NPR Transcript: Breaking The Silence Of a Secret POW Camp (Parts One and Two)

By Pam Fessler

Streaming audio file of the NPR broadcast

NPR Morning Edition, August 18, 2008 · About two years ago, National Park Service employees stumbled upon a fascinating and largely untold piece of American history.

It involves a secret World War II interrogation camp at Fort Hunt, Va., not far from the Pentagon. During and right after the war, thousands of top German prisoners were questioned there about troop movements and scientific advances.

Soldiers at the site also prepared special "care packages" for American POWs that they sent overseas. They included maps, radios and other escape tools.

Many of the camp's records were destroyed right after the war, and those who worked there were sworn to secrecy. Many veterans never spoke about it, even to family and friends, although the operation has been gradually declassified over the past two decades.

The National Park Service, which now runs Fort Hunt Park, has been trying to piece together the story of the interrogation facility — code-named P.O. Box 1142 during the war.

Oral History Project

It all started when Brandon Bies, a park cultural resources specialist, was researching Fort Hunt for some historical signs for the park. He knew it had been the site of an intelligence operation during the war, but he'd been unable to learn much more.

A ranger giving a tour told a group of visitors that the Park Service's knowledge of the site's history was limited. Then one of the tourists raised her hand and said her next-door neighbor had been an interrogator at Fort Hunt.

That was the lead he needed. Bies learned the veteran's name, Fred Michel, and tracked him down at his home in Louisville, Ky.

"And the stories that Mr. Michel was sharing with us were unbelievable. Stories of secret submarines and nuclear devices and German rocket scientists that we absolutely had never heard of before," says Bies.

Michel also had documents, including some with the names of others who had worked at Fort Hunt, including his former colleague, George Mandel.

George Mandel

Bies did a quick Google search "and immediately found the Web page for Dr. H. George Mandel," Bies says. Mandel had become a pharmacology professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., right near Fort Hunt. The park service contacted him and then reunited him with Michel at the park in August 2006.

"They showed me around, and of course nothing was recognizable," recalls Mandel. "There's one house still available apparently from that time — and all the rest has been demolished."

Bies knew he was in a race against time if he wanted to preserve this history. Like Mandel and Michel, remaining veterans were likely to be in their 80s and 90s. So Bies and his colleagues began to interview and record as many Fort Hunt veterans as they could find.

They've contacted about 50 veterans who worked at P.O. Box 1142 and have interviewed more than 40 of them.

Underground At Fort Hunt?

On June 16, Bies interviewed Elvin Polesky in Frederick, Md., as part of the Fort Hunt oral history project.

Polesky is a tall, friendly 83-year-old. He wears a white T-shirt with the word "SECRET" written across it in bold black letters — a souvenir from the National Park Service. Bies hopes Polesky can fill an important gap in the story. The veteran was at Fort Hunt when the intelligence operation shut down in 1946.

Bies gently prods him for details as a videotape records the interview: "Do you remember about how many Americans were stationed at 1142 at that time?"

"Aw, gee, we didn't have all that many," says Polesky, as he tries to recall. It's a fine line for Bies, trying to jog a veteran's memory without influencing it.

Polesky then says something that grabs Bies' attention.

"We had 250 German war prisoners underneath. They were down underground at Fort Hunt," he says.

Most veterans remember the prisoners being kept above ground. Bies doesn't really know whether some might have been kept underground. There are so few records.

He unrolls a large military map in the hopes that it will help Polesky recall more details.

Polesky peers at the map and points.

"Up on this far end was the two taller buildings, one of them being the one we billeted in," he says, going on to describe in detail what the fort looked like when he was there.

But then Polesky pauses. "Where's the underground part?"

"Well, that's what we were hoping you would tell us," says Bies. It's a slow process, mining all these memories, but Bies say with each veteran, they learn a little more.

"We actually have from veterans a photograph of, on the day after the war ended, hundreds of documents being burned at 1142," he says. "And it illustrates how critical it is to speak to these gentlemen, because who knows what part of the story went up in smoke?"

He knows some of the history is gone forever. And the urgency only continues to grow. Four of the veterans he's interviewed so far have died.
Fort Hunt, Va.

Former GIs Spill Secrets Of WWII POW Camp
by Pam Fessler

Correction: The story described a German scientist who was aboard a U-boat that surrendered to the U.S. in 1945, and said, "On that same U-boat was Germany's top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun." Von Braun was in Bavaria when he surrendered to the U.S. Army.

This is part two in a three-part series

All Things Considered, August 18, 2008 · Amid the shade trees, swings and picnic grounds at Fort Hunt Park just outside Washington, D.C., there are few traces of the site's top-secret military past. But for the GIs who were stationed there during World War II, the park is alive with memories of what it had been: an interrogation camp for nearly 4,000 mostly German prisoners of war.

The park, then code-named P.O. Box 1142, was where the military elicited crucial information from top enemy officers and scientists. It also was where the United States had a clandestine program to help American POWs escape.

Until recently, much of what occurred at P.O. Box 1142 was unknown. Many who participated went to their graves without revealing — even to their families — what they'd done. The buildings were razed after the war. And many documents about the camp were destroyed in an effort to conceal its existence.

The National Park Service, which now runs Fort Hunt Park, is trying desperately to capture some of this history before it disappears. It has conducted more than 40 oral interviews with vets who had been stationed there.

A Nickel And A Phone Number

One GI who worked at P.O. Box 1142 was John Gunther Dean, a young American soldier singled out while in basic training because he seemed well-suited for the intelligence operation. Dean, now 82, recalls how he was summoned to the Pentagon, where an Army officer asked him if he knew how to speak German.

"And I said, 'Yeah, I speak German like a native,'" says Dean.

