Ret. Maj. Arnold Kohn, a former intelligence officer who helped keep so many critical national secrets hidden for so long, would just as soon keep things quiet now. While soldiers of his era have enjoyed waves of ceremonies, Kohn, who lives in Pacific Grove, has seen no such honor. He doesn’t seem to mind. As he tells his story, he says that he’d prefer not to be identified. “Can you just call me your ‘source?’ ” he asks.
The secrets he guarded for more than half a century tie into some of the most momentous events in recent US history: the end of World War II, the major maneuvers of the Cold War, and the success of the NASA space program.
Only recently were the government documents describing the secret POW camp where he worked near the tail end of World War II declassified. And only recently, nearing the end of his life, did he decide to share what he had locked in his mind with people outside his trusted inner circle.
Kohn doesn’t focus much on the fact that he was an important figure in one of the most important intelligence operations the country has known, that he helped win a race against the Russians to capture and then recruit the top scientists in Germany, or that he played a role in transforming Nazi scientists into key contributors to American society. Nor does he dwell on the fact that his experience gives him a rare perspective on the current national debate about the treatment of captured enemy combatants. Kohn prefers to focus on life’s humorous ironies, in his own irreverent way.
Kohn has written a three-volume personal memoir (unpublished) describing his remarkable life and military career. Even here, he doesn’t seek to define a decisive record of what he has experienced. His purpose, instead, seems to have been to entertain his wife of 60 years, Helen, who once held her own top-secret clearance at the POW camp: “As long as Helen was laughing,” he says, “I kept writing.”
He writes in the epilogue: “Several times during the period in which I was writing these words I would find myself questioning my reasons for doing so… Do I expect, or really want, anyone to read this? I am not sure that I really do. If they did they might miss the joke.”
Sitting on the couch in his Asilomar home, he is surrounded by cultural artifacts from the diverse posts where the Army stationed Helen and him. The kitchen is a wood-paneled transplant from Bavaria; the Shoji-styled sliding doors leading to the bedrooms were inspired by their time on Okinawa; and a set of elegant carved-wood chess figurines are the work of a noted German craftsman. Kohn patiently blinks his eyes – one blind and a stunning cloud of silver and blue, the other clear and penetrating – and downplays the significance of what took place during the final throes of the last World War.
“I have a bias about certain things,” he says. “One is flag waving. The other is so-called ‘heroes.’ In combat, I would have sat on anyone who thought he was going to be a hero – he gets people killed.”
Kohn, who turned 90 this summer, speaks in a steady tone that reflects his desire to interpret events as he has always seen them: as no big deal – just him doing his job.
• • • – – – • • •
Two National Parks Service rangers working hard to preserve a key chapter in Kohn’s story don’t see him as anything less than a hero. Vincent Santucci and Brandon Bies are compiling the story of the secret POW camp known to its soldiers only by its code name, “PO Box 1142.” They and Bies clearly love the unlikely charge they have been given as park rangers at George Washington Memorial Parkway (GWMP) in Virginia.
“Our job,” Santucci says, “is to protect and preserve the natural, historical and cultural resources of our country.” That duty took Santucci and Bies, GWMP’s chief ranger and cultural resource specialist, respectively, down an atypical trail recently, one that ultimately led one of their colleagues from Alexandria to Asilomar to interview Kohn.
For them, the quest began with a plan to install a series of panels describing the history of Fort Hunt Park, which sits along the Parkway. The panels would describe the fort’s Native American heritage, its time as George Washington’s home, and its spell as a World War II military post. Their research into the post, which they knew as a standard-issue POW camp called Fort Hunt, led to one tight-lipped officer who worked there and resolutely refused to speak on the subject. The old soldier still honored a secrecy oath he had made 60 years ago, because he believed its revelation could jeopardize military operations taking place today. The rangers feared that their research was over.
A year and a half later, however, a park visitor triggered the project’s relaunch.
“We assumed there was no one left to talk to,” says Bies, an avid military historian and expert archaeologist equally comfortable giving tours at GWMP as he is digging through an avalanche of historical documents. “Fortunately we were mistaken. During a regular history tour, one woman said, ‘My next-door neighbor was an interrogator at Fort Hunt; he might be willing to speak with you.’ The information he had was absolutely unbelievable.”
The woman’s neighbor gave the rangers their first hint that very important activities had taken place at Fort Hunt. He told Bies and Santucci about a submarine that had been sent by the Third Reich, nearing defeat, to Japan to continue the war against the Allies. The sub was stuffed with some of the world’s most advanced tools of war: V-1 rockets – which had redefined the range and accuracy of missiles; parts for the best fighter jet in Germany; and a store of uranium oxide. More importantly, the sub also contained several high-ranking German technological experts.
