Fort Hunt GIs Sent WWII POWs Care Packages

Last in a three-part series.

Silvio Bedini i

Silvio Bedini during World War II and later in life. Bedini worked at Fort Hunt on a coding system used to communicate with American POWs. From the Collection of Silvio Bedini hide caption

itoggle caption From the Collection of Silvio Bedini
Silvio Bedini

Silvio Bedini during World War II and later in life. Bedini worked at Fort Hunt on a coding system used to communicate with American POWs.

From the Collection of Silvio Bedini
Cribbage i

Care packages sent to American POWs included cribbage boards that looked as if they were purely for entertainment. ... From the Collection of Silvio Bedini hide caption

itoggle caption From the Collection of Silvio Bedini
Cribbage

Care packages sent to American POWs included cribbage boards that looked as if they were purely for entertainment. ...

From the Collection of Silvio Bedini
Cribbage x-ray i

... However, an X-ray reveals radio receivers. From the Collection of Silvio Bedini hide caption

itoggle caption From the Collection of Silvio Bedini
Cribbage x-ray

... However, an X-ray reveals radio receivers.

From the Collection of Silvio Bedini

Secret Packages

 

MIS-X, one of several top-secret military programs conducted at P.O. Box 1142, involved communicating with captured American soldiers to help them coordinate their escape.

 

As part of the program, soldiers assembled packages that they sent to American prisoners of war to help them escape. The packages included items that were not what they seemed. Along with cribbage boards that received BBC broadcasts (see image above), they sent baseballs with cavities for money or transmitters, plus pipes with secret compartments for maps or tiny compasses. (Images from the collection of Silvio Bedini)

 

The packages were sent from phony foundations set up by military intelligence, so they looked like legitimate care packages, similar to those sent by the Red Cross.

 

The National Park Service is piecing together the camp's history, but it has interviewed far fewer GIs from MIS-X than other programs and so has learned far less about it. Also, the Pentagon ordered GIs at the camp to burn documents related to the top-secret program at the end of the war.

Fort Hunt, a park by the Potomac River in northern Virginia, may have grassy fields and picnic areas now, but during World War II it was the site of a secret camp known as P.O. Box 1142. Though they've been razed, there had been a hundred buildings there at the time — some with German prisoners who were interrogated about Nazi war plans and weapons.

Two structures — code-named "the Creamery" and "the warehouse" — housed a highly classified effort to help American prisoners of war escape from their German captors.

Cameron LaClair recalls getting a tour of P.O. Box 1142 in 1944, when he was a junior intelligence officer.

"We were shown the room where packages were made up to be sent to POWs in the various parts of Germany. Important was the fact that these packages were sent under the rubric of fake charity organizations," LaClair says.

The phony foundations, such as the War Prisoners' Benefit Foundation, were set up as part of an elaborate scheme to fool German censors into thinking American prisoners were getting innocent care packages.

The baseballs, pipes and cribbage boards inside the packages had been crafted at Fort Hunt. They contained hidden compartments.

"Put into these special packages under these fake foundations were compasses, saws, escape maps, other items such as pairs of wire cutters," LaClair says.

Brandon Bies of the National Park Service says the packages helped a number of POWs escape.

The packages were part of what the Army called the MIS-X program, which helped Americans evade and escape capture, he says. The care packages also helped to link the POWs with the outside world.

"The baseball would have a radio transmitter inside. The cribbage board — as you moved the pieces you could listen to the channels of the BBC. The deck of playing cards, if you steamed the pieces apart, in between each card would be a little piece of a silk escape map," says Bies.

Stuff Of Fiction

Surprisingly, the operation went largely undetected by the Germans. It was almost the stuff of fiction.

"I remember growing up in the 1960s, my father loved [the TV show] Hogan's Heroes," says Peter Bedini, whose father Silvio served at Fort Hunt. "Especially when they were hiding radios in coffee pots and things like that. He used to say, 'You know, that's not too far off from what really happened.'"

Silvio Bedini's job was to create a coding system — similar to one used by the British — to communicate with American POWs.

It worked like this: Letters that appeared to come from family or friends would be sent from soldiers at Fort Hunt They'd contain hidden messages alerting American POWs that special care packages were on the way. The POWs also used the code to send back intelligence they picked at the camps.

Peter Bedini says it was an extremely sophisticated operation.

"They had to use different stationery for these different people and then had to remember. So whenever 'Betsy' was writing to her boyfriend, it had to be 'Betsy's' handwriting and 'Betsy's' stationery. And you can imagine as the scope of this grew that it had to have rigid control over this, or you could ... you know, a lot was at stake," he says.

Silvio Bedini, who went on to serve as a deputy director at the Smithsonian Institution, died last year at age 90. But not before he told the park service about his excitement decoding the first message from a POW that made its way to Fort Hunt.

It was from Albert P. Clark, an airman at Stalag Luft III, the site of a later escape attempt known as The Great Escape.

Clark's message was simple: "With 87 officers, period. Send instructions, period."

Although Bedini did divulge details about his work at P.O. Box 1142 to the park service, he was reluctant to share too much about the camp, even on his deathbed. Like others at Fort Hunt, he was sworn to secrecy, although the program has since been declassified.

"They took an oath and they stayed behind it," says his son. Bedini only found out what his father did during the war when a book on MIS-X came out in 1990. But he's still learning more.

He holds out a small, round metal object in the palm of his hand.

"I found this probably a couple of months before my dad passed away. He sort of smirked and said, 'Yeah, there might be more of those.'"

It was a tiny compass, the kind sent from Fort Hunt to the POWs and hidden in the stem of a pipe or the button of a shirt.

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