MIS-X: Secret Escape Aids for American POWs

My thanks to David Lassman of the National Park Service for allowing me to reproduce the following article by the Park Service. In addition, to read selections from the M.I.S.-X Manual on Escape, Evasion, and Survival, click here.

Help Uncover the Secret Story of PO Box 1142 at Fort Hunt, Virginia

 

Were you or did you know British servicemen during World War II who interacted with the escape and evasion activities of American servicemen? Were you aware of Americans trained as a “Code Users” that enabled them to send secret messages home? As a POW did you ever see an American receive a care package with a radio, a map, a compass, German currency, or other escape devices hidden inside? Are you aware of American escape and evasion debriefings? Were you working on a military intelligence analysis team studying captured documents, photos, and publications? Were you trained in or did you participate in the interrogation of enemy prisoners of war? Did you help bring captured scientists to use their knowledge and skills in the post World War II era. If so, you might know about the secret military programs of MIS-X, MIS-Y, MIRS, AGAS, or Operation Paperclip and you can help the National Park Service uncover the work done at a secret military installation known as P.O. Box 1142.

Fort Hunt is located eleven miles down the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Focusing upon recreational activities, like biking and picnicking, many visitors are unaware of the Fort Hunt’s unique history. In the 1700s, President George Washington, who lived at his nearby home of Mount Vernon, farmed the site. A century later in the 1890s, the War Department established Fort Hunt as a coastal artillery post designed to protect Washington, DC from naval assault. In 1931, the War Department used Fort Hunt as an installation for the training of some of the nation’s first African-American ROTC troops. During the Depression, Fort Hunt served as a camp for participants in the famous Bonus Army and later for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In 1933, the site is maintained by the National Park Service as part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Yet it is the World War II era at Fort Hunt that offers the most intriguing story and the largest mystery.

In May, 1942, the U.S. Army needed a secure intelligence center and it chose Fort Hunt for its proximity to the nation’s capital and the newly-constructed Pentagon. An agreement was made with the National Park Service that Fort Hunt would be used by the military for the duration of the war and then it was to be returned. For the next four years, Fort Hunt assumed a decidedly military, though mysterious, air as it was transformed into a secret military intelligence operation. In fact, the facility was simply known as P.O. Box 1142. Only top U.S. War Department officials and the President of the United States knew of its existence. Even Fort Hunt’s post commander was uncertain of all the activities that were taking place within his own camp.

The old fort rapidly mushroomed into a major installation with 150 buildings, lofty guard towers, and multiple alarmed fences. Several programs took place at P.O. Box 1142:

  • The Military Intelligence Research Service (MIRS) studied captured enemy documents, publications, and images for pertinent information related to World War II. MIRS had two main bases of operation, one in the Washington, D.C. area at Fort Hunt and another in London.
  • The MIS-Y program involved the questioning at P.O. Box 1142 of around 5,000 enemy POWs from Europe and Asia before they were sent to their permanent POW camps. These POWs were considered the top one percent of those captured and brought to the United States mainland. Most of the early POWs were from German U-boats, since knowledge of the enemy submarines was crucial to enable the American forces to safely join the fighting. As the war progressed, military, political, and industrial personnel from both Germany and Japan were interrogated.
  • Operation Paperclip brought captured German scientists to the United States in the hopes that the knowledge and skills of these scientists would be utilized in a variety of ways. These scientists included the famous Werner von Braun, who helped get the United States to the moon. It should be noted that while the Russians captured more scientists than the United States, the Americans captured the best of the best.
  • MIS-X program went into operation in October 1942 and focused upon the escape and evasion activities of American military personnel.
  • The Air Ground Aid Section (AGAS) organized the escape, evasion, and rescue activities of military personnel in China. This was largely done in cooperation with the native population who were skilled in accessing the remote sections of China.

Interviews with surviving staff at P.O. Box 1142 have similar stories of receiving their assignments. While not universal, many tended to be well educated. Equally interesting is that a high percentage of these men had been born and raised in Europe and were familiar with one or more foreign languages. Even more intriguing is that several were Jewish, which makes their involvement of some of the German POWs at P.O. Box 1142 particularly fascinating. A common story in these veteran interviews has them finishing basic training and watching their fellow recruits preparing to go overseas. They were the last to receive their assignments, which instructed them to go immediately to Washington, D.C. Then they were told to wait at an intersection near Union Station or in Alexandria, Virginia where they were picked up and delivered to P.O. Box 1142. Most of these veterans have laughed as they remember their confusion as they arrived at a place few people knew existed.

Many of these men never quite knew why they were selected and often they received their training for their specific duties at Fort Hunt on site. Luckily for the staff, they received advice, guidance, and cooperation from the various branches of Britain’s military intelligence.