When the Nazis acknowledged defeat, the sub’s captains aborted their mission in favor of surrendering to the US, and the scientists on board were sent to Fort Hunt to describe what they knew of Germany’s war technology – which was superior to anything the US had, especially in terms of rocketry and submarines.
“We had thought Fort Hunt was everyday interrogations,” Bies says. “We had no idea.”
Reenergized, Bies and Santucci’s next stop was the US National Archives in Maryland.
“We met with the staff,” Santucci recalls. “They showed us a lot of recently declassified information and said, ‘You have a big undertaking – there’s 742 boxes of information.’ ”
As the rangers began sifting through the boxes, they noticed something striking about the identity of the POWs listed in the camp’s documents.
“In the tens of hundreds of individual forms, transcripts of interviews, mugshots, photos, background, psycho-profiling,” Santucci says, “we were looking at the highest ranking officers, party leaders and scientists of Germany.
“We said, ‘This is not a typical cross-section of POWs.’ ”
Among the prisoners was Dr. Wernher Von Braun. Before arriving at PO Box 1142 he was the foremost mind behind German rocketry. Later, as a naturalized US citizen, he would run NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, design the superbooster that took >>Saturn V to the moon, and eventually earn a reputation as the father of the American space program.
Other less prominent scientists also made impacts, particularly in aerospace – a former SS officer named Kurt Debus served as director of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Others won Nobel Prize nominations and a National Medal of Science. Some worked on the Manhattan Project. Still others were assigned posts throughout the private sector and in each branch of the military.
Santucci and Bies realized that the story of PO Box 1142 was huge.
With the help of volunteers, the rangers began to track the former prisoners with the hopes of completing the history of the camp, and also began going through the list of the 350 people that worked there. As they searched, a sense of urgency grew – many, including the most knowledgeable senior officers, were already dead. Maybe a dozen officers, Bies estimates, are still alive. They’ve located only two. Getting to those officers quickly became a top priority.
“We have the opportunity to preserve the unheard stories of one of the most important moments in our country’s history,” says Bies, who has spearheaded the interview process. “We are only going to have that opportunity for a short time. This is our only chance.”
• • • – – – • • •
The secrets of Fort Hunt didn’t unlock easily for Arnold Kohn either. When he first reported for duty in 1946, just months after the end of WWII, simply reaching the base was a challenge.
“When I first got my orders, I was down in Louisiana,” Kohn recalls. “They told me to report to PO Box 1142 in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I wasn’t sure just what to do with PO Box 1142 so I went to the Post Office and spoke to the postmaster. He hemmed and hawed and finally said, ‘Take a bus to Mount Vernon and tell the driver to drop you off at PO Box 1142.’ The bus driver stopped. I got off and there was a little road with a private entrance that said, ‘No Trespassing.’ ”
At this point, Kohn was a seasoned first lieutenant, with broad experience born of assignments that had taken him all over Europe to North Africa. He received the assignment because he had extensive experience working POW camps and because he could speak German fluently.
Only he didn’t know just what his assignment was. His memoirs, which he has shared only with a small circle of family and close friends, illustrate how bizarre a situation he found himself in.
“We left our young hero bravely marching up a private road, somewhere in Virginia. Again and again, he anxiously checks his assignment orders. It is almost as if he needs to reassure himself that he hasn’t misread them. No, they still read that he is to report to PO Box 1142. There is no mistake. But he wonders why he never seems to get normal orders like everybody else.
“There must be some element of strangeness in him to account for all the out of the ordinary events that kept on befalling him – this person who was myself so long long ago. We almost get the feeling that if something really surprising were to again happen to him, we wouldn’t – so to speak – be very surprised. Though this fact, if one stops to think about it – that we wouldn’t be surprised by a surprise – is actually surprising in itself; and also a little sad.”
Observant by design and training, Arnold Kohn soon noticed a difference beyond Fort Hunt’s whisper-quiet secrecy. These men surrounding him weren’t regular enlisted men; they were Ivy League professors versed in intelligence. Among them were also soldiers who had escaped enemy capture to share key intel – which made Kohn glad he hadn’t volunteered his comparatively tame war stories. But just like the National Parks employees, he would have to unravel the enigmatic character of PO Box 1142 by doing his own reconnaissance. It took a few weeks.
