Fort Hunt: From defending the capital to helping American POWs escape the Nazis


Built in the 1890s, concrete emplacements at Fort Hunt in Alexandria once sported large guns that protected the river approach to Washington from enemy ships. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist July 5

In your column about King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Washington in 1939, you mentioned the Fort Hunt Civilian Conservation Corps. Was that at Fort Hunt Park? Have you ever written on the role that park played in WWII as a POW camp? Any good resources you can share if one wanted to learn more about the history of that interesting little strip of real estate?

— Neal Denton, Alexandria

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

The land that became Fort Hunt was once part of George Washington’s vast estate, what he called his River Farm. Today it’s home to picnic tables and playing fields. But in between. . . .

In 1885, the War Department undertook an examination of the country’s coastal defenses. The U.S. capital had long been guarded by Fort Washington, on the Maryland side of the Potomac (although it hadn’t done much good in the War of 1812). The commission studying the issue decided that a fort was needed on the Virginia side, at a place south of Alexandria called Sheridan’s Point.


The Battery Commander’s Station at Alexandria’s Fort Hunt is a remnant from when the Army artillery installation was charged with protecting Washington from enemy ships. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The federal government took possession of the land in 1893, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hurriedly started construction. It was looking as if there might be a war with Spain. (Spoiler alert: There was. We won.)

The installation was named Fort Hunt after Henry J. Hunt, the Union officer who revolutionized artillery practices during the Civil War.

By the time Fort Hunt’s final gun was installed in 1903, the Spanish-American War was over. Although amenities were added to the fort over the years — barracks, a hospital, a school for soldiers’ children — by the start of World War I, it had become obsolete. Stealthy U-boats posed more of a risk than conventional warships. Fort Hunt’s big guns were removed and shipped to France to be mounted on railway cars. The Army had to come up with some other role for the fort.

“They figured the Spanish armada wasn’t go to sail up the Potomac at that point,” said Matt Virta, cultural resources program manager of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

The fort was briefly used for an Army finance school and as the setting for African American ROTC training, but it spent much of the 1920s and early 1930s ungarrisoned. (The Bonus Marchers who descended on Washington for back pay camped there.) Eventually, the land was transferred to the National Park Service.

During the Great Depression, Fort Hunt hosted the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal creations. As at CCC camps around the country, young men based at Fort Hunt cleared brush, planted trees, built roads and did infrastructure work in area parks.

The antidote to the Depression proved to be World War II. Technically, Fort Hunt wasn’t a POW camp, since installations with that designation are covered in specific ways by the Geneva Convention, something the Pentagon didn’t want. Instead, it was called a Temporary Detention Center or Detailed Interrogation Center. By whatever name it was known, about 3,400 captured Axis fighters passed through its gates.

“Fort Hunt was a really ultra-important military intelligence center,” said Matt. The work was so hush-hush that Fort Hunt was referred to only by its address:P.O. Box 1142.

Coolest of all: It was there, toiling in extreme secrecy, that workers assembled escape kits for Americans held in German POW camps. Gillette razor blades were magnetized so the embossed G would always point north when the blade was dangled from a string. Playing cards had peel-away layers revealing maps. Baseballs were fitted with miniature radio receivers. Counterfeit German currency was printed. These and other items were delivered to American POWs by fictitious aid groups.

These efforts came to light only in the past 15 years or so, as the Park Service sought out aging veterans to interview.

“A lot of the ones we contacted didn’t want to have anything to do with us,” Matt said. “They thought it was still secret.”

Lloyd R. Shoemaker’s book “The Escape Factory” recounts the exploits of MIS-X, the outfit that helped American POWs. A nice overview of the fort’s entire history can be found online in a Google search for “By the River Potomac.” You’ll get a .pdf file of a 146-page report prepared for the Park Service by historian Matthew R. Laird.

The only remnants of Fort Hunt’s military past are the large, concrete structures on which the guns once sat. When the fort opened, trees near these positions were cut down to allow unobstructed lines of sight to targets on the Potomac. Today, trees, bushes and creeping vines have grown back, and the emplacements look like Mayan ziggurats reclaimed by the jungle.

Send a Kid to Camp

We’ve entered the final week in our campaign for Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area that Post readers have long supported. You can help brighten the summer of a poor child.

Donate at www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.

Here’s a tasty incentive: If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate to the Clyde’s family of restaurants. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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