Equally advantageous was the establishment of Camp Ritchie, which was located a couple of hours north of Fort Hunt in Maryland. Camp Ritchie was the home of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Training Center. The majority of these servicemen, officers, and enlisted men alike, passed through one of the 31 regular 8-week MITC courses which were conducted beginning July 27, 1942 and ended in September 1945. Records list 11,637 graduates in the regular courses. An additional 1,798 graduates took special courses, such as Order of Battle, Photo Interpretation, and Counter Intelligence. One recent study has 15% of the MIS-Y and MIS-X staff at Fort Hunt graduating from Camp Ritchie, along with 36% of the MIRS staff at Fort Hunt and 58% of the MIRS staff in London.

Fort Hunt’s creation and mission was performed in cooperation with other sites around the world:

  • As noted previously, MIRS had a branch office in London.
  • Also in London was a MIS-X station where Americans who successfully escaped and evaded were questioned to find out, which tools, devices, and training were useful and which should be changed to improve future successes throughout the war.
  • The Air Ground Aid Section (AGAS) was based in Kunming, China where it worked closely with the infamous Chiang Kai-Shek.
  • While early in the war, the interrogations at Fort Hunt focused on European POWs, a sister interrogation camp was established in a former resort in Hot Springs, California and it was known as Camp Tracy or P.O. Box 651. This site mostly focused on the interrogation of Japanese POWs.
  • A few hours north of Fort Hunt in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, P.O. Box 167 or Pine Grove Furnace was established out of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. This camp was used for holding, interrogating, and screening POWs. Many of these screened POWs were then sent to Fort Hunt for a more detailed interrogation.
  • As the war began to wind down, Camp Strong in Boston’s harbor served as a holding station for many of the German Scientists entering the United States as a part of Operation Paperclip.
  • The Germans had a camp of Auswertstelle West, which they used as an interrogation camp for captured allied airmen. In 1945, the United States assumed control of the site and eventually renamed it Camp King. The site was used as an interrogation camp by the United States as part of the denazification of Germans and a base for the developing Cold War.

On example of a MIS-X program that the British helped the Americans initiate was in the training of some air crewmen as “Code Users” or “CUs” in order to send home secret messages, if they captured and made Prisoners of War.  Clerks working for the Director of the Censorship scanned all incoming POW mail for the names of known CUs. When one appeared, it was picked up by an MIS-X officer and transported to PO Box 1142. Crypto analysts at PO Box 1142 then decoded the message, and passed it along through the chain of command. The decoders composed a return message to the POW on civilian stationary, posing as family members or girlfriends. This secret correspondence continued undiscovered throughout the entire war, and by this means, MIS-X was in regular contact with virtually every German POW camp.

In February 1943, MIS-X technicians at PO Box 1142 began operations in a building they called the “Warehouse.” According to the Geneva Conventions, POWs were entitled to receive parcels from family members and humanitarian organizations. MIS-X established two fictitious relief organizations, the “War Prisoner’s Benefit Foundation” and the “Serviceman’s Relief,” as a cover for smuggling escape and evasion materials into POW camps. Since the Germans would almost certainly scrutinize the packages, it was essential that the technicians hide escape aids within seemingly mundane items. After much trial and error, they became experts at hiding compasses and tissue-paper maps in the handles of shaving brushes, shoe brushes, and Ping-Pong paddles. Checkerboards were steamed apart and maps, documents, and currency inserted. Shoe heels could easily contain other materials.

But even with the best equipment, there was a limit to what Fort Hunt’s technicians could produce at the Warehouse itself. MIS-X contacted various American companies, who—sworn to secrecy—agreed to make their products with hidden materials. The F.W. Sickle Electronics Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts, manufactured a specially designed miniature radio transmitters that were secreted in baseballs by the Goldsmith Baseball Company. The U.S. Playing Card Company inserted map segments within special peel-away cards. Boston’s Gillette Razor Company magnetized their double-edged blades so that when balanced on a stick or a string the “G” in Gillette pointed north. The Army’s supplier of uniform buttons, the Scoville Company of Waterbury, Connecticut, agreed to hide small compasses within five million buttons, with the threaded screw reversed to fool suspicious inspectors. Though they never knew the purpose or destination of these special items, the majority of these patriotic companies never charged the government for their services.

By 1944, the MIS-X operatives at Fort Hunt were sending up to 120 parcels each day to German POW camps. Some packages were “straight” and contained only legitimate, unaltered items. The rest were “loaded” with hidden escape and evasion aids. Since MIS-X was corresponding with many of the camps, a coded letter would warn the POWs in advance that a “loaded” shipment was en route, and would include instructions on how to find the hidden goods.

