The secret nazi prisoners of virginia

This is part one in a three-part series.

The Secret Nazi Prisoners of Virginia

The Secret Nazi Prisoners of Virginia

Pharmacology professor George Mandel, during World War II and as he is now.

Pam Fessler/NPR/Historic Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Secret Nazi Prisoners of Virginia

Brandon Bies of the National Park Service prepares to do an oral history with veteran Elvin Polesky, who was at Fort Hunt right after World War II ended.

Pam Fessler/NPR

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.

POWs and Intel at Fort Hunt in World War II (U.S. National Park Service)

The Secret Nazi Prisoners of Virginia
imsge of Fort Hunt in WW2

National Park Service

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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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. 

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.

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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 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.

The CIA’s Worst-Kept Secret: Newly Declassified Files Confirm United States Collaboration with Nazis

The CIA reports show that U.S. officials knew they were subsidizing numerous Third Reich veterans who had committed horrible crimes against humanity, but these atrocities were overlooked as the anti-Communist crusade acquired its own momentum. For Nazis who would otherwise have been charged with war crimes, signing on with American intelligence enabled them to avoid a prison term.

“The real winners of the cold war were Nazi war criminals, many of whom were able to escape justice because the East and West became so rapidly focused after the war on challenging each other,” says Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and America’s chief Nazi hunter. Rosenbaum serves on a Clinton-appointed Interagency Working Group (IWG) committee of U.S. scholars, public officials, and former intelligence officers who helped prepare the CIA records for declassification.

Many Nazi criminals “received light punishment, no punishment at all, or received compensation because Western spy agencies considered them useful assets in the cold war,” the IWG team stated after releasing 18,000 pages of redacted CIA material. (More installments are pending.)

These are “not just dry historical documents,” insists former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the panel examining the CIA files. As far as Holtzman is concerned, the CIA papers raise critical questions about American foreign policy and the origins of the cold war.

The decision to recruit Nazi operatives had a negative impact on U.S.-Soviet relations and set the stage for Washington’s tolerance of human rights abuses and other criminal acts in the name of anti-Communism. With that fateful sub-rosa embrace, the die was cast for a litany of antidemocratic CIA interventions around the world.

The Gehlen Org

The key figure on the German side of the CIA-Nazi tryst was General Reinhard Gehlen, who had served as Adolf Hitler’s top anti-Soviet spy. During World War II, Gehlen oversaw all German military-intelligence operations in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

As the war drew to a close, Gehlen surmised that the U.S.-Soviet alliance would soon break down.

Realizing that the United States did not have a viable cloak-and-dagger apparatus in Eastern Europe, Gehlen surrendered to the Americans and pitched himself as someone who could make a vital contribution to the forthcoming struggle against the Communists.

In addition to sharing his vast espionage archive on the USSR, Gehlen promised that he could resurrect an underground network of battle-hardened, anti-Communist assets who were well placed to wreak havoc throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Although the Yalta Treaty stipulated that the United States must give the Soviets all captured German officers who had been involved in “eastern area activities,” Gehlen was quickly spirited off to Fort Hunt in Virginia.

The image he projected during 10 months of negotiations at Fort Hunt was, to use a bit of espionage parlance, a “legend”–one that hinged on Gehlen’s false claim that he was never really a Nazi, but was dedicated, above all, to fighting Communism.

Those who bit the bait included future CIA director Allen Dulles, who became Gehlen’s biggest supporter among American policy wonks.

Gehlen returned to West Germany in the summer of 1946 with a mandate to rebuild his espionage organization and resume spying on the East at the behest of American intelligence. The date is significant as it preceded the onset of the cold war, which, according to standard U.S.

historical accounts, did not begin until a year later. The early courtship of Gehlen by American intelligence suggests that Washington was in a cold war mode sooner than most people realize.

The Gehlen gambit also belies the prevalent Western notion that aggressive Soviet policies were primarily to blame for triggering the cold war.

Based near Munich, Gehlen proceeded to enlist thousands of Gestapo, Wehrmacht, and SS veterans. Even the vilest of the vile–the senior bureaucrats who ran the central administrative apparatus of the Holocaust–were welcome in the “Gehlen Org,” as it was called–including Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s chief deputy.

SS major Emil Augsburg and gestapo captain Klaus Barbie, otherwise known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” were among those who did double duty for Gehlen and U.S. intelligence.

“It seems that in the Gehlen headquarters, one SS man paved the way for the next and Himmler’s elite were having happy reunion ceremonies,” the Frankfurter Rundschau reported in the early 1950s.

Bolted lock, stock, and barrel into the CIA, Gehlen’s Nazi-infested spy apparatus functioned as America’s secret eyes and ears in central Europe. The Org would go on to play a major role within NATO, supplying two-thirds of raw intelligence on the Warsaw Pact countries.

Under CIA auspices, and later as head of the West German secret service until he retired in 1968, Gehlen exerted considerable influence on U.S. policy toward the Soviet bloc. When U.S.

spy chiefs desired an off-the-shelf style of nation tampering, they turned to the readily available Org, which served as a subcontracting syndicate for a series of ill-fated guerrilla air drops behind the Iron Curtain and other harebrained CIA rollback schemes.

Sitting Ducks for Disinformation

It’s long been known that top German scientists were eagerly scooped up by several countries, including the United States, which rushed to claim these high-profile experts as spoils of World War II.

