History, History Column

P.O. Box 1142 and Wernher von Braun

©2023 Sarah Becker

“From 1942 through the end of the Second World War, a top secret military intelligence service operated clandestinely on the shores of our own Potomac,” former U.S. Representative Jim Moran [D-VA8] told his Congressional colleagues in 2007. “Known only by its mailing address, P.O. Box 1142, the men and women at this [Fairfax County, Virginia] post provided the military intelligence that helped bring an end to World War II.”

Fort Hunt Park became the property of the National Park Service in 1933. P.O. Box 1142, one of two domestic military intelligence centers, was created not long after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The wartime facility included multiple structures: a secret set of buildings of the type found only in mystery novels.

“Throughout the war and its aftermath, the post processed and interrogated nearly 4,000 of the most important German prisoners of war,” Moran explained. “The men who performed the interrogations were drawn from across the country. The shared attribute is that they all spoke fluent German.”

Among the German prisoners of war interrogated at the Fort: Major General Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Foreign Armies East section of the Abwehr, the intelligence service of the German general staff. Also Horst Degan, the mine-laying ship-sinking Nazi U-boat commander caught in 1942 off the North Carolina coast. Degan, it is said “talked quite freely with his interrogators.”

“Many interrogators were Jewish,” Moran continued, “to ensure their loyalty to America’s mission. These interrogations resulted in the discovery of most of Germany’s secret weapons including the atomic bomb, the jet engine, and the [liquid fueled Vengeance-2] V-2 rocket—all technologies that became essential informational components in waging the Cold War [1947-1991].”

“In advancing the Nation’s interests and uncovering vital secrets, the interrogators at P.O. Box 1142 never resorted to tactics such as sleep deprivation, electrical shock, or waterboarding,” Moran avowed. “Their captives were never sexually abused, humiliated, or tortured.”

“Despite the vital work that the interrogators performed, their activities remained closely held secrets by those who worked at the post,” Moran concluded. Among the former P.O. Box 1142 interrogators: German born Alexandria resident Fred Michel, an Army interrogator, and Connecticut born U.S. Air Force chief crypto analyst Silvio Bindini.

“Intelligence gathered from P.O. Box 1142 contributed to the Manhattan Project,” Interrogator Michel confirmed. The Project was conceived in 1941-42; the goal: to establish the atomic bomb. Contributor J. Robert Oppenheimer, in charge of the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, detonated the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945.

“The writings on World War II are vast, yet almost everyone we consulted was clueless,” then National Park Service Chief Ranger Vincent Santucci, George Washington Memorial Parkway told me in 2010. “Interest was triggered by a tourist’s off-handed comment and veteran Lloyd Shoemaker’s [1990] book The Escape Factory: The Story of MIS-X, the Super-Secret U.S. Agency Behind World War II’s Greatest Escapes.”

“P.O. Box 1142 was one of the country’s most Top Secret locations,” Santucci again confirmed. “Everyone who worked here had to sign a secrecy agreement and the men of the ‘Greatest Generation’ held to their values.”

“It wasn’t until park rangers from the GW Memorial Parkway uncovered declassified documents and met with former officers of P.O. Box 1142 that the World War II operations that occurred at Fort Hunt Park became known,” Santucci said. “Had we, the Park Service not intervened it was world history doomed to go extinct.”

Fort Hunt accommodated several Top Secret Military Programs including MIS-X, a super-secret Escape & Evacuation program critical to the survival of downed and captured Army Air Force personnel; MIS-Y the larger interrogation program and Operation Paper Clip. Bindini operated secretly from within MIS-Y.

German prisoner of war Wernher von Braun—an early architect of Germany’s deadly V-2 combat rocket, a rocket used to attack England in 1944—was a beneficiary of both MIS-Y’s Scientific Research Subsection and Operation Paper Clip. The latter was a program intended to redirect the talents of top German scientists away from not only the Soviet Union [1945-1947], but also East Germany [1949].

