The Clandestine Operations of PO Box 1142, or, the National Park Service Investigates the Spies

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The excavation at Fort Hunt, Virginia

What comes to mind when you think of the US National Park Service (NPS) is usually an image of a forest ranger in a 'Smokey the Bear1' hat telling people, 'Please don't feed the bears.' True, the National Park Service is entrusted with the care of natural wilderness sites such as Yellowstone. But the 20,000 employees of the service also oversee cultural sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. In addition, they administrate American battlefields from Manassas to Gettysburg and beyond. They welcome visitors to historic sites such as Edgar Allan Poe's Philadelphia home. They have help from over 279,000 volunteers nationwide. Not all of them are concerned with campsites and bear control. There are a lot of historians, archaeologists, naturalists, and even paleontologists involved.

In the 1760s, George Washington owned a farm in Alexandria, Virginia by the Potomac River. Part of it eventually belonged to the nation and was overseen by the Department of the Interior. In the 1890s, the site became a coastal gun battery known as Fort Hunt. In 1933, the land came under the oversight of the National Park Service, but during the Second World War, it was leased to the War Department for what was coyly called a 'defence camp'. At the end of the war, the mysterious Army folk there took all their records and decamped. The site was bulldozed before being returned to the Department of the Interior. It was over 60 years before the NPS dug it up – and started asking questions like, 'What were those sneaky people up to? Did it help win the war?'

Vince Santucci is the NPS's senior paleontologist. Matthew Virta is an archeologist and cultural resources professional for the NPS. Brandon Bies now supervises Manassas National Park, a Civil War battlefield site. Back in 2007, they began rounding up suspects – or rather, volunteer subjects – for the Fort Hunt Oral History Project. They wanted to know what had gone on at their site. They also wanted to know what effect the top-top-secret work had had on the outcome of the war.

They turned up some great stories.

The Secrets of PO Box 1142

And when we finished our training, we were on the parade ground. Everybody's name was called, except my name. One step forward, turn left, and all of them marched off. And I was the only guy left on that field. And the administrative officer said, "Dean, come up here." And I got a nickel. And I was sent, and the staff guard took me with my duffel bag and my uniform as a buckass private to Alexandria, Virginia, at the corner of Queen Street and the Main Street there. And there is a drug store. You call this number here, and somebody's going to pick you up. I saluted.

– John Gunther Dean, interviewed by Brandon Bies, 7 October 2007

The Fort Hunt site was known only as PO [Post Office] Box 1142. Nobody who worked there was allowed to discuss their work, not even with their families. It was impressed upon them that this secrecy was vital to achieving victory in the war. So what were they doing?

Escape and Evasion (MIS-X)

If you've ever seen a film like The Great Escape, you'll remember that Allied prisoners of war used various aids in escaping from German POW camps. They had silk maps, and compasses hidden in buttons, and local currency. PO Box 1142 supplied some of these aids, which were included in 'evasion kits' issued to aircrew during missions. The evasion kits helped some downed fliers avoid capture until they could contact the Resistance and be returned home.

We had escape kits. We did use the halazone tablets, which was for purifying water. We did use the concentrated tablets. It was a type of candy, I think. We did use that, but the escape map was just practically useless because it covered too broad an area. You couldn’t pinpoint on that silk map where you were, because that silk map, about two and a half feet square, covered all of France. So I don’t think it was of much value.

– Ralph Patton, interviewed by Brandon Bies, Vincent Santucci and David Lassman,
10 February, 2009

Apart from the map's scale problem, the kits were of some use to downed fliers – and they were designed at PO Box 1142. In addition to the escape kits, the clandestine ops people smuggled items by way of parcels sent to prisoners of war. Here are some of the fun surprises that could be found in parcels from home:

  • Oh, goody: a baseball, for playing America's national game in the heart of enemy territory. Also for concealing a miniature radio transmitter. Manufactured in secrecy by the FW Sickle Electronics Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts and hidden in the baseballs by the Goldsmith Baseball Company, both doing their bit for the war effort.
  • Bigger maps needed, with more detail? No problem. Conceal them in sections inside the backs of playing cards. (You're tired of poker, anyway.) The US Playing Card Company made the peel-away cards.
  • Try your uniform buttons to see which one the Scoville Company of Waterbury, Connecticut hid the compass in. It screws backwards, which may have fooled the German inspectors. Five million were produced.
  • Don't have a button compass? Or the Krauts took yours away? The Gillette Razor Company of Boston has thoughtfully magnetised their razor blades. Hang one from a string. The 'G' points north.

The companies involved never asked questions, and never charged the government for the things they made. It was all part of the 'war effort'. MIS-X sent 120 parcels a day by 1944. Eventually, the POWs asked them to stop. After the execution of 50 of the recaptured escapees from Stalag Luft III during the 'Great Escape', these activities had become too dangerous. Also, they were running out of room to store all the trick stuff.

