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“Human Intelligence” and Pine Grove Furnace’s Camp Michaux

Prisoner of War and Interrogation in the U.S. in WWII

Prisoners of war, or POWs, were held in the U.S. in over 600 camps in 44 states by the end of World War II (WWII).  Several POW camps were located in Adams and Cumberland counties.  When I was about seven, I talked to POWs who were working in a peach orchard across from my house, two miles north of Biglerville, PA.  These cheerful young men showed me photos of girlfriends, wives, and families, while the guards carelessly leaned against trees with their rifles on the ground.

Fort Hunt, Virginia

By the end of the war, we held over 400,000 Germans, 50,000 Italians, and only 4000 Japanese (who were ordered to die rather than ever surrender).  Of these, some prisoners were considered high-value potential sources of enemy information, and were segregated from the others and sent to special top-secret camps for intense interrogation.  The first and primary one of these was Fort Hunt, located right next to George Washington’s one-time home, Mount Vernon.  A second interrogation camp for Japanese prisoners from the Pacific Theater of Operations was opened at Byron Hot Springs, at Tracy, California.

 

Fort Washington, originally built in 1809, is on the opposite shore of the Potomac from Mount Vernon, south of Washington, and was a prime defense against Confederate water-borne attack up the river.  While there were over sixty fortifications around Washington during the Civil War, Fort Hunt, across the river from Fort Washington, was NOT part of Washington’s Civil War defenses, which is often assumed.  In fact, Fort Hunt was built in the 1890s to defend Washington from Spain during the Spanish-American War.  It was abandoned and then became a Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, camp during the 1930s depression.  In 1942 Fort Hunt CCC Camp was chosen to become the main U.S. POW interrogation camp in WWII.

 

It is important to know about Fort Hunt and its important top-secret activities in order to understand the vital role Pine Grove Furnace had in extracting information from specially-knowledgeable POWs.

 

Fort Hunt was converted from a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps camp and was chosen for three wartime roles; all top-secret.

1  Interrogation Center to extract vital enemy information

2  Escape and Evasion Program

3  Military Intelligence Research Program

E and E was the most secret program of all.  Here they studied E&E methods for our own forces who got captured by the enemy.  They developed codes and communications devices, smuggled materials like maps and transmitters into camps, etc.  For example, compasses were encased in uniform buttons and supplied in vast numbers, to be used in case of capture.  Of the nearly 100,000 U.S. forces who were captured by Germany, 737 were able to escape successfully, no doubt aided by the techniques and materials developed by this program.

After the famous “Great Escape,” made famous in a Steve McQueen movie of that name, 1½  million German troops were diverted from military duty to locate and capture the British escapees.  That is actually more than today’s entire U.S. active-duty uniformed forces.  Actually, 76 POWs escaped but only 3 avoided capture and 50 were summarily executed after capture.

Pine Grove Furnace POW Camp

Fort Hunt was known only as “PO Box 1142” and the facility was carefully disguised.   But it soon became clear that the facility lacked the capacity to house the numbers of interrogation candidates who being sent from initial screening locations.  Furthermore, the staff at Fort Hunt was not large enough and did not have the space to screen suspected candidates for those who might provide the information sought by the fighting forces, which turned out to be about 20% of those screened.  A holding and evaluation facility was clearly needed.

 

Thus, Camp Michaux CCC Camp at Pine Grove Furnace was chosen as the preliminary sorting facility, before shipment to PO Box 1142 via Fort Meade, in Maryland (to keep Fort Hunt’s existence disguised).

If the screening process determined that an interrogation candidate was “of no strategic value,” a rejected POWs was sent to a regular camp.  Interrogation-worthy POWs were kept segregated to avoid contamination of their thoughts by interaction with other POWs.

 

Pine Grove Furnace is an historical site located 21 miles north of Gettysburg, in Cumberland County. It is very close to the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail, which passes through it.  It was chosen because the CCC Camp Michaux buildings and utilities were already in place, it is only 126 miles from Fort Hunt, and, it is not far from Carlisle Barracks Army Post.  Furthermore, at that time Pine Grove was secluded and little-known.  It’s said that the locals were superstitious about swimming in the flooded quarry nearby, which was rumored to have drowned many workers and horses when the pumps were unable to keep up with the incoming spring water in the 90-foot-deep hole.  This was actually a colorful but false rumor.  The iron producing facility was closed down in an orderly manner when the business failed, probably because superior ores were found elsewhere.

