.O.Box 1142, interrogations were conducted both by the Army’s MIS and by the Navy’s ONI. The interrogators were supported by specialized subsections that enhanced the strategic interrogation process. They included, among others:
• The Enemy Intelligence Subsection, focused on German counterintelligence, espionage, and similar matters
• The Army Subsection, focused on the German Army’s weapons, the organization of military units, and other matters of interest to the US Army
• The Air Subsection, focused on intelligence relating to the Luftwaffe’s weapons, tactics and the developing German rocket program, as well as on the impacts of and potential targets for the Allied strategic bombing campaign in Europe
• The Scientific Research Subsection, focused on German scientists and military-related scientific advances
• The Industrial Economics Subsection, focused on German industrial production and its ability to sustain the war effort’s production needs.
In addition, the Navy interrogated U-boat commanders and crew. Interrogators sought technical information about the submarines and their weapons, crew composition and similar information.
The interrogation teams were carefully chosen and well trained, not only in these and other subjects but also in interrogation techniques. Sixty-eight of the 547 Army personnel (12%) on official rosters of this program received training at the Camp Ritchie Military Intelligence Training Center in Cascade, Maryland. Their training was supplemented with special training in counterintelligence and psychology. A number of the interrogators, some of whom were Jews, were recent immigrants from Nazi Europe who spoke German and knew the German culture. They used non-violent interrogation methods tailored for individual POWs that have since been considered the gold standard of interrogation techniques.
A total of 3,451 prisoners were processed through P.O. Box 1142 from 1942 through July 1945. Information was derived through interrogation, listening devices, and the use of stool pigeons. Another subsection prepared reports, which were then evaluated, and when finalized, sent to the Army, Army Air Force or Navy for their use. More than 5,000 such reports were generated by the end of August 1945.
The intelligence gleaned through this program was invaluable to the Allied war effort. For example, German rockets, including the V-1 and V-2 rockets used to attack England, were made at Peenemunde. The interrogation team learned that fact, and soon thereafter Peenemunde became a target of intensive Allied bombing. Other important information was gained about enemy military operations, weapons technology and other key subjects.
As the war in Europe wound down and then ended, several hundred scientists, military figures and political figures were also brought to P.O. Box 1142 for interrogation. The intelligence obtained from them helped the US in the Cold War that soon followed. For example, Germany outfitted a special submarine, U-234, to travel to Japan at the very end of the war in Europe to aid Japan in its continuing war efforts. U-234 had on board very significant scientific and technical information and highly trained personnel. But U-234 surfaced and surrendered to the Americans on May 14, 1945, in the North Atlantic after the crew learned of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Among its cargo were designs for and samples of Germany’s latest armaments and military products, including its new jetpropelled Messerschmitt aircraft, new radar, and advanced submarines. Moreover, U-234 itself had advanced equipment which American submarines lacked. Among those on board were a Luftwaffe General with deep knowledge of German offensive and defensive air warfare; radar and antiaircraft specialists; one of Germany’s leading electronics experts; and two experts from the firm that had developed and built the new jet airplanes.
In addition, as Germany was overrun, a competition began between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to obtain the expertise of German scientists and others in fields with military applications. The rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and key members of his scientific team were questioned in the fall of 1945 by PO Box 1142 interrogators at Fort Strong on Long Island in Boston after being brought to the U.S. as part of “Operation Paperclip,” a program to utilize the talents of top German scientists and prevent them from working for the Soviets. He later headed the Marshall Space Flight Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Other Germa scientists were lter questioned at PO Box 1142. Among others who were questioned at P.O. Box 1142 was German General Reinhard Gehlen, the head of all intelligence on the Eastern Front. While controversial, he brought with him substantial intelligence information about the Soviets.
The Escape and Evasion Program
Even more secret than the strategic interrogation program was Fort Hunt’s escape and evasion (E&E) program (MIS_X). Even the fort’s commandant was unaware of this mission to prepare U.S. servicemen to evade capture by the enemy and, if captured, to escape. This was particularly crucial for the Army Air Force. The Eighth Army Air Force flew daylight bombing raids over Nazi-controlled Europe and Germany itself, a hazardous undertaking in which numerous planes were shot down and survivors captured.
The British had already discovered the need for such a program, having started such bombing before America entered the war. The P.O. Box 1142 program was modeled on the British one and began operations in February 1943. The nerve center of this program was located in the renovated old post hospital, the site of the current Picnic Pavilion A.
