On the surface, Fort Hunt, Virginia appeared to be a frivolous clubhouse for ex-Nazi scientists and spies. German prisoners of war (POWs) whiled away the days playing soccer and watching movies but the microphones were everywhere.
“They would give them whatever they wanted just to get them to talk,” said Dominic Marletto, a Pennsylvania serviceman who worked in the kitchen at P.O. Box 1142, the codename for Fort Hunt during WWII. “They’d furnish liquor. They’d get them women.”
The US Park Services interviewed Marletto and 59 other servicemen - from cooks to ambassadors - to piece together the fascinating history of P.O. Box 1142. It was the base for a crucial intelligence-gathering mission that helped the US defeat Hitler, hiding many secrets under its two special wings: MIS-X and MIS-Y.
Fort Hunt was the HQ for MIS-X, a US Department of War branch specializing in escape and evasion. Known to residents as 1142, Fort Hunt was scattered across a former farm property once owned by George Washington’s family. The Sugar Mill housed the camp commandant while The Creamery served as the base for codebreakers and writers. The Warehouse - perhaps the most intriguing of 1142’s buildings, is where 'care packages' for American POWs in Europe were created.
The Warehouse was like Q’s playground filled with gadgets - compasses, cameras, tiny saws, and cloth maps were hidden in soccer balls, baseballs, bats, and board games. Even four-foot-wide medicine balls were stuffed with tools and sent to camps under the guise of recreation, said WWII veteran Donald Pritchard.
The US set up two fake ‘aid agencies’ to send dozens of care packages each day to US POWs in Europe. American servicemen received hollowed-out chess pieces hiding silk maps and shaving brushes containing curled documents. Soldiers could use clip-on pens as a compass. Baseballs hid radio transmitters. Ping Pong paddles held currency.
Harvard law graduate and WWII soldier Edmund Carpenter trained on the James Bond-esque devices while studying tactics at 1142.
“We learned a lot about [shirt] buttons that, in fact, could be used as compasses,” Carpenter recalled.
Carpenter also learned how to assemble radio parts hidden in baseballs and cribbage boards - pieces that could be configured to listen to BBC radio’s Morse code messages.
“Even something like a deck of playing cards that - if you steamed the individual cards apart - there would be little pieces of an escape map hidden in between,” he said.
Silvio Bedini, the US Army’s first cryptographer, had an office nearby in The Creamery. Bedini had never heard of Fort Hood before arriving by limousine. ”They drove me for miles into the woods and dumped me off at a guard’s office,” he recalled. “And thus began life in 1142.”
Bedoni’s team waded through large duffel bags of mail each day. Up to 14 cryptologists sat at a 22-foot table poring over German maps, orders, photographs, newspapers, and magazines.
The team also deciphered letters sent from American POWs in Germany - ostensibly written to relatives, but really transmitting intelligence using a coded numerical system which differed depending on the day of the week.
Bedini’s men also responded to the POWs - coded replies from loving ‘wives’ and ‘girlfriends’.
Captain Robley E. Winfrey was Fort Hunt’s on-site commander, appointed after several months of training in England where MI9 had German POWs set up in country homes. The British even allowed captured German generals to employ personal servants and drink fine wine.
Winfrey occupied an unheated, 15-square-foot office in The Warehouse.
"Even we did not really realize, at that time, that he (Winfrey) was the top guy," Bedini said. "Because he was one of those people who did a tremendous amount of work, wonderful job, and was - sort of, obscured himself - but he was there for absolutely everything. Everyone."
The US spymaster was a civil engineer, trained at Iowa State University, and he returned there to teach after leaving 1142. Winfrey, promoted to Colonel by the end of WWII, never discussed his time at the fort in public.
While MIS-X soldiers focused on escape and evasion tactics, the MIS-Y team interviewed German POWs in a separate section of Fort Hunt.
German-born John Dean was an 18-year-old US soldier when he was assigned to 1142.
He spoke fluent French, German and English so he was ideally placed to listen to conversations and translate intelligence, sometimes even accompanying VIP prisoners to a hotel for coffee, cake, and a chat.
Dean, later a lawyer and US ambassador, said Fort Hunt’s intelligence was not coerced but instead gathered through interviews, microphones, and ‘stool pigeons’ - Americans, or Germans and Russian working for the US - placed with prisoners as roommates.
“They were very good, and that is a function of intelligence,” Dean said. “And I’m going to tell you - whether you were in the military or whether you are in science, in technology, in business - you want to know what your competitor is doing… what kind of weapons the other guy is producing.”
While the German prisoners may have been able to swim, smoke, and wear their own clothes, Fort Hunt was a far cry from a gentleman’s country club.
The prisoners’ compound was ringed by two fences and guards. When diplomacy didn’t work, less-than-subtle warnings did the job.
The Americans once threatened to call in the Russians and even brought in an imposter to act as a Russian officer.
“When they heard they were going to Siberia, that changed everything,” said John Kluge, a German immigrant who volunteered for the US Army. “The Germans were, including the generals, deathly afraid of the Russians because they knew - and they heard that - they would go to any means to get information from the prisoners.”
Little remains of 1142 today. While the battery commander’s station stands and a few of the weapons’ batteries remain, the Pentagon ordered the top-secret camp to be dismantled and documents torched after WWII.