Former GIs Spill Secrets Of WWII POW Camp

This is part two in a three-part series

John Gunther Dean i i

hide captionFormer U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean talks with a National Park Service ranger at a reunion last year of Fort Hunt veterans.

Courtesy of the National Park Service
John Gunther Dean

Former U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean talks with a National Park Service ranger at a reunion last year of Fort Hunt veterans.

Courtesy of the National Park Service
Arno Mayer worked at Fort Hunt's P.O. Box 1142. i i

hide captionArno Mayer during World War II and today.

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Arno Mayer worked at Fort Hunt's P.O. Box 1142.

Arno Mayer during World War II and today.

Courtesy of the National Park Service
Cameron LaClair i i

hide captionCameron LaClair, a junior intelligence officer during World War II, said interrogators at Fort Hunt were helped greatly by information they picked up while eavesdropping on prisoners.

Pam Fessler/NPR
Cameron LaClair

Cameron LaClair, a junior intelligence officer during World War II, said interrogators at Fort Hunt were helped greatly by information they picked up while eavesdropping on prisoners.

Pam Fessler/NPR
Group photo

hide captionVets who had been stationed at Fort Hunt during World War II returned to the park last October.

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Vincent Santucci and Brandon Bies i i

hide captionChief Ranger Vincent Santucci (left) and Brandon Bies, park cultural resources specialist, flank a memorial honoring the veterans of P.O. Box 1142. They've been trying to locate and interview veterans of the secret World War II intelligence operation.

Pam Fessler/NPR
Vincent Santucci and Brandon Bies

Chief Ranger Vincent Santucci (left) and Brandon Bies, park cultural resources specialist, flank a memorial honoring the veterans of P.O. Box 1142. They've been trying to locate and interview veterans of the secret World War II intelligence operation.

Pam Fessler/NPR

To see a close-up of the inscription on the marker, click here.

Amid the shade trees, swings and picnic grounds at Fort Hunt Park just outside Washington, D.C., there are few traces of the site's top-secret military past. But for the GIs who were stationed there during World War II, the park is alive with memories of what it had been: an interrogation camp for nearly 4,000 mostly German prisoners of war.

The park, then code-named P.O. Box 1142, was where the military elicited crucial information from top enemy officers and scientists. It also was where the United States had a clandestine program to help American POWs escape.

Until recently, much of what occurred at P.O. Box 1142 was unknown. Many who participated went to their graves without revealing — even to their families — what they'd done. The buildings were razed after the war. And many documents about the camp were destroyed in an effort to conceal its existence.

The National Park Service, which now runs Fort Hunt Park, is trying desperately to capture some of this history before it disappears. It has conducted more than 40 oral interviews with vets who had been stationed there.

A Nickel And A Phone Number

One GI who worked at P.O. Box 1142 was John Gunther Dean, a young American soldier singled out while in basic training because he seemed well-suited for the intelligence operation. Dean, now 82, recalls how he was summoned to the Pentagon, where an Army officer asked him if he knew how to speak German.

"And I said, 'Yeah, I speak German like a native,'" says Dean.

His family, which was Jewish, had fled Germany in the late 1930s. When everyone else at Fort Belvoir — a U.S. Army base in Virginia — was sent overseas, Dean was handed a nickel and a phone number and then mysteriously dropped off in the middle of Alexandria, Va.

"There was a drug store. I went in, called the number and they said, 'Dean, you stay outside and we'll pick you up in a staff car.' And they drove me up towards Mount Vernon and that's how I ended up at Fort Hunt. It must have been end of November, early December 1944," he says.

George Mandel, now an 84-year-old professor at George Washington University, also ended up at P.O. Box 1142 during the war.

Mandel says when he was there, things looked quite different than they do today. There were prison barracks and buildings where American soldiers would interrogate Nazi and other enemy prisoners. About 4,000 high-ranking prisoners passed through the camp.

"My job was to interrogate scientifically trained and experienced Germans who had been sent to this country by the military," says Mandel. He German and had a chemistry degree.

But he admits that at age 20, he was naïve in the face of some of the Third Reich's top scientists.

"One of them was a person who worked on enriching uranium, and I didn't know why anybody would want to enrich uranium. I mean, what does this have to do with anything?" he says. "And so my job was to find out what he was doing and how it was being carried out, and then I reported this to the Pentagon."

It was part of a U.S. effort to learn what the Germans were up to. The prisoners were asked about troop movements, scientific advances and anything else that could help the Allied cause.

