It was the world’s most secret address - known to a handful of initiates as P.O. Box 1142.
|A rare outside shot of P O Box 1142|
From the outside, it looked like any other military compound. There were a few houses, a couple of huts and the occasional vehicle going in and out.
Yet P.O. Box 1142 was America’s secret weapon that helped the Allies win the Second World War. And the events that took place here also enabled America to put men on the moon.
|A spartan bedroom dormitory|
This secret address - at Fort Hunt in Virginia - was a top American intelligence base that operated during World War Two.
It was here that many senior Nazi prisoners - including rocket scientists and nuclear engineers - were interrogated. In total, more than 4,000 high-ranking prisoners passed through the camp.
Among them were the rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, and the nuclear technician Heinz Schlicke.
The prisoners held here were grilled about scientific discoveries and developments in weaponry - anything, indeed, that could help the Allied cause
|A POW bus: note the blacked-out glass|
The base was in violation of the Geneva Convention but this did not bother the US government. Secrecy was paramount.
Surviving transcripts and testimonies suggest that human rights were respected and torture was never employed. Rather, prisoners were rewarded if they revealed sensitive information. Some prisoners were even wined and dined to soften them up.
|Schlicke: came here 1945|
One of the American interrogators was George Mandel, a 20 -year-old scientist who spoke fluent German.
‘My job was to interrogate scientifically trained and experienced Germans,’ he explained in a 2008 interview. He said that many of them were such experts that he had trouble understanding them.
‘One of them… worked on enriching uranium, and I didn't know why anybody would want to enrich uranium,’ he recalls. ‘My job was to find out what he was doing and how it was being carried out, and then I reported this to the Pentagon.’
Many of the most senior Nazi scientists were brought to P.O. Box 1142 in the run up to Operation Paperclip. This was a top-secret mission charged with offering employment in America to hundreds of distinguished German scientists at the war’s end.
The aim was to deny the Soviet Union access to the skills of these high-ranking experts.
Among them was the high-ranking German engineer Heinz Schlicke, who developed infrared fuses used to trigger an atomic warhead.
|Greatest catch: Wernher von Braun|
His interrogator, John Gunther Dean, says Schlicke took time to cooperate. ‘The war had ended in Europe at that point… he was willing to help us, but his wife was in the Russian zone.’
Dean was eventually sent to Europe to find Schlicke's wife and two small children and to reunite the family in America. Schlicke ended up working in the U.S. for the remainder of his life.
In the spring of 1945, the camp received its most prestigious German prisoner, the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.
He had developed the V1 and V2 rockets that had reduced parts of London to rubble. When he realised the war was lost, he surrendered to American forces in Bavaria.
|All the rooms were bugged|
The American high command knew the importance of their catch: von Braun was at the top of the Black List - a list of German scientists and engineers targeted for immediate interrogation. He was flown to the United States and questioned by officers of P.O. Box 1142.
Each prisoner had a so-called ‘morale officer’: Von Braun’s was a young official named Arno Mayer whose orders were to keep him happy. To this end, he supplied him with magazines and liquor and even took him and three others on a shopping trip to Washington, D.C.
|Prisoners movements were constantly monitored|
Mayer recalls that the men wanted to buy lingerie for their wives, who were still in Germany.
‘We told the sales person what size and so on. And the woman held up a pair of panties. The Germans were appalled. They didn't want nylon underwear,’ recalls Mayer.’ They wanted woollen ones that should be long, so as to cover their legs.’
|Von Braun with his Saturn V rockets|
Wernher von Braun was to prove one of P.O.Box 1142’s most controversial prisoners. It was discovered that he had used forced labour taken from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp when building his deadly V1 and V2 rockets.
He could have been tried and condemned at the Nuremberg Tribunal. But the government deemed that his extraordinary brain was too useful for him to be put on trial. Instead, he was given a false employment history and his Nazi Party membership expunged from the public record. He was then given security clearance to work in the United States.
P.O. Box 1142’s most high profile prisoner was eventually given a leading job at NASA. He would reward his adopted country by designing the Saturn V rocket that launched the crew of Apollo 11 on its successful mission to the moon.
Few people ever knew that he had previously been interred at P.O. Box 1142.
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