A Covert Chapter Opens For Fort Hunt Veterans
Sunday, August 20, 2006
For more than 60 years, they kept their military secrets locked deep inside and lived quiet lives as account executives, college professors, business consultants and the like.
The brotherhood of P.O. Box 1142 enjoyed no homecoming parades, no VFW reunions, no embroidered ball caps and no regaling of wartime stories to grandchildren sitting on their knees.
Almost no one, not even their wives, in many cases, knew the place in history held by the men of Fort Hunt, alluded to during World War II only by a mailing address that was its code name.
But the declassification of thousands of military documents and the dogged persistence of Brandon Bies, a bookish park ranger determined to record this furtive piece of history, is bringing the men of P.O. Box 1142 out of the shadows.
One by one, some of the surviving 100 or so military intelligence interrogators who questioned Third Reich scientists, submariners and soldiers at one of the United States's most secretive prisoner camps are, in the twilight of their lives, spilling tales they had dared not whisper before.
"It's good. Very good to talk about all this, at last," Fred Michel said last week, steadying himself on his cane as he looked over the rolling, green land along the Potomac River in Fairfax County that once was home to prison cells and interrogation rooms embedded with hidden microphones.
Michel, 85, slowly lowered himself onto a picnic table bench next to his old friend, H. George Mandel, 82. Although they have lived just a few miles apart for most of six decades, they had not spoken since their discharge Dec. 13, 1945. So hush-hush was their work for P.O. Box 1142 that the men recruited for it were ordered to never mention it. To this day, some have refused to speak to the park ranger gathering their oral histories, believing that the oath they took more than 60 years ago can never be broken.
For others, the taboo has eroded as documents have been declassified in waves, starting in 1977 and continuing into the 1990s. Nevertheless, many of the activities of P.O. Box 1142 remain shrouded in mystery.
According to a history cobbled together by the National Park Service, the unit was conceived as an Army/Navy installation to gather information from prisoners who had been captured or surrendered and were brought to the United States for questioning. Germany had superior technology, particularly in rocketry and submarines, and the information that was gleaned from interrogations gave the United States an advantage going into the Cold War and the space age.
In the beginning, the prisoners were mostly U-boat crew members who had survived the sinking of their submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. As the war progressed, P.O. Box 1142 shifted its attention to some of the most prominent scientists in Germany, many of whom surrendered and gave up information willingly, hoping to be allowed to stay in the United States.
The prisoners stayed at Fort Hunt for as little as two or three weeks and as long as nine months. They were held incommunicado; when they had told everything they knew, they were transferred to regular POW camps elsewhere in the United States, and the Red Cross was then notified of their capture. After the war, some returned to Germany, and some stayed in the United States, slipping into the fabric of American life.
Michel and Mandel were German Jews who had immigrated to the United States before the war and were recruited to the unit. They and other interrogators said they obtained information about discoveries in microwaves, atomic and molecular studies, jets used in German planes and submarine technology, including a snorkel that allowed U-boats to stay underwater for long stretches. All they learned was put into top-secret reports that went straight to the Pentagon.