RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Almost by accident, National Park Service employees have stumbled upon a largely unknown slice of history.
It involves a secret World War II interrogation camp at Fort Hunt, Virginia, which is not very far from the Pentagon. Thousands of top German prisoners were brought there during the war and right after. Few records of this camp exist, so the park service is trying to piece together the story one veteran at a time. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.
PAM FESSLER: It all started with those touristy signs you see at national parks. You know the ones with historical tidbits?
Brandon Bies, a park cultural resources specialist, was doing research on Fort Hunt Park. He knew it had been the site of an intelligence operation during World War II but not much more. One day, a park ranger was explaining this to a group of visitors.
Mr. BRANDON BIES (National Park Service): And they said unfortunately this is all I can tell you because we have never really spoken to a living veteran from World War II, and somebody raises their hand and says, well, my next-door neighbor was an interrogator here.
FESSLER: Bies got the veteran's name, Fred Michel, and tracked him down in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mr. BIES: And the stories that Mr. Michel were sharing with us were unbelievable, stories of secret submarines and nuclear devices and German rocket scientists that we had absolutely never heard of before.
FESSLER: Michel also had documents, including some with the names of others who had worked at Fort Hunt.
Mr. BIES: So I asked him, can I sit down on your computer? And I did a very quick Google search for one of the names and immediately found the Web page for Dr. H. George Mandel.
Dr. H. GEORGE MANDEL (George Washington University): He called me, and one thing led to another.
FESSLER: It turns out that Mandel was a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The park service reunited him with Michel at Fort Hunt, which when there were there had a code name: Post Office Box 1142.
Dr. MANDEL: They showed me around, and of course nothing was recognizable. There was one house still available apparently from that time, and all the rest has been demolished. At that point it was realized that there is an interesting story here.
FESSLER: But many veterans had never spoken about Fort Hunt. They'd been sworn to secrecy during the war, although over the past two decades the operation's been gradually declassified.
Brandon Bies knew he was in a race against time with any remaining veterans likely to be in their 80s or 90s.
Mr. BIES: Okay, today is June 16th, 2008. This is an oral history interview as part of the Fort Hunt Oral History Project.
FESSLER: So for the past two years now, Bies and his colleagues have been trying to locate and videotape as many veterans as they can.
Mr. BIES: We are here in Frederick, Maryland, interviewing Mr. Elvin Polesky.
FESSLER: Polesky is interview number 40. The veteran sits in his backyard for the interview. Polesky was at Fort Hunt after the war, in 1946, but Bies hopes he can fill an important gap. Polesky was there when the facility shut down. Bies gently prods for details.
Mr. BIES: Do you remember about how many Americans were stationed at 1142 at that time?
Mr. ELVIN POLESKY (Veteran): No, we didn't have all that many.
Mr. BIES: Do you think there were more Americans or more German prisoners?
FESSLER: It's a fine line, jogging a veteran's memory without influencing it. Polesky then says something that grabs Bies' attention.
Mr. POLESKY: We had 250 German war prisoners underneath. They were down underground at Fort Hunt.
FESSLER: That's something new. Most veterans remember the prisoners above ground. Bies doesn't really know for sure; there are so few records. He shows Polesky something he thinks might help.
Mr. BIES: This is a military map from the time of the war. If you could explain a little bit of what you had been mentioning before.
Mr. POLESKY: Up on this far end was the two taller buildings, one of them being the one that we billeted in.
FESSLER: Polesky describes in detail what he recalls the fort looking like, but then he pauses.
Mr. POLESKY: Where's the underground part?
Mr. BIES: Well, that's what we were hoping that you would tell us.
FESSLER: It's a slow process, mining all these memories, but Bies say with each veteran they learn a little more.
Mr. BIES: We actually have from veterans a photograph of, on the day after the war ended, hundreds of documents being burned right here at 1142. We actually have a photograph of this happening, and it illustrates how critical it is to speak to these gentlemen because who knows what part of the story went up in smoke?
FESSLER: He knows some of it's gone forever, and the urgency only grows. Four of the veterans he's interviewed so far have already died. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Our reporting continues later today on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, which is where you can find out the secrets of Post Office Box 1142 from men who were there. You can take a tour and learn some of the camp's secrets by going to NPR.org.