The war was forgotten for a while the evening of Dec. 14, 1939, as the counselor of the German Embassy Hans Thomsen, right, and his wife leave the German Embassy for a diplomatic reception at the White House. (N/A/Library of Congress)
Columnist

It's one of the most striking images of Washington from just after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor: Smoke rising from the garden of the Japanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW as diplomats burned box after box of secret documents.

But have you ever wondered what happened next?

Harvey Solomon did — and the Takoma Park, Md., writer is hoping there are still some people around who recall one of the oddest episodes of the World War II home front: more than 1,000 employees from Axis embassies — diplomats, their families, staff and servants — were sent from Washington to live in luxury hotels.

"The FBI and the State Department wanted them out of the embassies," Solomon said. "They might still be communicating via radio, and they had diplomatic pouches. All that had to end."

The solution was to move them to the countryside. The first ones to go were the Germans, headed by acting Ambassador Hans Thomsen and his glamorous wife, Bebe. On Dec. 19, 1941, they were taken by special train from Union Station to White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. They would be cooling their heels at the Greenbrier resort.

At the end of the month, the Japanese, including ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura and special envoy Saburo Kurusu, were sent to the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. In mid-January, the Italians moved into the Greenbrier. There were also a smattering of Bulgarians, Hungarians and Romanians.


The new Italian ambassador to the United States, Don Ascanio dei Principi Colonna, taken from an informal photograph made April 27, 1939. (N/A/Library of Congress)

"In those years, there was no real winter season," Solomon said. "Those resorts were summer resorts. In winter, they were very quiet."

And conveniently far from civilization. Fences were strung. Guard shacks were built. Spotlights were installed.

They were, as Solomon has titled the book he's publishing next year, "Such Splendid Prisons."

"They got incredible food and had fantastic digs," he said. "These were posh places."

Even so, there were complaints, especially by the Italians, who kvetched about not being able to take walks. The Italian ambassador, an Old World throwback named Prince Ascanio Colonna, complained about the other guests: the Germans. He didn't like being cooped up with them.

Eventually, the Italians would be moved to the Grove Park Inn in scenic Asheville, N.C., and the Japanese moved in.

They didn't like the Germans, either. Perhaps it was all that Nazi enthusiasm. In April 1942, Germans donned their finery, pinned swastika buttons to their lapels and celebrated Hitler's birthday.

Said a Greenbrier waiter: "The party was a hell of a hail of 'heils.' "

Some Americans groused that the enemy was residing in gilded luxury, but the United States had its reasons for the arrangement.

"The key word that comes up over and over again in the archives is 'reciprocity,' " Solomon said. "We wanted our diplomats in Berlin and Rome and Tokyo treated as well as we were going to treat their diplomats."

The Axis diplomats were called "detainees," not "internees." And they continued to receive their salaries. The Swiss ambassador was the liaison for the German detainees. On his first visit, he brought $35,000 in cash to distribute.

"People had money to burn," Solomon said. "They bought lots and lots of things in the hotel stores."

Solomon said a half-dozen babies were born to the confined enemy diplomats. There were a handful of weddings, too. After about six months, most of the diplomats had been sent back to their home countries in exchange for U.S. personnel. The war would rage for another three years.

A World War II buff, Solomon become aware of the odd episode while researching a screenplay about the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. A single line in a biography of OSS founder Wild Bill Donovan mentioned the detainees.

Solomon is looking for anyone who may have worked at the resorts or the embassies during that time. If that's you, you can email him at WWIIbook.ssp@outlook.com.

Although living at a luxury resort while the world burns around you sounds like paradise, things didn't always go the detainees' way. Solomon found one letter from the Spanish Embassy, which oversaw Japanese affairs during the war. The Japanese detainees had a request for something they'd left at their embassy and hoped could be sent to them.

Said Solomon: "What were they asking for? Five cases of Johnny Walker Black Label and five cases of Old Parr, another scotch."

Penciled onto the memo by a State Department staffer were two words: "Not feasible."

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.