His family, which was Jewish, had fled Germany in the late 1930s. When everyone else at Fort Belvoir — a U.S. Army base in Virginia — was sent overseas, Dean was handed a nickel and a phone number and then mysteriously dropped off in the middle of Alexandria, Va.

"There was a drug store. I went in, called the number and they said, 'Dean, you stay outside and we'll pick you up in a staff car.' And they drove me up towards Mount Vernon and that's how I ended up at Fort Hunt. It must have been end of November, early December 1944," he says.

George Mandel, now an 84-year-old professor at George Washington University, also ended up at P.O. Box 1142 during the war. Mandel says when he was there, things looked quite different than they do today. There were prison barracks and buildings where American soldiers would interrogate Nazi and other enemy prisoners. About 4,000 high-ranking prisoners passed through the camp.

"My job was to interrogate scientifically trained and experienced Germans who had been sent to this country by the military," says Mandel. He German and had a chemistry degree. But he admits that at age 20, he was naïve in the face of some of the Third Reich's top scientists.

"One of them was a person who worked on enriching uranium, and I didn't know why anybody would want to enrich uranium. I mean, what does this have to do with anything?" he says. "And so my job was to find out what he was doing and how it was being carried out, and then I reported this to the Pentagon."

It was part of a U.S. effort to learn what the Germans were up to. The prisoners were asked about troop movements, scientific advances and anything else that could help the Allied cause.

Gluing A Broken Vase

For years, Mandel, Dean and others kept quiet about P.O. Box 1142 because they had been sworn to secrecy. The operation has since been declassified, but many records were lost, which is why the veterans' stories are so important to the park service.

For Chief Ranger Vincent Santucci, it's like trying to glue together a broken vase — with some important pieces missing.

"Many of the archives were destroyed directly after the war. And so if we didn't have the opportunity to speak with these men and capture their stories, much of it may have been lost forever," Santucci says.

Another soldier who passed through Fort Hunt was Cameron LaClair. He was a junior intelligence officer on his way to England to brief soldiers and airmen before the D-Day invasion on how to evade capture by the Germans. He later went to work for the CIA.

LaClair says interrogators at Fort Hunt were helped a great deal by information gleaned from bugs placed in the prisoners' rooms.

"There were a group of men sitting around a table in a room with great huge recorders, recording everything these people said to each other," LaClair recalls. "And so it sort of threw the prisoners off. 'How did you know this, how did you know that my daughter was 17 on March 28th?' So it really put them at a disadvantage."

Transcripts show that interrogations at Fort Hunt were usually straightforward, almost cordial affairs. Veterans say they often got their best information just by being friendly. Some prisoners were even wined and dined to soften them up.

Dean, who later became a top U.S. diplomat, says it was very effective.

"I was a pretty good athlete. … I would do sports with them in order to make them more cooperative. I would take some of the people out for dinner at a restaurant in town in civilian clothes," he recalls.

A Shopping Trip

One of those Dean befriended was German engineer Heinz Schlicke, who developed infrared fuses that could be used to trigger an atomic bomb. Schlicke was brought to P.O. Box 1142 after the U-boat on which he and other scientists were fleeing Germany for Japan was surrendered in 1945.

Schlicke's time at Fort Hunt was part of Operation Paperclip, a secret effort to bring hundreds of top German scientists — and their expertise — to the U.S. before the Russians got their hands on them. Dean says he and Schlicke played tennis and rode horses.

"It took quite some time before he was willing to cooperate. The war had ended in Europe and at that point, he said, he's willing to help us, but his wife was at that point in what was in the Russian zone," says Dean.

Dean was eventually sent to Europe to find Schlicke's wife and two small children and to reunite the family. Schlicke ended up working in the U.S. for the remainder of his life.

Germany's top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, also wound up at Fort Hunt after surrendering to the U.S. Army. Von Braun had developed the deadly V-2 missile, which killed thousands in London and elsewhere before the end of the war.

"I was the morale officer of Wernher von Braun," says Arno Mayer, now an 83-year-old Princeton historian.

Mayer's orders at Fort Hunt were to keep the German scientists happy, so he supplied them with magazines and liquor. In one bizarre incident, he took von Braun and three other German POWs Christmas shopping at a Jewish-owned department store in Washington, D.C. Mayer says the men wanted to buy lingerie for their wives, who were still back in Germany.

"We told the sales person what size and so on. And the woman held up a pair of panties," he says. The Germans were appalled. They didn't want nylon underwear, Mayer says: They wanted woolen ones "that should be long, so as to cover their legs."

The special treatment must have worked. Von Braun went on to be a leading figure in the U.S. space program.

Fort Hunt Reunion

Last October, the National Park Service and the military honored some of the more than 50 veterans who've been tracked down so far. The men, all in their 80s and 90s — some spry, others with wheelchairs or walkers — were reunited for the first since P.O. Box 1142 shut down.

Symbolically, at 11:42 a.m., the flag was raised over Fort Hunt.

"For 63 years, nobody ever said thank you. And it was very nice to receive recognition that what we did was being recognized of being helpful to our country," says Dean.

It was a poignant affair for men who seldom got to share their stories. But it was also an opportunity for some veterans to note how much times had changed — and how their interrogations bore little resemblance to some harsher methods used today.

"And I think that point was made very emphatically," says Mandel. "Yes, we threatened them with being sent back to Russia, but there was no other personal harm of any kind. And people thought they could be most effective as interrogators by being nice to the people they interrogated."

But Mandel admits many of the German prisoners wanted to cooperate, especially at the end of the war.

For the most part, the veterans are happy that new details about P.O. Box 1142 have finally emerged. They say they'll leave it to others to decide what it means.

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