“Behind the screen of trees was a prisoner of war camp, or rather a secret interrogation center,” Kohn writes. “The main post, which I had thought was all there was to the place, turned out to be less than a quarter of the whole area.
“Captured Personnel and Material Branch was known as the MIS-Y Section. When I tried to find out more about this interrogation center I was sternly told that this information came under the category of ‘need to know.’
“I had been in the army long enough by now to have learned how to find out military secrets. I went and asked the cooks in the mess hall; and over our coffee they told me all the really neat secret stuff.”
The neat stuff included tales of how Fort Hunt interrogations yielded the science needed to beat the U-boats’ sonar proof skin, to pick apart German defense technologies, and to strategically explore Germany and Japan’s sophistication in nuclear arms and other weapons.
Some such insights emerged from the second operation at work at Fort Hunt besides MIS-Y: MIS X. Dubbed an “escape innovation” workshop by some, MIS X allowed American and English POWs to communicate with radios slyly smuggled in care packages, or to escape altogether with the aid of devices like silk composite maps hidden in decks of playing cards that, when laid out, showed a route to freedom and a chance to relay vehicle flaws or new reconnaissance.
Of course, PO Box 1142 had a lot more secrets in store.
• • • – – – • • •
Kohn soon learned that the interrogation camp was undergoing a shift in strategy that corresponded to the larger military machine’s shift from winning WWII to positioning for the quickly accelerating Cold War. During WWII, Fort Hunt primarily processed U-boat crew members who had survived the sinking of their submarines in the Atlantic Ocean, seeking to decipher the maneuvers and machinery that gave the Germans a decisive advantage in the world’s waters, as well as downed German pilots. As the war drew to a close, PO Box 1142 shifted its aim to interrogating captured physicists, engineers and rocket scientists.
Because Germany was a now a badly wounded nation, racked by poverty and hunger – and because the scientists saw a chance to elude capture by the Russians (as Bies points out, “Around 1 million German POWs died in Russian captivity”) – most were willing prisoners. In fact, many even negotiated contracts to share their knowledge and expertise in exchange for an annual stipend and guaranteed safekeeping for their families.
But they also came illegally. Initially the Red Cross was not notified of their presence in the US (in accordance with international law) until they had already passed through Fort Hunt; later, they were brought in under military custody so visas wouldn’t be needed.
Therein lay another reason for secrecy – beyond the big, obvious strategic reasons for the Army and Navy to keep what they were learning about weapons, fighter planes, wind turbines and diesel engines from their Russian rivals. National security was one thing, national outrage another: The country might not have have taken well to Nazi party members being smuggled into the United States and funneled through Fort Hunt into American society.
Kohn would later be the point man personally responsible for taking the German POWs from the arrival port and past US Customs. First, he had to learn to understand why their escape from Germany and illegal chance to resettle in the US helped create a convivial interrogation scenario that, in today’s modern climate of kidnapping and torture stories, seems hard to believe.
Santucci says he has focused on these issues with Kohn’s former colleagues. “The interrogation technique is something we spent a lot of time talking with these men about,” Santucci says. “We’ve gotten a consensus. Most of the German prisoners were officers, scientists, likely from aristocracy, the wealthier, more educated portion of society, happy that they’re off frontline and being treated fairly decently by Americans.
“In Russia they’d be dead by now, by and large, so they were much at ease. ‘I’m not going to die.’ Kind of relieved. So they tended to cooperate.”
But that didn’t mean that old loyalties weren’t in play. Not every former German officer who came to the US was eager to burp up the keys to his country’s rich expertise at their sworn enemies’ beckoning.
But PO Box 1142 had a pair of techniques that effectively drew this invaluable information out. In his memoirs, Kohn describes those tools as “the >>real secret about PO Box 1142” and “a little practical joke.”
The secret lay in the ceilings of the prisoners’ quarters and in the trees around them. “Every foot of the network of paths that threaded these woods where the paroled prisoners were allowed to walk was covered by the most technically advanced microphones,” Kohn writes. “Every word spoken in the interrogation rooms, in the prisoners’ rooms, in the cabins where some special prisoners lived, in the bathrooms (even if the water was left running) could be overheard, monitored and recorded.”
Knowing this, interrogators could skirt around topics they were truly interested in – for instance, the anti-sonar coating on the hulls of the German U-boats – asking about everything but that (hull construction, anti-fouling paint, and so on) – and patiently laying a trap that would, with patience, net everything they really needed. Eventually, the more stubborn prisoners would talk with a roommate in their cabin or a comrade in the woods, their vital intel fed to a building completely camouflaged beneath a mound of dirt and shrubs.
