Mr. Speaker, I extend my appreciation to these veterans. The Nation owes a great debt to them for their sacrifice to our Nation during a time of war for their pursuit of critical intelligence, while maintaining the highest level of integrity and America's moral values, and for their intrepid actions that have, until very recently, gone unacknowledged. – U.S. Representative Jim Moran, Congressional Record, October 18, 2007
With a sunny day on tap, and needing a break from transcribing, I headed over to Fort Hunt Park on Saturday. This patch of 100 acres is located between Mount Vernon and Alexandria, overlooks the Potomac River and is easily accessible from the GW Parkway.
Although larger in size, and not bisected by the Mount Vernon Trail, Fort Hunt Park is a counterpart of sorts to Jones Point Park. The list of previous occupants is much longer than seems, and nearby residents are dealing with proposed changes. In 2008, residents of Old Town were not pleased when Jones Point Park closed down two years for renovations. Similarly, residents in Fort Hunt are dealing with an effort by the National Park Service, who wants to update historical interpretations. Meetings have been held, a development plan contains four options, each with the goal to accommodate both recreation users and history buffs.
Nine interpretive markers dot the park, its grassy lands once owned by George Washington. In 1885, after the “Endicott Board” warned the nation’s coastal defenses were woefully inadequate, batteries were erected to protect Washington at the start of the Spanish-American War. Remnants remain and can be walked on.
(By the way, I just realized there’s some kind of a trifecta for this stretch of land below Alexandria. You’ve got these, Fort Willard from the Civil War (remnants protected in the Belle Haven neighborhood), and a fort in the colonial days (marker at Dykes Marsh, site only).
On this site, the Bonus Army March protesters lived in tents while they asked Congress for their pensions. The Civilian Conservation Corps sent workers here in the 1930. They planted trees along the road, and helped rehabilitate sagging historic structures in the area. Shoes were buffed to a high gloss in June 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited from England.
In terms of national importance, Fort Hunt Park’s greatest chapter is one that remained secret for over a half a century. The markers tell some of this remarkable story, as does Heidi Ridgley who wrote an in-depth piece for National Park magazine (Winter 2010).
The government ran a top-secret program here during World War II (1942 to 1946). The site’s code name was “P.O. Box 1142,” the mailing address for the assigned military personnel. They interrogated more than 4,000 POW’s, including rocket scientist Werner von Braun and spymaster Reinhardt Gehlen.
The park offers great spaces for walkers and dogs, picnics, baseball games and the like. It is much more roomier than Jones Point, and much quieter. Trees and such block the views to the river, but part of the improvement plans are to clear the way and restore that scenic view.
It’s easy to understand the resistance to changing this park. But Jones Point Park is an example of a win-win situation. Not everybody is a history buff, but for those who are, the newer interpretive markers will be fantastic. And the hidden history of the interrogation program here is a gold mine for researchers. The oral histories alone should be worth the cost.
If funding is found, park personnel plan to install interpretive signs, old photographs, and maybe even some war paraphernalia. The Park Service is also hoping to mirror the experience of those agents eavesdropping on the German POWs, by allowing visitors to don headphones and listen in as if they were monitoring a conversation. Using actual transcripts from 1142 recovered at the National Archives, they hope to hire native German speakers to record the original dialogue in the mother tongue, so visitors can listen in and read the English translation in front of them.
Jim Sutherland is producing a documentary about the men who held their secrets for so long. Please visit his website, and consider donating.