MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
During World War II, Fort Hunt, near Washington, D.C., was a site of secret operations. Yesterday, we reported on the thousands of interrogations there of German prisoners. Today, another highly classified program. This one helped American POWs escape from Germany.
NPR's Pam Fessler has the third of three stories about Fort Hunt.
PAM FESSLER: Today, Fort Hunt is a park by the Potomac River with grassy fields and picnic areas. But during World War II, it was the site of a top-secret camp known as Post Office Box 1142. There were a hundred buildings there, some with German prisoners. But two structures were especially mysterious - they were codenamed the Creamery and the warehouse.
Cameron LaClair, who is a junior intelligence officer at the time, recalls getting a tour in 1944.
Mr. CAMERON LaCLAIR (Retired CIA Official): 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.
FESSLER: Such as the War Prisoners' Benefit Foundation. The foundations were set up by the military as part of an elaborate scheme to fool German censors -to make them think American prisoners were getting innocent care packages with baseballs, pipes and cribbage boards. Only the items crafted at Fort Hunt contained hidden compartments.
Mr. LaCLAIR: Put it into these special packages under these fake foundations were compasses, saws, escape maps, other items such as pairs of wire cutters.
Mr. BRANDON BIES (National Park Service): These were all being sent and were responsible for numerous successful escapes.
FESSLER: Brandon Bies is with the National Park Service, which now runs Fort Hunt Park, and is trying to piece together its history by interviewing veterans. Bies says the packages were part of something called MIS-X - a highly classified program to help Americans evade and escape capture. It also helped to link the POWs with the outside world.
Mr. BIES: The baseball would have a radio transmitter inside. The cribbage board, as you move 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 will be a little piece of a silk escape map.
FESSLER: Surprisingly, the operation went largely undetected by the Germans. It was almost the stuff of fiction.
(Soundbite of TV show "Hogan's Heroes")
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: The last piece of mail. Wool and socks from you and (unintelligible).
Mr. PETER BEDINI: I remember growing up in the '60s, my father loved "Hogan's Heroes."
FESSLER: Peter Bedini's father Silvio was at Fort Hunt during the war.
Mr. BEDINI: Especially when they were doing, hiding radios and coffee pots and things like that. He used to say, you know, that's not too far off of what really happened.
FESSLER: Silvio Bedini's job was to create a coding system - similar to one used by the British to communicate with American POWs. Letters that appear to come from family or friends would be sent, but they'd contain hidden messages alerting the Americans that special care packages were on the way. POWs also used the code to send back intelligence they'd picked up at the camps.
Peter Bedini says it was an extremely sophisticated operation.
Mr. BEDINI: 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.
FESSLER: Bedini's father 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.
But even on his deathbed, Silvio Bedini was reluctant to share too many details. Like others at Fort Hunt, he was sworn to secrecy, although the program has since been declassified.
Mr. BEDINI: They took an oath and they stayed behind it.
FESSLER: Peter Bedini says he only found out what his father did when a book on MIS-X came out in 1990. But he's still learning more. And with that, he holds out a small, round metal object in the palm of his hand.
Mr. BEDINI: I found this, I don't know, probably a couple of months before my dad passed away. And he sort of smirked and said, yeah, there might be more of those.
FESSLER: It's a tiny compass - the kind sent from Fort Hunt to the POWs maybe in the stem of a (unintelligible) pipe or in the button of a shirt.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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