“P.O. Box 1142 was the first place on the planet to recognize there was going to be a Cold War,” Santucci professed.

The Germans surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945; four days before the U.S. aircraft carrier Bunker Hill was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane off the waters of Okinawa. The Japanese yielded to the Allies on September 2, 1945: only after the U.S. had dropped two atomic bombs. On the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: August 6 and 9, 1945.

Wernher von Braun [1912-1977] and his younger brother Magnus [1919-2003], also a German rocket engineer, conceded defeat on May 2, 1945. Magnus von Braun saw Wisconsin born U.S. Army private, Fred Schneikert standing sentry in the Bavarian Alps. He caught Schneikert’s attention and said, in simple English: “My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2 [the Nazi rocket that launched the Space Age]. We want to surrender.”

The von Braun brothers, a catch by any measure, were the crème de la crème “of America’s Black List,” a list of German scientists and engineers wanted for immediate interrogation. Wernher, a commissioned Nazi SS officer familiar with concentration camp labor; astronomer and rocket scientist was brought to the United States in 1945 as part of Operation Paperclip. As was Magnus; German General Walter Dornberger author of V-2 [1954] and other members of WvB’s scientific team. All were questioned—regardless of in-state location—by P.O. Box 1142 interrogators.

Under contract to the U.S. Army as of September 1945, Wernher von Braun’s New York arrival was kept secret. Why? Because he was busy testing, assembling, demonstrating and again launching captured V-2 rockets. In essence, proving he was in fact a research aficionado.  Said WvB to the press later on:

“We know that we [Germans] had created a new means of warfare [rocketry], and the question as to what nation [Soviet Union], to what victorious nation [Britain, France and or the United States] we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict…and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such assurance to the world be best secured.” Germany fired more than 1,000 12-ton V-2s between September 1944 and March 1945.

Wernher von Braun, a member of the Lutheran church was, according to most, “the greatest rocket scientist in U.S. history.” He worked with V-2 rockets at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and was project director of the guided missile development unit at Fort Bliss, Texas. The Redstone Arsenal became his history, as did the launch of Explorer 1.

WvB’s book, The Mars Project, a discussion of the problems and possibilities inherent in an expedition to Mars, was published in 1953. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955. The American lunar program began on President John F. Kennedy’s [1961-1963] watch in 1961. And President Lyndon Johnson [1963-1969] continued the trend.

The country’s first successful interplanetary mission was completed in 1962; the launch of Gemini 3 and Gemini 4 [the first American spacewalk] in 1965. In 1970 NASA brought Wernher von Braun to the Washington, D.C., area to serve as the Administration’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning.

“I came to this country’s shores after a war, a grim and bitter war, as an enemy alien,” WvB told an interviewer in 1972. “And it took me quite a while to get accepted in this country. I ask you, where in the world would a man [a former Nazi] be given a second chance except in America?”

Von Braun died of cancer in 1977 and is buried in the city of Alexandria’s Ivy Hill Cemetery. From his tombstone, Psalm 19-1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.”

The National Park Service dedicated a historic marker to the veterans of P.O. Box 1142 in 2007. The Park land was once part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. It remained as farmland until 1892—when the U.S. War Department purchased the land for use as a Fort. Construction began in 1897, with the onset of the Spanish American War [1898].

“Patriotism is not limited to America’s revolutionary era,” Santucci reminded.

From the 110th Congress, H. Res 753: “Whereas the work at Fort Hunt [1942-1946] not only contributed to the Allied victory during World War II, but also led to advances in military intelligence and scientific technology that directly influenced the Cold War and Space Race…Resolved, That the House of Representatives honors and extends its sincere appreciation to the soldiers of P.O. Box 1142 for their sacrifice to our nation during a time of war; their pursuit of necessary intelligence through humane means and their service that went too long unacknowledged.”

Fort Hunt Park remains open for many reasons fall picnics included.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com.

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes