SCOTT SIMON, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Scott Simon.
We have a story now about a secret World War II interrogation camp just outside of Washington, D.C. The military questioned German prisoners there about Nazi war plans and weapons. Until recently, much of what occurred at Post Office Box 1142, the camp's code name, was unknown. Many of the people involved went to their graves without revealing their experiences, even to their families.
The National Park Service is trying to capture some of this history before it's too late, as NPR's Pam Fessler was reporting in several stories this week. Today, she reports on the interrogation program.
PAM FESSLER: Eighteen-year-old John Gunther Dean was in basic training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, when he was abruptly summoned to meet an officer at the Pentagon.
Mr. JOHN GUNTHER DEAN (Former U.S. Ambassador): And he said to me, (German spoken). And I said, yeah. I speak German like a native.
FESSLER: Dean's Jewish family had fled Germany six years earlier. When everyone else at Fort Belvoir was sent overseas, Dean got a nickel and a phone number and was mysteriously dropped off in downtown Alexandria, Virginia.
Mr. DEAN: There was a drugstore. I went in, called the number, and they said; Dean, you stay outside, and we'll pick you up in a staff car. That's how I ended up at Fort Hunt. It must have been end of November or early December 1944.
Professor GEORGE MANDEL (Pharmacology, George Washington University): If you look at it now, you see kids' playground and swings and cafeteria and everything else.
FESSLER: George Mandel was also at Fort Hunt when it was called Post Office Box 1142. He's now 84, a professor at George Washington University. Mandel sits in what today is a nondescript park on the Potomac River. Several joggers pass by. There are few traces of any top-secret past.
Prof. MANDEL: My job was to interrogate scientifically trained and experienced Germans who had been sent to this country by the military.
FESSLER: About 4,000 high-valued prisoners came here from 1942 to 1946. Mandel and Dean were among those chosen to question them, in part because they knew German. But Mandel admits at age 20, he was naïve in the face of some of the Third Reich's top scientists.
Prof. MANDEL: 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? And so, my job was to find out what he was doing and how it was being carried out, then I reported this to the Pentagon.
FESSLER: Which wanted to know what the Germans were up to, troop movements, scientific advances, anything to help the allied cause. For years, Fort Hunt veterans kept quiet about their work at P.O. Box 1142. They'd been sworn to secrecy. But over the past two decades, it's been gradually declassified, and the National Park Service, which runs the park, is trying to track down and talk to as many veterans as possible before, quite frankly, they're gone.
For Chief Ranger Vincent Santucci, it's like trying to glue together a broken vase with important pieces already missing.
Mr. VINCENT SANTUCCI (Chief Ranger, National Park Service): 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.
Mr. CAMERON LaCLAIR (Retired CIA Official): There were a group of men sitting around a table in a room with great, huge recorders, recording everything that these people said to each other.
FESSLER: Cameron LaClair is a retired CIA official. He recalls passing through Fort Hunt as a junior intelligence officer. He says interrogators were helped greatly by information gleaned from bugs in the prisoners' rooms.
Mr. LaCLAIR: 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 the 28th? So it really put them at a disadvantage.
Unidentified Man #1: September 10th, 1942. Interrogation of prisoner Gaunat Kunat(ph). Are you a native of Magdeburg?
Unidentified Man #2: Not quite. I've lived in Magdeburg since 1920.
FESSLER: Transcripts found at the National Archives, read here by actors, show that Fort Hunt interrogations were often straightforward, almost cordial. Veterans say they got their best information just by being friendly.
John Gunther Dean, who became a top U.S. diplomat, says it was very effective.
Mr. DEAN: I was a pretty good athlete. And some of the people, I would do sports with them in order to make them more cooperative. I would take some of the people out for dinner in a restaurant in town, in civilian clothes.
FESSLER: One prisoner he befriended was German engineer Heinz Schlicke, who developed fuses that could be used to trigger an atomic bomb. Schlicke came to P.O. Box 1142 after the U-boat on which he was fleeing Germany surrendered in 1945 at a time when the U.S. and Russia were in a fierce competition for German scientific expertise. Dean says he and Schlicke played tennis and rode horses.
Mr. DEAN: It took quite some time before he was willing to cooperate. The war had ended in Europe, and he said he was willing to help us but his wife was - at that point was in the Russian zone.
FESSLER: So Dean was sent overseas to retrieve the wife and two small children and reunite the family. Schlicke ended up working in the U.S. for the rest of his life.
On that same U-boat was Germany's top rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun. Von Braun developed the V-2 missile, touted in German newsreels for its great speed. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Wernher von Braun was in Bavaria when he surrendered to the U.S. Army.]
(Soundbite of German newsreel)
Unidentified Man #3: (German Spoken)
FESSLER: Missiles were used to kill thousands in London and elsewhere not long before von Braun arrived at Fort Hunt.
Mr. ARNO MAYER (Historian, Princeton University): I was the morale officer of Wernher von Braun.
FESSLER: Arno Mayer is now an 83-year-old Princeton historian. His family fled Luxemburg in 1940, the day the Germans invaded. As a young soldier, he knew his grandfather had died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Mr. MAYER: So, I wasn't exactly in the mood to, I'll say frolic, with Wernher von Braun.
FESSLER: But those were his orders. To keep the Germans happy, he supplied them with magazines and liquor. And in one bizarre incident, he took von Braun and three others Christmas shopping at a Jewish-owned department store. The men wanted lingerie for their wives back in Germany.
Mr. MAYER: We told the salesperson, you know, what size and so on. And the woman held up, you know, a pair of panties. I'll say first in German what the reaction of one of these great scientists was. (German spoken) But no, we want panties made of wool, you know, that should be long so as to cover their legs.
FESSLER: It was a curious sight. The Germans wore long leather coats and (unintelligible) caps with feathers. But the special treatment seem to have worked. Von Braun later became a leading scientist in the U.S. space program.
Unidentified Man #4: It is now 11:42 a.m. in Virginia.
FESSLER: Last October, the Park Service honored some of the more than 50 Fort Hunt veterans located so far. The men, all in their 80s and 90s, some spry, others with wheelchairs or walkers, were together for the first time since the war. They watched as a flag was raised over the site of P.O. Box 1142. John Gunther Dean flew from his home in Paris to be there.
Mr. DEAN: For 63 years, nobody ever said thank you. And it was very nice to receive recognition that what we did was helpful to our country.
FESSLER: It was a poignant affair for men who seldom got to share their stories. But it was also an opportunity to note how much times had changed, how their interrogations bore so little resemblance to some harsher methods used today.
Prof. MANDEL: And I think that point was made very emphatically.
FESSLER: George Mandel, the G.W. professor, is so gentle and soft-spoken. It's hard to imagine him ever squeezing anyone for information.
Prof. MANDEL: Yes. We threatened them with being sent back to Russia, but there was no other personal harm at all of any kind. And people thought that they could be most effective as interrogators by being nice to the people they interrogated.
FESSLER: Although he admits many of the Germans wanted to cooperate, especially at the end of the war. For the most part, the veterans are just 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.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
SIMON: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Pam has the story of another top-secret program at P.O. Box 1142. It helped American POWs in Germany escape.
And you can take a photographic tour of P.O. Box 1142 on our Web site ,npr.org.