Sandwiches, Softball . . . and Secrecy

Tucked in among the stately homes, river scenery and suburban neighborhoods which enfold the George Washington Memorial Parkway lies Fort Hunt Park. The park is a 136-acre expanse of green in an already leafy corner of Northern Virginia about three miles north of Mount Vernon. It makes a pleasant location to toss a Frisbee or ride a bicycle. But among the picnic tables and softball fields are four hulking concrete artillery emplacements. These relics bely a much different use for the parkland than is enjoyed by visitors today. Indeed, this quiet, suburban park has an interesting history as a military post, a portion of which was for decades shrouded in secrecy. 

Construction began at Fort Hunt in the 1897 on previously purchased land, once part of George Washington’s estate. At the time, the War Department was actively improving coastal defenses, building or retrofitting concrete batteries and equipping them with systems of rifled cannons, special mortars and rapid fire guns, while maritime mines would be deployed in the water. Fort Hunt and the older, larger Fort Washington on the Maryland side of the Potomac River were both equipped with these new batteries and weapons. The outbreak of the Spanish-American added urgency to the project designed to prevent enemy naval vessels from reaching a position in the Potomac where they could bombard Washington, D.C. and the Navy Yard.

Fort Washington, opposite Fort Hunt on the Maryland side of the Potomac River

The focus on artillery led to the fort being named for Brigadier General Henry Jackson Hunt, who had died in 1889. Brigadier General Hunt was the Chief of Artillery in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War and renowned as a master tactician in the use of artillery on the battlefield. 

Battery Robinson is located closest to the Potomac River. Each of the four batteries can be explored by park visitors.

Eventually, four concrete batteries would be built. The first and largest, the Mount Vernon Battery, was completed in 1898.  It would have three 8” guns with a range of 8 miles. Other batteries would have smaller, rapid fire weapons meant to channel enemy ships towards the 8” guns of both forts. The Battery Commander operated from a concrete tower just to the west of the Mount Vernon Battery. The remaining batteries would all be completed by 1904.  

The Battery Commander’s Headquarters tower. The Commander could direct the fire of the cannons and communicate with Fort Washington from here.

Fort Hunt’s life as an artillery post, however, was short lived and rather undistinguished. No enemy fleet ever sailed up the Potomac and Fort Hunt’s guns remained silent, save for drills and exercises. During World War I, the Army removed the artillery pieces and shipped them to Europe, never to be replaced. 

A picture of Fort Hunt from the 1920’s. Unlike today, the artillery soldiers at the time had a clear view of the Potomac River. Photo: U.S. Army

After the war, Fort Hunt settled into a peacetime training and logistics support mission with fewer and fewer functions. From 1921-1923, the U.S. Army Finance School was briefly located at Fort Hunt. Cadets from the first African-American Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) detachment conducted summer training camp there in the early 1930’s. At the beginning of the Great Depression, World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C. demanding bonuses. The bonus marchers camped at Fort Hunt and a small hospital treated the infirmed. In 1932, with tighter budgets and no operational mission to support, the War Department transferred Fort Hunt to the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital.     

As the Great Depression wore on, Fort Hunt became a residence camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a New Deal-era program meant to put young men to work on various environmental projects. The U.S. Army was responsible for administrative and logistical support to the CCC to include operating housing, feeding, and logistics. CCC enrollees at Fort Hunt worked along the George Washington National Parkway, which was as being built at the time.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Elenor Roosevelt, aboard the USS Potomac, sailing from Washington, DC to Mount Vernon. The photo was taken on the day the royal couple visited Fort Hunt. Photo: Harris and Ewing collection at the Library of Congress.

On June 9, 1939, during a state visit to the United States, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, visited Fort Hunt to view the camp and meet with the CCC enrollees. The royal couple arrived at Fort Hunt after earlier visiting Mount Vernon. During their stay, the king and queen conducted an “inspection”, viewed exhibits of CCC work in the area and discussed CCC life with several enrollees. They then continued on to Arlington National Cemetery where the king laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Just three months after the royal visit, World War II would begin in Europe and the Army began preparing Fort Hunt for its most intriguing mission.

A Pin Oak at the Fort Hunt Park, planted in commemoration of the King and Queen’s visit.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department identified Fort Hunt as a location for sensitive intelligence work and resumed operational use of the grounds. A variety of intelligence functions would be performed at Fort Hunt. However, given the secrecy of the missions, the name Fort Hunt was not officially used. Rather, the location and the units working there were referred to by their mailing address: Post Office Box 1142, Alexandria, Virginia.

