When someone would ask Dominic Marletto where he was stationed his answer was "P.O. Box 1142." When they asked where that was, his answer was always, "Can't tell you." And, he stayed true to that for more than 60 years, even with his own wife Rose.
Last Sunday Marletto and two other World War II veterans returned to P.O. Box 1142 no longer having to protect one of the best kept secrets of the U.S. Government involving not only World War II but also the Cold War and the space race. It's history also includes the Spanish American War and other American military engagements.
P.O. Box 1142 is now home to family picnics, baseball games, community events, joggers, bicyclists, and many others who enjoy outdoor activities. It is Fort Hunt Park just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway in southeastern Fairfax County's Mount Vernon District.
During World War II it was the site for two "super top-secret" intelligence programs of the U.S. military. MIS-Y involved the systematic interrogation of Axis prisoners-of-war. MIS-X was an escape and evasion training program for U.S. Airmen if they were downed over enemy territory.
With its proximity to Washington, D.C., and the new Pentagon, combined with its isolation from curious eyes, P.O. Box 1142 was the perfect spot to bring high ranking German and Japanese POWs for interrogation. At the outset most of the "guests" were German U-boat officers and crew. As the conflict progressed the "guest list" expanded.
By the end of the war, that list had representatives from all branches of the German military, including some of its highest ranking officers, top scientists of their nuclear program, and a limited number of high ranking Japanese officials. P.O. Box 1142 uncovered knowledge of Germany's advanced rocket technology, as well as its initial experimentation into the nuclear weapons field.
Private Marletto, from western Pennsylvania, now 91, served at P.O. Box 1142 for a little more than a year as a guard. "He was also well known for playing the violin," said his oldest granddaughter, Maria Goebert of Woodbridge.
AS ONE OF FIVE children, Marletto quit school and went to work to help support the family during the Great Depression, he told the crowd assembled for the "Waymarker" plaque unveiling which relates Fort Hunt Park's World War II history. Prior to entering the U.S. Army at age 20 he worked for two of the so-called "alphabet soup" federal agencies established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the United States break out of that 1930s economic collapse.
"When I first entered the service I went to New Cumberland and then Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania for training. Then I was assigned here. When you were off base you couldn't tell anyone where you were stationed or what you did," Marletto said.
"You hardly ever saw the prisoners. The camp was surrounded by two eight-foot fences. One night one of the prisoners tried to escape but was shot by a guard. The guard was fined $2 but then the officers bought him a carton of cigarettes. That was worth $3 then, so his fine was erased," he said.
Following his tour at P.O. Box 1142, Marletto was sent to Mississippi for medical training and then on to the Pacific Theater where he was stationed on Saipan and Tinian islands. He was on the latter when the Enola Gay took off for Hiroshima, he told the audience. "Until that plane left they were coming and going every couple of minutes to bomb Japan," he said.
THOSE TYPES OF stories are being collected by the George Washington Memorial Parkway Fort Hunt Oral History Project. Thus far, the team has located 30 veterans who served at P.O. Box 1142, according to Ranger Brandon Bies, cultural Resource specialist, GWMP.
"We located several veterans who still would not talk about the camp because of its top-secret wartime status. Not even to their families over 60 years. However, when we finally found one who would talk he led us to another and another and the stories have just grown from there," Bies said.
"What the interrogators learned here served us into Korea, the Cold War, and the space age. Many of those interrogators were German Jews who had escaped. They not only spoke fluent German but they also understood all the little nuances," he explained.
The history of this park is rich and dates back to the Spanish American War in a military sense and all the way back to native Americans. It was originally part of George Washington's River Farm property," said Vincent L. Santucci, chief parkway ranger, NPS.
"If these grounds could talk they would tell an amazing story of American history. The stories about its role in American military intelligence during World War II are going to be made public upon their completion," said David Vela, superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway.
"These ‘wayside’ plaques are just a small remembrance of what these brave men did here to change the course of the war in favor of the Allies," Vela said. There will eventually be eight such waysides telling various aspects of the park's long history.
At the time it was a top-secret POW camp it was also a national park, according to Bies. Eventually the Park Service plans to establish a new visitors content station in the park which will house the veterans' stories.
Joining Marletto in the unveiling ceremony were retired Col. Werner Michel, a resident of the Mount Vernon area, and former Staff Sgt. William Hess of suburban Maryland. Hess also served at P.O. Box 1142 while Michel headed up an interrogation unit in Germany during the war and later served in intelligence at the Pentagon. Michel's cousin was stationed at P.O. Box 1142, according to Dana M. Dierkes, public affairs specialist, for the Parkway.
Hess and Michel worked together at the Pentagon. Their chance meeting last Sunday morning at Fort Hunt Park followed a hiatus of 60 years.
In addition to unveiling of the exhibit panel, Marletto, who also was a photographer in his younger years, displayed a photo album of his wartime experiences and the people he served with. As Santucci noted, "These men are remarkable examples of The Greatest Generation."