The Secrets That Saved Lives
Fort Hunt Park, Alexandria, Virginia, 2017
On a sunny day, Fort Hunt is a bucolic, well-loved place — hospitable to young pitchers and catchers, moms and dads wheeling strollers, and veterans who gather to tell and re-tell stories.
Fort Hunt, which was once part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, has had many other interesting lives —habitats for birders and other creatures, runners, walkers, and bike enthusiasts, from wobbly trike-riders to competitive bicyclists warming up for a race.
But as the hidden history of PO Box 1142 is revealed, a remarkable story of stealth, seasoned with creativity and empathy, is ready to illuminate the past — and the present.
An Untold Tale Steps Out of the Shadows
Like all good stories, there’s always a tale-within-a-tale to tell — and PO Box 1142 is a humdinger of a secret story. In fact, PO Box 1142, identified only as a bland, quasi-mail address, is now revealed as a strategic intelligence asset during the war.
What was the mission of PO Box 1142 in World War II? To build on the work of the British and equip Americans with critical intelligence from Prisoners of War (POWs); to gather information about the German army and the German high command for use at and after D-Day; and looking out for American fliers shot down over enemy lines to evade or escape capture and to maintain communication and morale.
Highly skilled interrogators coaxed critical information out of POWs — not by torture or mistreatment, but by engaging their captives as human beings. The interrogators used psychology, instead of coercion. The work was top-secret and the results were surprising — a classic “catching more with honey than vinegar” strategy that built trust over time between interrogator and POW.
A World at War, Shrouded in Mystery.
Hard on the heels of Pearl Harbor, PO Box 1142 swiftly beefed up resources. In a short period of time, an astonishing number of new facilities were built — 87 in all. Many of these buildings were completely hidden from sight. The camp and its operations were concealed in the woods, behind five concentric rings of protection — including fences, dogs, and guards. The largest collection of buildings comprised the prisoner compound complex — which housed facilities for POWs, five interrogation rooms, a kitchen, guard room and offices for MIS (the Army’s Military Intelligence Services) and ONI (the Office of Naval Intelligence). In three short years (1942-45), nearly 3,500 German prisoners of war were interrogated.
“Fort Hunt was so secretive you weren’t supposed to say the name. You were supposed to call it PO Box 1142,” recalled Robert Kloss, who was stationed at Fort Hunt.
Gathering intelligence that mattered was at the heart of PO Box 1142. One of the greatest assets? The German-speaking Jewish immigrants who escaped the Nazis’ grasp before or soon after the war started. Many were well-educated, and their contributions leveraged opportunities. “High strategic value” POWs were flown to PO Box 1142 and cultivated to yield valuable information.
POWs who had skills in German technologies and weapons were of great importance. Other people of great interest included highly-placed German officers or those who had information about wartime operations, industries or coastal defenses. Early in America’s war, many prisoners were captured U-boat sailors, from whom interrogators learned about U-boat design, tactics, weapons and equipment.
Consider, for example, Erwin Lachmann, whose harrowing journey took him through unoccupied France, Spain and Portugal, headed for the United States. His Kiev-born mother had been a nurse, caring for sick and wounded Russians. With his father committed to his business in Berlin, his mother took Erwin and his brother on a wild ride-to-survival. The family traveled by bus to meet up with other refugees, then on to a Spanish border, where guards stopped them and consulted with the Gestapo. By then, Erwin was a young adult, and rumors indicated that a ship might be leaving Lisbon for the US. Erwin hailed a cab, bought tickets and finally he, his brother, Alexis, and their mother made their way to Philadelphia.
And there was Ernest Salomon. Born in Germany, his family fled to Belgium in 1933. In May 1940, the Germans invaded and his father was interned, but the rest of the family fled to the south of France. Ernest was then just 17 years old. His mother was interned in a camp run by Germans in southern France. His father was sent south by the Germans. But his father’s friend helped the family slip away, and they were able to buy visas to Cuba. In 1943, the family finally made their way to the United States via Cuba. By mid-1944, Salomon was working at PO Box 1142 as an interrogator. His fluency in five languages was invaluable. Like other skilled questioners, he knew how to target a specific POW. He would encourage a “getting-to-know-you” strategy and treated the POWs with friendliness and warmth, one-on-one. He never took notes. Instead, he focused on a single POW — and then offered the bait: “The war is over, so you should cooperate and we’ll recommend that you be repatriated sooner than others.”
Kolm was born in Vienna but his family fled to Prague after the Germans peremptorily annexed Austria. The Gestapo killed Kolm’s uncle in Prague. Staying “on the move” was Kolm’s escape strategy. His family then traveled west by train through Germany, but they were pulled off by Germans before reaching France. After paying smugglers, the family reached Brussels and then Paris, leaving Europe just as the war began. As with many other PO Box 1142 Jewish emigres, Kolm lost family members in the Holocaust. By Spring 1944, he was working at PO Box 1142 interrogating Nazi POWs. He spoke three languages, facilitating communications and building rapport.