The intelligence work conducted at PO Box 1142 was divided into three main areas:

Interrogations of Enemy Prisoners 

During World War II, the Army and Navy recruited and trained personnel with distinct language skills into cadres of interrogators. At Fort Hunt, interrogators from both the Army and the Navy questioned German prisoners and emigres to gain information on military and naval organizations and capabilities, tactics, weapons design and development, scientific research, espionage operations, and industrial production. From 1942 through July 1945, over 3,000 prisoners were interrogated at PO Box 1142. Questioning took place before the prisoners were declared to the International Committee of the Red Cross, adding to the secretive nature of the work.  

Windowless buses such as this were used to transport enemy prisoners to and from Fort Hunt. Photo: U.S. Army

Escape and Evasion

In early 1943, a special program was launched at Fort Hunt to aid soldiers and particularly airmen in evading capture. The program also fabricated specialized equipment and kits for Allied Prisoners of War (PWs) to use in escaping from prison camps. Coded messages were sent to US prisoners. Items such as miniature radios, maps hidden in decks of playing cards, compasses disguised as uniform buttons and other such devices were meticulously developed and cleverly concealed in aid packages. The packages were then distributed to PW camps under the cover of two fictional relief organizations.

Picnic Pavilion A at Fort Hunt Park. The pavilion is on the site of the Post Hospital, where much of the Escape and Evasion work was based.

Open Source Research

German print publications such as newspapers, magazines, academic journals and captured documents as well as radio broadcasts and movies were translated and analyzed by linguistic specialists for useful wartime information. This section also developed military Order of Battle details, such as unit identifications and commanders, which were very valuable in operational planning. Analytic details from the translations were also provided to interrogators for their use. 

After the war, most of the buildings on Fort Hunt were removed and records related to PO Box 1142 destroyed. Personnel who served there were sworn to secrecy. After the war, Fort Hunt was turned back over the Interior Department. Later, public improvements, such as picnic pavilions were installed. For years, few of the park’s visitors ever knew of the work undertaken there.

The stone marker dedicated to the veterans of PO Box 1142.

In 2002, a new National Park Service superintendent assigned to Fort Hunt wanted to add some historical signs to park. Park staff began researching the park’s past and slowly the secret history of Fort Hunt opened itself up to discovery. Several documents related to PO Box 1142 became declassified. A chance encounter with a tour group led the staff to a Fort Hunt veteran who told about his experiences and referred the staff to other veterans. The NPS Staff at Fort Hunt began an extensive oral history project interviewing over 60 veterans from between 2006 and 2010. PO Box 1142 veterans were invited to a special recognition ceremony at Fort Hunt in 2006 and a flag pole and stone marker were installed in their honor.  

This building served as Noncommissioned Officers quarters and is one of the few remaining structures from Fort Hunt’s military past.

There are but a handful of physical reminders of Fort Hunt’s past remaining today. Yet Fort Hunt is unique. Outside of a few museums, it is one place which encapsulates so much of the Army’s history in the first half of the 20th century. The evolution of coast artillery, material needs in World War I, post-war austerity for the Army, the Great Depression and finally, highly sensitive intelligence work in support of the Allies — Fort Hunt saw it all. So take a few minutes to visit, perhaps coupled with a trip to Mount Vernon, and explore the batteries. The place you play some football or walk your dog was once trod by soldiers, scientists, spies, engineers, even a king and queen. You will be in excellent company. 

* * *

Route Recon

Fort Hunt Park is located on the George Washington Memorial Parkway between Alexandria, Virginia and the Mount Vernon.  

From Old Town Alexandria,  drive south on Washington Street and continue on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Take the exit for Fort Hunt Park and follow signs into the park.

From Mount Vernon, drive north on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Take the exit for Fort Hunt Park and follow signs into the park.

Parking is available in each of the picnic areas. 

Fort Hunt is also reachable by foot or bicycle. From the Mount Vernon Trail, turn into Fort Hunt Road and follow signs into the park.

Additional Information

For more information about reservations and events at Fort Hunt, visit the National Park Service’s Fort Hunt Website.

The National Park Service’s Fort Hunt Oral History Project provides fascinating first hand accounts of Fort Hunt during World War II.

 

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