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Fort Hunt's Quiet Men Break Silence on WWII

George Frenkel, who interrogated Nazi POWs in World War II, rides with Dave Ostrander at a ceremony honoring the veterans.
George Frenkel, who interrogated Nazi POWs in World War II, rides with Dave Ostrander at a ceremony honoring the veterans. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

"We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice," said John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark.

The interrogators had standards that remain a source of pride and honor.

"During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone," said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. "We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity."

Exactly what went on behind the barbed-wire fences of Fort Hunt has been a mystery that has lured amateur historians and curious neighbors for decades.

During the war, nearby residents watched buses with darkened windows roar toward the fort day and night. They couldn't have imagined that groundbreaking secrets in rocketry, microwave technology and submarine tactics were being peeled apart right on the grounds that are now a popular picnic area where moonbounces mushroom every weekend.

When Vincent Santucci arrived at the National Park Service's George Washington Memorial Parkway office as chief ranger four years ago, he asked his cultural resource specialist, Brandon Bies, to do some research so they could post signs throughout the park, explaining its history and giving it a bit more dignity.

That assignment changed dramatically when ranger Dana Dierkes was leading a tour of the park one day and someone told her about a rumored Fort Hunt veteran.

It was Fred Michel, who worked in engineering in Alexandria for 65 years, never telling his neighbors that he once faced off with prisoners and pried wartime secrets from them.

Michel directed them to other vets, and they remembered others.

Bies went from being a ranger researching mountains of topics in stacks of papers to flying across the country, camera and klieg lights in tow, to document the fading memories of veterans.

He, Santucci and others have spent hours trying to sharpen the focus of gauzy memories, coaxing complex details from men who swore on their generation's honor to never speak of the work they did at P.O. Box 1142.

"The National Park Service is committed to telling your story, and now it belongs to the nation," said David Vela, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

There is a deadline. Each day, about 1,100 World War II veterans die, said Jean Davis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army's Freedom Team Salute program, which recognizes veterans and the parents, spouses and employers who provide support for active-duty soldiers.

By gathering at Fort Hunt yesterday, the quiet men could be saluted for the work they did so long ago.

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