Interrogators also learned to focus on the particular needs or interests of POWs. Their reward for cooperating — staff members occasionally lent a POW civilian clothes and took the “favored” captive into Washington, DC to participate in dinner and a meeting.
While some German-speaking staffers were POW interrogators, others were listening in behind the scenes to conversations among POWs in their rooms. The room monitors worked in a building that stockpiled munitions from previous wars, hunkering down with fellow servicemen in what one of the workers called “a kind of cave, under the [old gun] batteries.”
Soldiers lived what seemed like an ordinary life in an extraordinary era: they bunked in the PO Box 1142 barracks, equipped with an outdoor latrine.
The soldiers gathered to watch a movie once a week. There was a mess hall to keep mind, body and soul nourished. In the midst of a top secret operation, the day-to-day experiences were critically important: assignments, keeping alert with new information, tracking success on coaxing disclosures from the POWS, and ultimately building relationships that engaged comfort and trust. The PO Boxer, the camp newsletter, went out not only to soldiers but to the POWs as well.
A Bonanza of Information
Between May 1943 and August 1945, PO Box 1142 contributed 4,762 reports that yielded information from interrogations, plus 500+ reports that contained transcripts generated by monitors. The Pentagon staff car did a brisk business with daily runs to and from PO Box 1142. Hundreds of the reports were forwarded to the European Theater of Operations. And the Army sent regular requests to PO Box 1142 for specific information needed in Europe or elsewhere. Daily bulletins kept staff members up-to-date on the needed information — the location of submarine pens, ball-bearing plants, and the air defenses of bomber targets.
The Pentagon was eager to learn more about German technology — from breathing devices that enhanced German submarines’ ability to stay underwater for extended periods to counter measures for the Germans’ acoustic torpedo. The top brass was not disappointed by the reports from PO Box 1142.
Meanwhile new technologies were emerging on a fast and furious schedule — interrogators and room monitors learned about Russian tanks, German anti-aircraft guns, submarine magnetic amplifiers, and German radar. As the War in Europe ended, the Japanese Diplomatic Corps in Berlin was captured and sent to PO Box 1142 for ”interviews.” Louis Nipkow, an interviewer who worked with a Nisei partner, continued to pursue information about the connections between the Germans and the Japanese until the war with Japan finally came to an end.
Three color-defined handbooks — gray, yellow and most important of all, the Red Book — were meticulously assembled to make use of information learned in interrogations and room monitors, from documents captured at the front and from other sources. The Red Book contained critical strategic information — the “order of battle” for the German Army. The book was given to commanders of units for the D-Day invasion, so they would know what German units they would be facing, their experiences on the battlefield, and what weapons they had. Another book provided details about the German high command. All these elements came together to enable PO Box 1142 to gather and vet essential information.
As World War II neared the end and after V-E Day, there was still considerable work ahead. The Germans had made advances in technology and the staff of PO Box 1142 was able to help the US acquire key technology. The first star in the crown: German advances in rocketry. PO Box 1142 staffers worked on bringing German rocket scientists to the US and interrogating other German scientists and engineers. Among the successful hauls — optical science, mathematicians who developed orbital calculation systems, and advances in radar.
The Long View
Secrecy was sacrosanct — embedded in mind and body, for those who worked at PO Box 1142— and lasted far past World War II. After the war ended, the top brass at the Pentagon issued an uncompromising order: Burn everything at PO Box 1142.
Veterans had been sworn to secrecy about PO Box 1142, and the restrictions weren’t lifted until the mid 1990s. After holding fast to secrets for so long, many found it difficult to share what they saw, what they experienced, what they knew. But National Park Service staff patiently worked with veterans to bring out their stories in an Oral History Project.
Ranger Brandon Bies, a National Park historian who conducted many of the oral histories, says, “It’s an amazing story to try and think about what was going through the minds of these German-born Jewish American interrogators as they were sitting face-to-face with someone who might have been responsible for interning relatives of theirs in a concentration camp.”
Today, PO Box 1142 documents that were not destroyed have been declassified, and the Park Service ‘s oral histories have been transcribed. With growing interest, the door is open to learning more.
Secrecy, psychology, creativity, and ultimately some sense of what motivates us as human beings — all those fibers were woven together to activate PO Box 1142. It seems full circle — from George Washington’s 18th-century green farmlands to today’s well-loved park at Fort Hunt, Virginia. The remaining documents of PO Box 1142 are at rest in the National Archives — and open to the public.