One mission of the E&E program was to create maps of areas where bombers were going so downed airmen could use them to find their way back. Silk maps created at P.O. Box 1142 were distributed to the Air Force for that use. Also, 5 million uniform buttons were created containing hidden compasses.
Codes created to enable captured airmen to communicate with P.O. Box 1142 were taught to selected airmen known as “code users” or “CU.” If captured, the CUs would send letters home to fictitious addresses, which the Post Office knew to send to P.O. Box 1142. The 14 cryptologists in the E&E program would decode the messages and send them through the chain of command. The information transfer was both to aid in escape activities and to convey to the U.S. military the intelligence that the prisoners gleaned in captivity.
The E&E program created two fictitious prisoner relief organizations and used their names to send care packages to the POW camps. But those packages were a cover for smuggling escape and evasion materials into the camps. Letters to the CUs in the camps would inform them in advance of the incoming packages. The E&E program succeeded in hiding compasses, tissue paper maps, counterfeit German currency, radios and similar items in those packages. By 1944, the E&E program was sending between 80 and 120 packages each day to German POW camps.
American companies were enlisted secretly to assist in this effort. For example, an electronics manufacturer made the four components of a specially designed miniature radio transmitter, placing each component in a separate capsule. The capsules were then shipped to a baseball manufacturer that wound each capsule into a color-coded baseball. At the prison camps, the components were extracted and assembled into transmitters. Another company inserted map segments between special peel-away outer layers in playing cards. Another donated cartons of cigarettes in which crystal radio receivers were hidden.
In March 1944, 76 Allied POWs escaped from the North Compound of Stalag Luft III through one of the three long and deep tunnels that they had dug. For five months prior to the breakout, MIS-X had been sending escape aids to the camp. All but three of the escapees were captured, and Hitler had 50 of them put to death. None of the escapees were Americans, as they had all been transferred to the South Compound eight weeks before the escape. One and a half million German troops were diverted to catch the escapees. The 1963 movie “The Great Escape” chronicled this escape.
During the war, the Germans captured 95,532 U.S. servicemen. Of those 737 escaped. It is not known how many managed to evade capture due to the E&E program. While the number of escapees was not large, the E&E program contributed to the morale of U.S. airmen sent on dangerous missions over enemy territory and of those captured.
On August 20, 1945, the War Department ordered all records of the E&E program at P.O. Box 1142 destroyed.
The Military Intelligence Research Program
The third program at P.O. Box 1142 was the military intelligence research service. This program’s translators scoured captured documents, German newspapers, periodicals and scientific journals for information crucial to the war effort. Information so gleaned also aided the interrogators in their questioning of prisoners.
Among other things, this program gathered and distributed to American Army units the German “order of battle.” This information included the identity of German military units based on their members’ arm patches or insignia, the organizational structure of such units and the commanders of each unit. It was important in the planning for D-Day on June 6, 1944.
50 Years of Silence and the Unfolding of the Story of P.O. Box 1142
The servicemen stationed at P.O. Box 1142 were sworn to secrecy never to divulge their role in World War II. After Fort Hunt was declared surplus in November 1946, the Army Corps of Engineers removed dozens of temporary wartime buildings. The property was returned to the NPS in January 1948, with only a handful of buildings remaining. The NPS converted Fort Hunt into a park unit within the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Based upon intensive public use of the park, the NPS decided in the 1960s to build a main picnic pavilion with 8,000 square feet of usable space (Picnic Pavilion A) on the site of the demolished post hospital, where the E&E program had been based. In 1980, Fort Hunt Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Gross, Dan, personal communication to Canter, D., based upon research performed at the National Archives and Records Administration II, May 4, 2012.
Kleinman, Steven M, “The History of MIS-Y: U.S. Strategic Interrogation During World War II,” Unclassified thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Joint Military Intelligence College, August 2002
Laird, Matthew R, “By the River Potomac, An Historic Resource Study of Fort Hunt Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon, Virginia,” prepared for National Park Service, August 2000.
Scalia, Joseph Mark, “Germany’s Last Mission to Japan: The Failed Voyage of U-234,” Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2000.
Shoemaker, Lloyd R, “The Escape Factory,” St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York, 1990. Ridgley, Heidi, “P.O. Box 1142, WW II: The Lost Chapter,” National Parks, at 42
Last updated: December 2, 2015