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Yet all the while the CIA was mum about recruiting Nazi spies. The U.S. government never officially acknowledged its role in launching the Gehlen organization until more than half a century after the fact.

Handling Nazi spies, however, was not the same as employing rocket technicians. One could always tell whether Werner von Braun and his bunch were accomplishing their assignments for NASA and other U.S. agencies. If the rockets didn’t fire properly, then the scientists would be judged accordingly. But how does one determine if a Nazi spy with a dubious past is doing a reliable job?

Third Reich veterans often proved adept at peddling data–much of it false–in return for cash and safety, the IWG panel concluded. Many Nazis played a double game, feeding scuttlebutt to both sides of the East-West conflict and preying upon the mutual suspicions that emerged from the rubble of Hitler’s Germany.

General Gehlen frequently exaggerated the Soviet threat in order to exacerbate tensions between the superpowers. At one point he succeeded in convincing General Lucius Clay, military governor of the U.S.

zone of occupation in Germany, that a major Soviet war mobilization had begun in Eastern Europe.

This prompted Clay to dash off a frantic, top-secret telegram to Washington in March 1948, warning that war “may come with dramatic suddenness.”

P.O. Box 1142: The Secrets of Fort Hunt

A memorial to the operations of P.O. Box 1142, located at Fort Hunt Park in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor smoldered following intense, coordinated attacks by air forces from the Empire of Japan. Within days, Americans were embroiled in the conflict that was the Second World War, while the American military scrambled to establish a competent intelligence gathering operation on the East Coast. Carved from a portion of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, Alexandria’s Fort Hunt began its life as a coastal fortification during the Spanish-American War. With its close proximity to Washington, Fort Hunt became an ideal location for one of the most secretive group of programs in American history. Codenamed after its post office box in Alexandria, 1142, Fort Hunt became a secret interrogation center for high value German POWs. The layers of secrecy did not stop there. Unbeknownst even to interrogators stationed there, Fort Hunt also held a program whose mission was to communicate and aid in the escape of Allied POWs trapped in several German camps throughout Europe.

Codenamed MIS-Y, the interrogation practices at Fort Hunt began in April of 1942. Interrogators were inspired by techniques witnessed in London. Prisoners thought to hold vital information were given lavish treatment, hoping that the contrast with harsh combat conditions might help loosen tongues.

German prisoners would be brought into Fort Hunt for days or weeks of questioning before being “processed” and reported to neutral arbiters in Switzerland and to the Red Cross.

Because of this, Fort Hunt was in violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1929, but its role as a “processing center” rather than a camp allowed intelligence officials to circumvent the rules to a certain degree.[1]

Despite these violations, prisoners at Fort Hunt spent their days or weeks there in relative comfort, sans the boredom of captivity.

The food provided to prisoners was good and plentiful and interrogations were conducted in a relaxed and casual manner with tobacco and alcohol flowing freely. “You gained their confidence.

Tell them the war was almost over and you guys are losing, so you might as well cooperate. Play chess with them. Take them shopping. Invariably they’d start talking,” states George Weidinger in an article for Cleveland.com.

Interrogators used these techniques to coax details from their captives, without having to resort to torture. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity,” said George Frenkel in an interview with The Washington Post.[2]

Prisoners were kept apart early on, but over time, interrogators began to realize that their most important finds came from informal, recorded conversations of mixed POWs. Soon, prison cells were bugged with recording equipment.

Some highly perceptive prisoners discovered this, and kept Army clerks transcribing and translating meaningless chatter about topics as mundane as their favorite German foods to as crude as their sexual exploits. Yet despite their games, German prisoners were astonished with the amount of information that interrogators knew about their operations.

Information gleaned from captured German U-boat crews were compiled by the Navy into booklets known as “Post Mortems” which were sent out to offices of Allied naval commanders to help combat the U-boat threat.[3]

German scientists were also guests of Fort Hunt in the later stages of the war. High value scientists such as Wernher von Braun spent time at Fort Hunt deciphering V-2 rocket technology that he designed for the Germans. Von Braun was part of a secret effort known as Operation Paperclip, an attempt by the U.S.

to bring top German scientists stateside before the Soviet Union could get their hands on them. Von Braun would go on to be a key figure in U.S. space exploration. Another German scientist to spend time at Fort Hunt, Heinz Schlicke, developed infrared fuses which were later implemented in nuclear weapon technology.

[4]

Several thousand German POWs and scientists passed through the walls of Fort Hunt between 1942 and 1945. No prisoners escaped, though one U-boat captain named Werner Henke, fearing he would be turned over to the British, was killed while attempting to escape in June of 1944.[5]

Besides interrogating German POWs, Fort Hunt also handled a top secret division to aid Allied POWs trapped in German camps in Europe. Codenamed MIS-X, many of the techniques used by this small group of individuals were inspired by similar programs being performed by MI-9, the British intelligence agency tasked with supplying British POWs behind enemy lines.

Beginning in October of 1942, MIS-X officers helped trained servicemen in tactics for evading capture behind enemy lines, created escape and emergency kits (with money, maps, and other essentials) to be carried by all air crews, and trained specific individuals to use codes in letters going to and from POW camps in case they are captured, allowing MIS-X to stay in contact with POWs.[6]

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