By late 1944, POWs were sending coded letters back to Fort Hunt asking them to stop shipments of escape items; they simply had no more room in their quarters to hide more materials. By this time, escape had become an increasingly dangerous proposition. After D-Day, Hitler issued his infamous Kommando Order, which created “Death Zones” throughout Europe in areas around munitions, armament, and experimental plants. Any POW captured in these zones was subject to summary execution. MIS-X responded by informing prisoners that they were no longer expected to attempt escape, though they might continue resistance efforts at their own discretion. Late in the war, as Germany’s infrastructure and transportation networks crumbled, mail shipments to POW camps also became increasingly sporadic, and packages sent by MIS-X did not always reach their intended destinations.

The end of PO Box 1142 and MIS-X came sooner than expected. Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945, and immediately MIS-X was ordered to cease operations. Throughout the summer, Pentagon officials debriefed the program’s participants. Following the surrender of Japan, the War Department ordered all MIS-X records at Fort Hunt destroyed. For 36 hours, the men burned records non-stop, all but obliterating the history of one of the most secret and successful military intelligence operations in American history. Personnel continued in various capacities at Fort Hunt into 1946 before the site was closed down, the almost all of the building destroyed, and the property returned to the National Park Service.

During World War II, over 95,000 United States servicemen fell into enemy hands. Of these, more than 700 managed to escape and return to their commands. Many did so with the help of PO Box 1142. Through their correspondence with the POW camps and debriefings MIS-X collected critical intelligence from behind enemy lines and had an immeasurable effect on the morale of the prisoners.

The above largely focuses upon the MIS-X activities related to P.O. Box 1142, but the stories related to Fort Hunt numerous programs can fill several books, which in many cases have yet to be written:

  • The interrogation of Tazio Sakia, a Japanese radio officer from Iwo Jima who gave a photograph of himself with a young Marine. Six decades later the photograph was successfully returned to Tazio Sakai’s family.
  • The story of the U-234, which was transporting German supplies, documents, scientific equipment, and even uranium to Japan,
  • The German General Reinhard Gehlen, who surrendered to the Americans and subsequently became one of the CIAs experts on the Soviet Union.

It is now six decades since the end of World War II and the National Park Service is endeavoring to reconstruct what actually happened at Fort Hunt. While the staff at George Washington Memorial Parkway has learned a great deal about Fort Hunt, the number of holes in the story seems infinite. In the past couple of years, the staff has successfully tracked down and interviewed over fifty individuals related to the multiple military intelligence activities of P.O. Box 1142, including two American POWs were served as Code Users and an American serviceman who helped compile a 500 page report on MIS-X activities that took place around the world.

The Fort Hunt Oral History Project staff is aware that time is limited to obtain these unique stories connected to P.O. Box 1142. So please contact the National Park Service if you know anything about these military intelligence programs or sites:

  • Fort Hunt, P.O. Box 1142 in Alexandria, Virginia
  • Military Intelligence Research Service (MIRS) in Washington or London
  • MIS-X, escape and evasion
  • MIS-Y, POW interrogation
  • Operation Paperclip
  • Camp Ritchie, Military Intelligence Training Center in Maryland
  • Camp Tracy, P.O. Box 651 in Hot Springs, California
  • Pine Grove Furnace, P.O. Box 167 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
  • Air Ground Aid Section (AGAS) in China
  • Camp Strong in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Camp King in Germany

The National Park Service is also interested in obtaining copies of papers, letters, photographs, and artifacts that will further document these historic events that helped the United States to win World War II.

If you have questions, comments, or wish to participate in the Fort Hunt Oral History Project, please do not hesitate to contact any of the following staff members:

National Park Service

Attn: Fort Hunt Oral History Project

700 George Washington Memorial Parkway

McLean, VA 22101

Vincent Santucci—Chief Ranger, 703-289-2531, vincent_santucci@nps.gov

Matthew Virta—Cultural Resources Program Manager, 703-289-2535, matthew_virta@nps.gov

David Lassman—Cultural Resources Aide, 703-289-2555, david_lassman@nps.gov

Revised as of 08/18/2010

Note: This article was adapted from Matthew Laird’s By the River Potomac: An Historic Resource Study of Fort Hunt Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon, Virginia, Cultural Resources, Inc. Fredericksburg, Virginia, August 2000.

To learn more about Fort Hunt, the National Park Service highly recommends the book by Lloyd Shoemaker, called the Escape Factory: The Story of MIS-X, the Super-Secret U.S. Agency Behind World War II’s Greatest Escapes, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

One response to “MIS-X: Secret Escape Aids for American POWs

  1. I have documents concerning the MIS-X in the Far East during WWII. For more information, please contact me by e-mail.

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