 

The CCC Camp Michaux site was originally a farm established in 1767 and soon patriotically named Bunker Hill Farm.  The farm was bought by the iron industry complex “Pine Grove Furnace” in 1797 to supply food for iron ore and mill workers, and trees for iron smelting charcoal.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania obtained the 60 square miles of land in 1913, after the failure of Pine Grove Furnace in the late 1800s.

 

The farm site was stablished as the first CCC camp on state land, in 1933.  One big CCC project was reforestation where wood had been cut for charcoal.  The CCC camp closed down in 1942, as employment recovered from the Depression.  At that time it had 40 buildings and both functioning electric power and sewerage system, making for an easy adaptation to a POW camp.

 

After WWII the camp closed for a while and then became a church camp for 25 years, closing permanently in 1972.  Remnants of the Bunker Hill Farm stone barn and of the camp are visible today.

There are walking tours, and archeological digs occur on the site.

POW Interrogation

My source was the thesis of Steven Kleinman, 2002, toward a master of science in Strategic Intelligence at the Joint Military Intelligence College.  It provides an in-depth review of the purposes, techniques, and outcomes of prisoner interrogation.

Popular media often equate interrogation to physical coercion.  While this is sometimes true, as in Gestapo beatings to death or wanton torture in WWII Japan. There are far too many instances where it is merely an excuse for torture.

 

Interrogation is also used in order to convert.  The Chinese Communists in the Korean War are credited with the first large-scale employment of interrogation emphasizing political objectives over the gathering of intelligence.  The Korean War is considered the first war in history fought for ideological purposes and by ideological means.

 

Prisoner interrogation’s importance was recognized over 2000 years ago by Chinese strategist Sun Tzu in “The Art of War,” who said:  “What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.  …   Knowledge of the enemy’s disposition can only be obtained from other men.”  Even today, as the thesis author shows, signals and imagery intelligence are not substitutes for human intelligence.

 

Hanns Scharff was a Luftwaffe interrogator with a stunning record of extracting intelligence from U.S. and British aircrews, despite great determination to resist.  Scharff said, “As long as wars have been waged on this Earth, captors have taken the right to question captives.  As long as POWs are interrogated, they will talk.  No patriotism, no self-control, no logic gives any man enough strength to repel relentlessly pressed attacks, utilizing accumulated combinations of facts and circumstantial evidence.  The methods of wringing these words from a POW may differ widely, from genuine affability to gruesome brutality, but the results are the same.”

 

Many U.S. Interrogators were trained at Camp Ritchie, at Cascade, Maryland.  This was mostly “tactical” interrogation.  That is, battlefield interrogations and screening after capture.  Interrogation officers, or “I/Os,” were carefully selected , well-educated, and highly trained.  They came from a broad array of professions, such as academics, successful businessmen, and attorneys.  Many were Jews and recent immigrants from Europe who spoke German and knew the German culture intimately.  I/Os were taught non-violent methods tailored for individual POWs that have since been considered the “gold standard” of interrogation techniques.

 

Interrogation was used widely in the Civil War, and was easier than most wars because of a common language and broad knowledge of opposing commanders and order of battle.  The Civil War was unique in the close involvement of most senior officers, such as McClellan, Meade and Sheridan.

The development of U.S. Interrogation in WWII

Secretary of War Stimson once said, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”  Stinson decided that Nazis were not gentlemen!  The British naval advantages from collection of human intelligence impressed the U.S. Navy Department, who asked the War Department to set up an interrogation program.  Both the Army and Navy provided personnel and a program was set up at Fort Hunt in May of 1942, for which the U.S. Army was designated as the overall administrator.  Typical inter-service rivalry problems developed, and the War Department had to set rules, etc.  There was also friction with our British counterparts over roles and responsibility.

 

At PO Box 1142 many information gathering techniques were used.  “Stool pigeons” were placed to elicit private thoughts, often from Nazi-haters among POWs.  The entire camp was thoroughly bugged.

“Bugs” were watermelon-sized devices that were hard to conceal and sometimes were discovered.  The POWs then staged plays, gave disinformation, farted, etc.  Later the “bugs” were much better concealed, and the program was deemed a “wildly successful” component.  Says Kleinman: “Listening-in” on a prisoner’s reaction after an interrogation provided a fertile source of valuable intelligence. The … interrogators found, just as had their British counterparts, that most POWs were apparently eager to discuss the just concluded experience in the interrogation room with their roommates. [US] interrogators quickly learned, as had their British counterparts, that the POW was likely to talk at length with his cellmate after he had been interrogated, often bragging about how well he had outsmarted his interrogator.  This conversation often included a POW’s recitation of the questions asked and—in the best of circumstances—revealed the correct information he had withheld from the [interrogating officer]. This process worked most effectively when the [interrogating officer] kept the monitors fully apprised of the areas of intelligence interest.”

