By Victoria Stauffenberg and Gregory Anderson
A baseball, deck of cards, shaving razor, extra uniform buttons, and a letter from family would have been a welcome taste of home for any U.S. prisoner of war during World War II. A significant number of packageparcels containing these items originated in P.O. Box 1142, Alexandria, Virginia.
P.O. Box 1142 was both the code name and the actual Alexandria post office box number for the top secret Military Intelligence Service sections of MIS-X (Escape and Evasion) and MIS-Y (Interrogation) programs at what is today Fort Hunt Park. This small park in the quiet neighborhood near Mount Vernon Estate was as deceptive as the care packages it sent to the POWs. The Spanish-American War-era coastal defense site preserved was transferred toby the National Park Service in 1933, but was returned to the Army upon the onset of WWII and was transformed into a military intelligence centerdivision that operated from 19391942 to -1945. Most of the park was used to support the MIS-Y program, which interrogated several thousand GermanAxis POWs during the course of the war.
A smaller section of Fort Hunt Park was set aside for an even more secret operation involved with POW escape and evasion: MIS-X. The MIS-X program, which trained selected military personnel how to escape from Nazi prisoner of war camps, was so guarded, that even the commander of Fort Hunt was kept unaware of their operations. Only top Department of War officials and the President of the United States were meant to be aware of the entire operations of the MIS-X program.
There were two main components of MIS-X, technical and correspondence, which operated complimentarily to aid American prisoners of war with their standing directive to attempt escape. The correspondence section was established in the old Fort Hunt post hospital, located where the pavilion in Area A stands today, with the code name “Creamery”. MIS-X officers would train selected aircrew in the use of the secret letter codes. If captured, they could then send coded messages with military intelligence or requests for materiel back to 1142 through an intricate route. Incoming POW mail was screened for letters from known “Code Users” which were separated, decrypted at the Creamery, and then rerouted to the actual addressee. Coded responses from phony acquaintances were sent back from 1142, thereby establishing effective communication between the Army and prisoners across Europe.
The technical section operated across the street from the Creamery in the “Warehouse”. The technical section developed methods of cunningly concealing escape and evasion material such as compasses and documents inside seemingly innocuous objects like shaving brushes and chess pieces that could be sent to prisoners. Initially devised and constructed by MIS-X technicians at Fort Hunt, once the larger scope of the endeavor became clear, the concealed escape and evasion materials were produced via the confidential assistance of American manufacturers. Some examples include a radio transistor hidden inside a baseball, razorblades magnetized to act as compasses, and playing cards with map sections concealed between their layers. Larger or more complex items like cameras or weapons would be assembled in a “Super-Duper,” a parcel with these items undisguised and no return address. Alerted in advance by a coded letter, the prisoners were often able to sneak these parcels past the German censors.
Both loaded and normal POW care packages were assembled in the Warehouse. The parcels, numbering on average 100 a day during peak operation, were then driven from Fort Hunt to Baltimore where a helpful postmaster entered them into the postal system bearing a wide geographic range of cancellations to disguise their origin. A “Warehouse” was built across the street to assemble care packages and count currency. Most of the MIS-X personnel bunked with the rest of the fort’s personnel. Despite working in the MIS-X program, very few knew the entire operation. Air Force personnel with technical skills and extensive background checks were chosen to participate in the MIS-X program. Their mission was to train other POWs escape and evasion techniques and to distribute supplies sent to them from P.O. Box 1142. They were also expected to collect intelligence while in captivity and send the information back in coded messages.
In order to communicate and collaborate back and forth with the POWs, MIS-X sent letters and care packages. Some packages were “straight,” containing unaltered items. Some were “loaded” with escape and evasion tools. In the event of a speedy escape plan, emergency packages were sent with undisguised items. Although they were a gamble to send, these “Super-Duper” packages occasionally got through. MIS-X sent packageparcels under two fake relief organizations: the “War Prisoner’s Benefit Foundation” and “Servicemen’s Relief”. Real groups like the Red Cross were not used to avoid compromising the relief provided to thousands of POWs. .
The old hospital on the fort, located where the pavilion in Area A stands today, was renovated to become the headquarters of the MIS-X program under the codename “Creamery.” POWs mailed letters back to the Creamery where they were decoded by a handpicked group of cryptographers. A “Warehouse” was built across the street to assemble care packages and count currency. Most of the MIS-X personnel bunked with the rest of the fort’s personnel. Despite working in the MIS-X program, very few knew the entire operation.
Despite being an ultra secret operation with only a handful of individuals understanding the entire operation, the MIS-X program became very effective collaborative effort sending an average of 80 relief packages a day. It became so efficient that soldiers wrote back asking for no more relief packages to be sent because they were running out of places to hide everything.
By October ofIn 1944, the MIS-X program at Fort Hunt had begunan to wind down. It had It becoame so efficient that prisonerssoldiers wrote back asking that no more relief packageparcels be sent because they were running out of places to hide everythingescape materials. . In addition, Adolf Hitler had ordered that escaped POWs recaptured in “Death Zones” near Nazi military facilities be executedexecuted and consequently American POWs . Iweret was no longer expected to that POWs attempt to escape. The MIS-X program ended immediately after Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. After Japan’s surrender in August, all MIS-X records at Fort Hunt Park were destroyed, but it is known today that the program aided in the escape of over 700 American POWs during World War II.
Victoria Stauffenberg and Gregory Anderson work for the National Park Service. To find out more about the long and varied history of Fort Hunt, pay a visit to the park and stay posted for their next article on Fort Hunt Patch.
Fort Hunt Park is administered by the National Park Service as a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. For more information about upcoming events or to request a ranger program of for a group, please call 703-289-2553.