Gluing A Broken Vase

For years, Mandel, Dean and others kept quiet about P.O. Box 1142 because they had been sworn to secrecy. The operation has since been declassified, but many records were lost, which is why the veterans' stories are so important to the park service.

For Chief Ranger Vincent Santucci, it's like trying to glue together a broken vase — with some important pieces missing.

"Many of the archives were destroyed directly after the war. And so if we didn't have the opportunity to speak with these men and capture their stories, much of it may have been lost forever," Santucci says.

Another soldier who passed through Fort Hunt was Cameron LaClair. He was a junior intelligence officer on his way to England to brief soldiers and airmen before the D-Day invasion on how to evade capture by the Germans. He later went to work for the CIA.

LaClair says interrogators at Fort Hunt were helped a great deal by information gleaned from bugs placed in the prisoners' rooms.

"There were a group of men sitting around a table in a room with great huge recorders, recording everything these people said to each other," LaClair recalls. "And so it sort of threw the prisoners off. 'How did you know this, how did you know that my daughter was 17 on March 28th?' So it really put them at a disadvantage."

Transcripts show that interrogations at Fort Hunt were usually straightforward, almost cordial affairs. Veterans say they often got their best information just by being friendly. Some prisoners were even wined and dined to soften them up.

Dean, who later became a top U.S. diplomat, says it was very effective.

"I was a pretty good athlete. ... I would do sports with them in order to make them more cooperative. I would take some of the people out for dinner at a restaurant in town in civilian clothes," he recalls.

A Shopping Trip

One of those Dean befriended was German engineer Heinz Schlicke, who developed infrared fuses that could be used to trigger an atomic bomb. Schlicke was brought to P.O. Box 1142 after the U-boat on which he and other scientists were fleeing Germany for Japan was surrendered in 1945.

Schlicke's time at Fort Hunt was part of Operation Paperclip, a secret effort to bring hundreds of top German scientists — and their expertise — to the U.S. before the Russians got their hands on them. Dean says he and Schlicke played tennis and rode horses.

"It took quite some time before he was willing to cooperate. The war had ended in Europe and at that point, he said, he's willing to help us, but his wife was at that point in what was in the Russian zone," says Dean.

Dean was eventually sent to Europe to find Schlicke's wife and two small children and to reunite the family. Schlicke ended up working in the U.S. for the remainder of his life.

Germany's top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, also wound up at Fort Hunt after surrendering to the U.S. Army. Von Braun had developed the deadly V-2 missile, which killed thousands in London and elsewhere before the end of the war.

"I was the morale officer of Wernher von Braun," says Arno Mayer, now an 83-year-old Princeton historian.

Mayer's orders at Fort Hunt were to keep the German scientists happy, so he supplied them with magazines and liquor. In one bizarre incident, he took von Braun and three other German POWs Christmas shopping at a Jewish-owned department store in Washington, D.C. Mayer says the men wanted to buy lingerie for their wives, who were still back in Germany.

"We told the sales person what size and so on. And the woman held up a pair of panties," he says. The Germans were appalled. They didn't want nylon underwear, Mayer says: They wanted woolen ones "that should be long, so as to cover their legs."

The special treatment must have worked. Von Braun went on to be a leading figure in the U.S. space program.

Fort Hunt Reunion

Last October, the National Park Service and the military honored some of the more than 50 veterans who've been tracked down so far. The men, all in their 80s and 90s — some spry, others with wheelchairs or walkers — were reunited for the first since P.O. Box 1142 shut down.

Symbolically, at 11:42 a.m., the flag was raised over Fort Hunt.

"For 63 years, nobody ever said thank you. And it was very nice to receive recognition that what we did was being recognized of being helpful to our country," says Dean.

It was a poignant affair for men who seldom got to share their stories. But it was also an opportunity for some veterans to note how much times had changed — and how their interrogations bore little resemblance to some harsher methods used today.

"And I think that point was made very emphatically," says Mandel. "Yes, we threatened them with being sent back to Russia, but there was no other personal harm of any kind. And people thought they could be most effective as interrogators by being nice to the people they interrogated."

But Mandel admits many of the German prisoners wanted to cooperate, especially at the end of the war.

For the most part, the veterans are happy that new details about P.O. Box 1142 have finally emerged. They say they'll leave it to others to decide what it means.

Correction Aug. 27, 2008

The story described a German scientist who was aboard a U-boat that surrendered to the U.S. in 1945, and said, "On that same U-boat was Germany's top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun." Von Braun was in Bavaria when he surrendered to the U.S. Army.

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