Sixty two years after their mission ended, they could finally step into the light and receive the recognition and gratitude they so rightfully deserved. Now in their 80s and 90s, their bodies may have turned frail but their intellect, the essence of their duty assignment, was as sharp and well honed as when they gently and secretively faded back into a postwar society.
They were the World War II U.S. Navy and Army veterans of P.O. Box 1142. Now known as Fort Hunt Park, just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway south of Alexandria City, this quiet, pastoral park once was the home of a top secret military intelligence operation so clandestine that it was known only by its mailing address "P.O. Box 1142."
Composed of both Naval and Army personnel, their job was to interrogate German and Japanese prisoners of war to garner valuable intelligence for combat operations on land and sea in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. As a Joint Interrogation Center members of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) did most of the interrogating while Army personnel were primarily responsible for administration of the base and custody of the prisoners.
Those stationed there were legally sworn to absolute secrecy. That included their families, during and after the war. After holding for more than six decades, that veil was lifted last Friday morning with the dedication of a flagpole and historical marker during the first "P.O. Box 1142 Reunion."
Grateful for finally being recognized for their efforts in that global conflict, they were not shy about expressing their opinions on how intelligence operations are being conducted in the present Iraq War. One of the most vocal was former Army Sgt. Peter Weiss, now 81 and a retired New York attorney.
WHEN HIS NAME was called to be recognized, he strode past Col. David Griffith, waiting at the flagpole with Weiss' U.S. Department of the Army citation, directly to the podium microphone and announced that, although grateful for the recognition, he did not want his "presence to be construed as support for the present war."
This drew almost unanimous support from his fellow veterans.
"I find it almost incomprehensible that our moral values and our abhorrence of war has deteriorated so far. It would not have even occurred to any of us serving here during World War II to do what is being done today to gather intelligence," Weiss said during a personal interview following the formal ceremony.
"We were proud to serve, and of the Army, at that time. The tactics employed today are unconscionable and I don't think they produce good intelligence," he said. Just then another of his comrades from P.O. Box 1142 walked over, took Weiss' hand and thanked him for speaking out.
"I had not intended to say anything. But, when the Army officer came to the microphone and thanked us for our efforts and made a reference to ‘the present global war on terrorism’ I felt that the situation needed to be clarified so that my presence not be construed as tacit support for this administration's tactics," Weiss explained.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Weiss continued to work for Military Intelligence following World War II. He subsequently went to St. Joseph's College in Annapolis, Md., and then Yale Law School. He practiced law in New York City from 1955 until retiring in 2006.
Many of those assigned to P.O. Box 1142 had family connections with Germany and/or Austria, according to Weiss. That made them very familiar with not only the language but also customs, places, local idioms with which the POWs could affiliate as well as enabling the interrogators to pick up on clandestine conversations among the prisoners.
"My job was to listen and listen very carefully. Sometimes that listening occurred when the prisoners were not aware we were listening," Weiss explained.
FROM 1942 to 1945 several hundred Navy and Army intelligence personnel at P.O. Box 1142 interrogated approximately 4,000 prisoners of war. They included top-ranking German military officers, U-boat captains, and nuclear scientists. Most of the prisoners were German.
Information gained at P.O. Box 1142 not only helped win WWII, but also gave the United States a strategic technological advantage going into the Cold War and the Space Age, according to David Vela, superintendent, George Washington Memorial Parkway, who spearheaded the reunion and establishment of the flagpole with the memorial marker at its base.
"Over the coming hours you will be able to gain the essence of what happened here. What these men did led to both winning the war and the peace that followed," Vela told the crowd of veterans and their families attending the formal dedication ceremony. "At exactly 11:42 a.m. we will raise the flag on this flagpole and unveil the marker at its base."
Joining Vela in that tribute to the veterans was Joe Lawler, regional director, National Park Service, National Capital Region. "These veterans have given this nation so much. We will continue to tell this important story," he said.
"These men came here in 1942 not sure why they were sent here. Now they are here again. And, again they are not sure why," joked Chief Ranger Vincent Santucci, NPS, kicking off the program. Actually, they were more than sure why this time and it showed in their faces and eyes as their story was now out in the open.
"These veterans are special because their purpose had to be kept secret for more than 60 years — even from their families. Their satisfaction for the job they were doing had to come from within," said U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ann DeBarts Gilbride as she presented the first citation to former Lt. j.g. Angus Thuermer, now 92.
"Navy interrogators came from all walks of life. All uniformed personnel who took part in these interrogations were reservists. They were the first of their kind in U.S. Naval history," she said.
"Their work led to the defeat of the German U-boat fleet in the Atlantic. Information furnished by this unit served as the basic foundation of naval intelligence. What they did went unheralded for decades," Gilbride said.
THOSE ACCOLADES were echoed by U.S. Army Col. David Griffith. "This unit maintains a connection to today. When the war was over they quietly continued their lives and kept their secret," he said.
There were 450 prospects personally interviewed by the Navy for the position of interrogator and assignment to P.O. Box 1142. Thirty five were chosen. The Navy used only officers as interrogators. The Army relied on both officers and enlisted personnel in that role.
During Friday afternoon and all day Saturday, the National Park Service conducted a symposium on the work of P.O. Box 1142 and its various implications, past, present and future. It concluded with a session titled "Voice of Fort Hunt," a panel discussion by the veterans. Those voices were audible at last.