The nature of information sought

Here are some actual examples of topics listed for interrogation at one point in WWII:

 

Airplanes – Quality of German night-flying instruments; status of built-in

cameras in German aircraft; confirmation of German aircraft with turbine

engines and short broad wings that makes a ‘howling noise’ when taking off.

 

Economic – Shortage of cobalt and manganese in Germany; congestion in

railroad repair shops; decline of coal shipments to Italy; increased use of

foreign labor; quantity of Ukrainian wheat available in Germany.

 

Submarines – Confirmation of a 750-ton submarine reportedly operating off

the Brazilian coast; method of entering harbor at Brest; identify depth at

which submarines are reasonably safe against aircraft or destroyers; use of

small (250 to 300 tons) submarine in the Black Sea shipped via rail or the

Danube River.

 

Bombing Targets – Information on camouflaged harbor at Hamburg; location

of airfield and air signal school in Landerneau, France; location of electro-,

diesel-, and steam-motor schools at Kiel; status of concentration of 50,000-

75,000 men stationed at the Hanover Grounds at Munster; status of U-Boat

and Torpedo Officer School located in Flensburg.

 

Radio devices – Information regarding antenna for sending and receiving; UBoat

wireless codes; direction-finding apparatus; call signs and letters.

 

Miscellaneous References – Information on a new 88 mm anti-tank gun; new

type of German bomb with a blast radius of 500 meters

The End of World War II

Several hundred military and political figures were brought to Fort Hunt for interrogation, and the Cold War began.  At the time of the German surrender, the German “U-234” submarine was enroute to Japan from Germany, loaded with advanced devices and plans for the Japanese, who were still fighting the U.S. and were allies of Germany.  This sub carried an important Luftwaffe general, radar and anti-aircraft specialists, a leading German electronics expert and two jet aircraft development experts.  After the German surrender, these people were brought to Ft Hunt for interrogation.

 

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and his key scientists were interrogated at Fort Strong, in Boston, in the fall of 1945, before being employed in developing the new U.S. space program.

 

General Reinhard Gehlen, German head of all Eastern Front intelligence in WWII was interrogated at Fort Hunt for valuable information about the Soviet Union.

 

In August of 1945 the War Dept ordered all records of the escape and evasion program at PO Box 1142 destroyed, since it was considered so sensitive.  The servicemen stationed at P.O. Box 1142 were sworn to secrecy, never to divulge their role in World War II.  These men of Fort Hunt were finally honored for their work and spoke publicly about it for the first time at an event held by the National Park Service in 2007.

PO Box 1142 Today

The property was returned to the Park Service in January of 1948, with only a handful of buildings remaining.  The NPS converted Fort Hunt into a park unit within the George Washington Memorial Parkway.  In the 1960s they built a main picnic pavilion on the site of the demolished post hospital.

Fort Hunt Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and is a very popular park for picnicking sports, walking, etc.

NAM Camp Machaux NAM Camp MachauxStatus of Interrogation Today

Sadly, many lessons of WWII have been forgotten or ignored.  Notes Kleinman, in an observation based on the author’s personal experience as an interrogator during both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Just Cause and recorded in after-action reports submitted upon his return at the conclusion of these conflicts:

 

“There has been extensive media coverage of the interrogation program at Guantanamo Bay. Photographs and videos that depict the movement of prisoners within the holding compound have been ubiquitous. In a major breach of security that would have been unimaginable at Fort Hunt, even summaries of the information allegedly provided by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been reported in the media seemingly within hours of the reports being prepared by U.S. interrogators. The potential problems associated with such a casual approach to operational security in support of strategic interrogations are manifold. First, one means of leverage an interrogator has in convincing a POW to reveal sensitive information is the promise—and ability—to keep the prisoner’s complicity in total confidence. Second, revealing to an adversary what the U.S. knows about a particular situation immediately undermines the value of that intelligence. Finally, widespread knowledge of the location and the nature of the activities being conducted at an interrogation center renders that facility a primary target for assault by adversarial forces, placing U.S. personnel—and the POWs international law compels the U.S. to protect—in grave peril.”

 

Information compiled by Bill Tilton in September, 2022

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