William Hess

Bill relaxing in his Leisure World® living room

William Hess

by Paul Roberts

After graduating from the intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, he was assigned to a unit that was so secret its only identification, PO Box 1142, gave no evidence of its existence. The name merely identified where this top-secret entity was (on a lonely stretch of farmland in Alexandria, Virginia) in Fort Hunt. What it did, in its secrecy, was to gather both military and scientific information that essentially would shorten the war. It played host to a myriad of Nazi VIPs and scientists, many philosophically dedicated to Nazism. Of the 4,000 prisoners that passed through were rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, destined to lead the United States in its space program; Reinhard Gehlen, whose files on Russian intelligence were invaluable during the Cold War; Heinz Schlicke, inventor of infrared detection.

The secrecy was to operate, keeping the International Red Cross out of the loop, because of the protocols of the 1929 Geneva Convention which required a captive nation to register every prisoner by name, rank and serial number only. PO Box 1142 couldn’t have the Red Cross snooping in on its operation. Bill and his colleagues role was to extract the hidden secrets that these prisoners of war possessed. Thus, the camp didn’t exist. And they had to do it their way, which fortunately was not like methods used today, say at Guantanamo. Rather than waterboarding and sleep deprivation, they used their wits, comparable to playing a game of chess. Interrogators job were to create an atmosphere that relaxed the POW, allowing them to talk freely. Initial talks were conversational, such as: home front morale; outcome of the war; attitude toward Hitler and the regime; post war expectations; underground (“the French are bad and cowardly”); attitude towards the UN.

Thus, groundbreaking secrets in rocketry, microwave technology and submarine tactics were peeled apart. Many times they were treated to dinner in town, allowed privileges that even POWs in military stockades never enjoyed. In fact, this incarceration was considered more of an interrogation center. After squeezing the sponge dry, they were transferred to Ft. Meade in Maryland for assignment to a holding camp. This was done in secret, riding in a bus that was totally blacked out, seemingly windowless.

These Ritchie graduates, many bright young men who had escaped the violence of Nazism, and had migrated to the United States. Hess was in this group, coming from Stuttgart, Germany in 1937, as a bewildered teenager. These men were taught by such methods as role play, how to handle the most recalcitrant prisoners. One method was the use of ‘bugs’ buried in their room’s ceilings. They did monitoring and translating, and the harshest method used, if necessary, was a threat to turn them over to the hated Russians (one ruse was to dress a graduate in a Russian Army officer’s uniform, planted in the basement). Of the 3,800 German and Italian POWs to pass through its gates, there were many high ranking officers and scientists who became the guests of Uncle Sam, to be processed and debriefed. Some of them wound up working as contractors for the government during the post war years, contributing to many scientific and military advancements that gave this country the edge over the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

One little known incident occurred when Germany surrendered. The submarine, U-Boat 234, on its way to Japan with a precious cargo of 1,200 pounds of uranium oxide, along with Heinz Schlicke, a specialist in radar and infra-red, was ordered, by the German High Command, to surrender to the Americans on 8 May 1945. Beside the precious cargo (which was put to good use in the production of our ultimate weapon, the A-bomb), Schlicke, a Luftwaffe general and other scientists who were passengers, wound up as ‘guests’ at PO Box 1142. One of the prisoners that Bill interrogated, monitored /and or transcribed was a U-Boat skipper, Oberleutnant Frederich ‘Fritz’ Guggenberger, whose sub, the U81, had sunk the mighty British Aircraft Carrier Ark Royal with a single torpedo on 13 November 1941, off the southern tip of Gibraltar, and was credited with having sunk a total of 10 other ships, a record for the German navy U-Boat assault on Allied shipping. He met his Waterloo when the U-513 he was now commanding was sunk off the Brazilian coast on 19 July 1943, by a PBM bomber flying from a converted aircraft tender. While patrolling these southern waters the plane made radar contact, dropped to 50 feet and unloaded 2 bombs that hit the sub’s deck, causing her to sink. Only the skipper and 6 crewmen survived, the former with a fractured ankle and broken ribs. Bill initially interrogated him, finding him polite, smooth and garrulous on non-military subjects but defiant and uncooperative, especially when he touched on the subject of U-Boats. His room was bugged, and although he probably was aware of this, his conversations with fellow prisoners were revealing, dwelling on the friction that was apparent between a Nazi administrative apparatchik and the navy. But he did reiterate “Germany is bound to win the war because of her realization of the nature of the fight; i.e., that she is fighting for her very existence.”

In October 1943, after it was apparent that nothing more of a military nature could be extracted from him, he was transported by a blackout bus to Ft. Meade, Md., transshipped to the detention camp Crossville, from which he and 4 other sub skippers escaped, only to be captured a few days later. Moved on to the Papago Park Camp near Phoenix, Arizona this maverick who was inclined to defy rules, led 25 prisoners in an escape through a tunnel (publicized by the Nazis as the “The Great Escape”). They got 10 miles from the Mexican border before being apprehended. The irony was after the war’s end and his repatriation to Germany, Guggenberger wound up as a successful architect, and then was called back to the Navy, eventually becoming the Deputy Chief of Staff in NATO! The enemy of my enemy is now my friend.

After his service Bill had a colorful and exciting career at the Pentagon. With his top clearance he was given the job of intelligence research analyst, an important position that was part of the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). After 16 years he retired, but it wasn’t in his nature to just sit around and relax, so he found a new excitement. He went to work for the then very popular Maryland Congressman Mike Barnes, handling his sensitive letters, enjoying the challenge. It got him into politics, giving him a new perspective. This led to the founding and building a new reformed synagogue, Temple Emanuel, in Kensington, Md. and conducting Sunday school classes. To top it all off, he found time to volunteer as a docent at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C. All this came to an abrupt end when Bill had to give up driving 5 years ago, putting a damper on getting around. With one daughter living in New York City and the other in Germany, he looks forward to their visits, utilizing the spare bedroom in his Leisure World® apartment. His wife, Shirley, took up painting late in life and discovered latent talents that have produced truly masterpieces, mostly of still lives, which hang proudly on all their apartment’s walls, while some have been purchased by art lover neighbors. Thus, another Grandma Moses, but she is authentically a realist, her paintings testifying to that.

Note: Fort Hunt was an interrogation center for POWS, but it was not intended primarily for Nazi VIPs and scientists. Although some German generals were brought there, the Army (Navy) learned as much (or more) from non-coms as from officers. Schlicke came just as the war ended (May to November 1945) and was not a typical POW. Gehlen who came later (August 1945 to June 1946) was a Cold War guest, and Von Braun was never actually at Fort Hunt but rather transient for 3 days in early October for debriefing, wound up at Fort Strong in Boston from September to October 1945, and then to Fort Bliss, Texas.

All photos courtesy of Paul Roberts – Resident of Leisure World® Maryland