During the pensive and chaotic weeks and months between the end of World War II and the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials, the U.S. military and an elite, undisclosed team of Foreign Service officers set about interrogating Nazi prisoners, questioning thousands of German officers, scientists and submariners. For the decades that followed, none of the interrogators would speak of the methods used to extract information.
At the time, and for decades after, the covert project fueled rampant rumours and grisly speculation about the precise techniques used to extract information from those Nazi prisoners. After keeping true to the military code and decorum of their generation, participants in those sessions decided to finally reveal the methods they used to extract the information at Fort Hunt, Virginia, information that would later be used to condemn the prisoners to various fates, ranging from time served to life imprisonment to hanging.
The impetus for their decision to speak out after all these years, about what they did; indeed, the very interrogation methods they used, may just surprise you.
To anyone living in the post-WWII era, the whole process to gather evidence of the myriad of war crimes committed by Hitler’s henchmen, was an enigma. As it turns out, that decades-long enigma was wrapped in paradoxical illusion.
About two-dozen WWII veterans gathered Friday on the banks of the Potomac, for the first time since the 1940s. The proud members of the "Greatest Generation" bantered back and forth, as old wartime-buddies do - reflecting wistfully the olden days when the world faced a threat like none other before it or after - recalling how they had all volunteered to work for the war crimes tribunals held in Nuremburg, Germany at war’s welcome end.
Saturday’s Washington Post has the untold story of the men ultimately providing the evidence to punish the perpetrators of the greatest threat the world has ever known.
When about two dozen veterans got together yesterday for the first time since the 1940s, many of the proud men lamented the chasm between the way they conducted interrogations during the war and the harsh measures used today in questioning terrorism suspects.
Back then, they and their commanders wrestled with the morality of bugging prisoners' cells with listening devices. They felt bad about censoring letters. They took prisoners out for steak dinners to soften them up. They played games with them.
"We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture," said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess.
Blunt criticism of modern enemy interrogations was a common refrain at the ceremonies held beside the Potomac River near Alexandria. Across the river, President Bush defended his administration's methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects during an Oval Office appearance.
Several of the veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, vehemently denounced the Bush regime’s controversial interrogation techniques. One veteran even refused the honors bestowed upon him and the others. When the time came to receive his award, the veteran cited his opposition to the war in Iraq along with the interrogation processes used at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
"I feel like the military is using us to say, 'We did spooky stuff then, so it's okay to do it now,' " said Arno Mayer, 81, a professor of European history at Princeton University.
When Peter Weiss, 82, went up to receive his award, he commandeered the microphone and gave his piece.
"I am deeply honored to be here, but I want to make it clear that my presence here is not in support of the current war," said Weiss, chairman of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and a human rights and trademark lawyer in New York City.
The veterans of P.O. Box 1142, a top-secret installation in Fairfax County that went only by its postal code name, were brought back to Fort Hunt by park rangers who are piecing together a portrait of what happened there during the war.
Helping to fuel the grim speculation around the interrogation process was the fact that nearly 4,000 prisoners of war were brought in by the busload for questioning for days, even weeks before their presence was required, and subsequently reported to the Red Cross. The process did not comply with the Geneva Conventions. The tribunals even used refugees of the Third Reich as interrogators, a very controversial move at the time.
"We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice," said John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark.
The interrogators had standards that remain a source of pride and honor.
"During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone," said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. "We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I'm proud to say I never compromised my humanity."
Exactly what went on behind the barbed-wire fences of Fort Hunt has been a mystery that has lured amateur historians and curious neighbors for decades.
During the war, nearby residents watched buses with darkened windows roar toward the fort day and night. They couldn't have imagined that groundbreaking secrets in rocketry, microwave technology and submarine tactics were being peeled apart right on the grounds that are now a popular picnic area where moonbounces mushroom every weekend.
When Vincent Santucci took on the job of chief ranger four-years ago at the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway office, he assigned his cultural resource specialist, Brandon Bies, to do research explaining its history. He planned on posting signs throughout the park, he thought, to give the park a bit more dignity. That assignment changed dramatically when ranger Dana Dierkes was leading a tour of the park one day and someone told her about a rumored Fort Hunt veteran.
That veteran was Fred Michel, who worked in engineering in Alexandria for 65-years. Mr. Michel never told his neighbors or anyone else that at one time he faced numerous Nazi prisoners, and was successful in prying deep, dark, wartime secrets from most of them. Michel also referred Bies to other vets, and they in turn remembered others.
Bies was intrigued by the veterans’ stories, and subsequently went from his desk job of researching mountains of topics in stacks of yellowed papers to flying across the country, with camera and klieg lights in tow, documenting the fading memories of aging veterans.
Bies, Santucci and others have spent hours upon hours trying to clarify obscured memories; able to coax intricate details from men of honor who swore on their generation’s laurels to never speak of the work they performed at P.O. Box 1142.
"The National Park Service is committed to telling your story, and now it belongs to the nation," said David Vela, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Left with an ever-looming deadline, (about 1,100 WWII veterans die every day) Bies and Santucci are hoping to document as many of the veterans’ stories as possible. Needless to say, many of those aging interrogators are ashamed of the ignominious way the Bush regime is waging their wars of aggression, and abhorred at the cruel and inhuman treatment of the prisoners they take in the process.
We owe these honorable men a lot, and should all salute those who toiled for weeks and months in the pursuit of justice; ultimately, holding a craven despot’s minions accountable for their heinous war crimes, but preserving human rights, common decency, and every bit of their honor and dignity [and that of America] in doing so.
I have a distinct feeling that the men of P.O. Box 1142, even in their golden age, would gladly volunteer their prolific evidence-extracting services in a latter-day war crimes tribunal, say for instance, at the Hague.
Come’on Congress, if the Geneva Conventions were worthy enough for the Greatest Generation to abide by, in punishing some of the worst war criminals in history; they're certainly worthy enough to abide by now.
Are there any honorable men and women left in Washington?
Do your constitutional duty!
Impede, impeach and imprison.