MIS-Y: Interrogation the Clever Way

…we would dress up, actually, a Russian, East Russian. He looked Russian. And he had sort of an accent of a Russian. So, you know, we would talk, just banter like, so that the general would know he's Russian. And as I told you, they – we spotted the general who could understand English. And we would say to the Russian, "Captain," I know captain – "you do you things different than we do. I've been trying to get information from the generals. But I can't. So next week, I will turn them over to you. I know you take them to Russia, to Russia and to Siberia. And then you have methods where you get the information. Because you don't – your country doesn't observe the Geneva Convention." Well, the following week things got a lot better.

– John Kluge, interviewed by Brandon Bies, Matthew Virta and Vince Santucci, 16 May, 2008

MIS-Y's job was to get key information from captured enemy military personnel with high-level knowledge – people the interrogators referred to as 'high animals' (a translation of the German expression 'hohe Tiere'). The interrogators for these German prisoners were German Jewish refugees who had immigrated to America before the war and then joined the military. They were picked for their fluency in German and knowledge of German cultural background.

It is not really surprising that the NPS interviewers in 2007/2008 wanted to know whether the interrogators used 'heightened interrogation' methods on these people. The US at the time was embroiled in a controversy over the use of torture. No, the interrogators insisted. They didn't waterboard those generals. Instead, they used subtlety. There were 'stoolpigeons' – plants who pretended to be other prisoners. Or they made friends with the prisoners. They made friendly conversation and then steered the talk toward what they wanted to know.

A couple of the interrogators admitted to using veiled or not-so-veiled threats, such as turning them over to the Russians. They hid microphones everywhere – even in the trees, because prisoners would talk out in the open, believing they wouldn't be overheard. Some of the German-speaking personnel listened in on interrogations or monitored conversations. They would alert their superiors if they heard keywords such as 'Atomkraft' or 'Rakete' or 'U-Boot'. They got a lot of useful intelligence that way.

As Fort Hunt alumnus John Gunther Dean [formerly Dienstfertig] put it,

What I learned was at 1142, we had all things on our side, and we were largely accepted. That made a big difference, and we behaved, in dealing with prisoners or people who came over, according to the law. Listening was never prohibited, but torturing was prohibited, and we never did.

John Dean, interviewed by Brandon Bies, 2 October, 2007

After the war, John Gunther Dean served as an ambassador for many years and was involved in negotiations to end the Vietnam War.

Operation Paperclip: Actually, It Is Rocket Science

He was a chameleon. He knew how to tickle the military high brass and all that.

– Oscar Holderer, interviewed by Brandon Bies and Vincent Santucci, 23 April, 2010

As the war came to an end, the operators at PO Box 1142 were in a quandary. During a war, it's easy to protect your secrets from the public. Just tell them, 'It's in the national interest.' After the war, it was going to be kind of hard to justify their next project: letting former Nazis into the country as highly-paid government employees rather than as convicted war criminals. But that, they felt, was what they needed to do if they were going to 'win' the next war, which was going to be the Cold War. They needed those rocket scientists to build their nuclear missiles.

The rocket scientists didn't particularly want to build nuclear missiles. The rocket scientists wanted to go to the Moon. They'd been trying to do that before the Second World War. To their annoyance, these politicians and generals kept getting in their way with their wars. It wasn't that they displayed any moral courage, on the whole: they were simply very single-minded in their pursuit of space.

The rocket scientists wanted to go to America and build a space program. The US government wanted rocket scientists, even if they had been members of the Nazi party. Fort Hunt had a secret installation where they could be accommodated, debriefed, and introduced to American life. As far as the participants were concerned, it was a win-win scenario. It was called Operation Paperclip. In all, 1600 'high-value' personnel were brought to the US under Operation Paperclip.

Sometimes this accommodation meant making some questionable choices.

BB: Do you know if any of the specialists who were brought in – there’s really no way to sugarcoat this – had been involved in war crimes or anything like that, or maybe just questionable activities, diehard members of the Nazi Party or anything like that?

AK: I suspect that there were a few in von Braun’s group. One of the women had been a gauleiter, a regional chief, female chief, and unfortunately, at White Sands, I believe, she worked as a kindergarten teacher, and that upset a lot of people when it became known that she had been an active Nazi.

– Arnold Kohn, interviewed by Brandon Bies and Vincent Santucci, 13 February, 2008

How significant was Operation Paperclip to the US space program? Very. One scientist who was interviewed by the NPS was Oscar Holderer, a former engineer at Peenemünde who had worked for Werner von Braun. Holderer's wind tunnel design is still used to test Saturn rockets. With the help of scientists like Holderer and von Braun, Apollo astronauts reached the Moon.

For Further Information

Some of the interviews are available in audio and transcript form at the Fort Hunt Oral History Project. They make fascinating listening and reading.

1Smokey the Bear is an iconic figure of the US Forest Service (part of the Department of Agriculture) who warns people, 'Only you can prevent forest fires.' The campaign grew out of a 1950 incident in which forest firefighters adopted an orphaned bear cub. In the 21st Century, Smokey the Bear has been criticised by ecologists for representing the government's aggressive fire suppression system. Suppressing all forest fires, rather than allowing controlled burning, allows forest detritus to build up, choking new growth and ensuring deadlier fires in future.

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