The practical joke, meanwhile, went by the name of Iwanowski, and looked as mean and ugly as Russian soldiers could come. “The information we were able to get from prisoners was certainly not – as far as I know – because any of them were tortured or even mistreated. Unless the little practical joke that Captain Iwanowski liked to play on them could be called mistreatment,” Kohn writes.
“Iwanowski had been born and raised in Ohio and knew only the few words of Russian he had learned from his parents, but he sure looked Russian. (Especially when he wore the uniform of a Russian officer.) His ‘office,’ when the occasion called for it, was deep underground in what had been the ammunition bunkers. ‘Uncooperative’ German prisoners were told that the Americans were giving up on them and were turning them over to the Russians: one glance at Ivanowski’s ugly Mongolian face, lit-up with a theatrical colored spot light, waiting at the bottom of the steep, wet, moss-covered, concrete stairs, slapping his riding crop against his boots, with the recorded sound effects of groans and screams of agony, was usually all it took for a prisoner to want to talk to the ‘nice Americans.’ ”
Santucci and Bies are unequivocal about the results of this sly operation.
“As we learned American history in school, we weren’t presented with all of the facts,” Santucci says. “Some of those facts are coming to light with our research with the veterans of 1142. America did not become a world power simply by the way we shot our rifles and maneuvered our tanks, but by the way we acquired defense and scientific technologies from top German military and scientists. That’s tied to [Operation] Paperclip.”
An author named Linda Hunt, however, is not so enthusiastic. She wrote >>Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists and Project Paperclip, a relentlessly researched book that demanded that she evoke the Freedom of Information Act constantly to get relevant documents from the US government.
From the arrival of the first German specialist in the US, a missile design engineer named Herbert Wagner, she didn’t see the operation as the gift to America that others believed it to be.
On “May 19, 1945,” she writes, “Wagner’s surreptitious arrival marked the beginning of a massive immigration of Nazi scientists to the United States and a long, sordid chapter in postwar history. Had he been kept overseas, Wagner almost certainly would have been questioned about his Nazi past in a denazification court. Instead he and many of his colleagues were able to take advantage of Project Paperclip, which, in direct contravention of official US policy, gave the Nazi scientists an opportunity to escape justice and start afresh in America.”
She notes that this all took place while thousands of Jewish refugees remained on immigration wait-lists.
Kohn, himself a Jew, eventually was handed Operation Paperclip duties that required him to smuggle dozens of scientists past US Customs. “Every couple of weeks,” he writes in his memoirs, “I would have to go to New York and pick up a newly-arrived group of these scientists, sneak them by customs and the immigration authorities by permitting them, after I had ostentatiously looked in all directions, a mere glimpse of the orders I carried, stamped SECRET in large red letters, and then bring the Germans down to Fort Hunt by chartered bus.
“This work was given the code name Paperclip, and as the other activities of the post were phased out or transferred, it became the only important operation left at Fort Hunt.”
Kohn acknowledges that what started out as a “pretty straightforward military mission with clear-cut goals, objectives and limits” saw its goals “becoming more shadowy and the limits more elastic.”
“Project Paperclip,” he writes, “like a robot out of control, set its own policy and winked when a former Nazi was found among the German scientists.”
Kohn’s role as Paperclip pointman and his rank as chief intelligence officer of PO Box 1142 will make the rangers’ next visit to Pacific Grove, in their eyes, a very special one in their catalog of interviews.
“It’s a very special scope of knowledge he was briefed on and knowledgeable about,” Santucci says. “The interrogators were enlisted men, trained to deal with specialized information, which was compartmentalized. He saw over the integration of information...which could only could happen at higher levels [with] somebody who is >>really sworn to secrecy.”
His elevated insight has also necessitated a special deal with the Army not needed for most of their other interviews.
“We’re going to need a letter saying he is free of any secrecy agreements with the United States Army,” Santucci says, “that he is not only permitted to speak, but encouraged to.”
• • • – – – • • •
When told of the enthusiastic dedication that the George Washington Memorial Parkway rangers have brought to their search – and will bring to his interview – Kohn smiles an ornery grin that stretches all the way from one bat-like ear to the other. “I’d believe about one-third of what they’re told,” he says, mimicking their subjects: “ ‘I got that secret out of him!’ ”
This is Kohn’s personal style of informed irreverence – the style that carries his memoirs, that dances in his eyes as he tells his favorite stories, that his native humility barely keeps in check. It’s also the style that defines what he facetiously calls his “Educational Newsletter,” which he circulates to a close group of friends and family. In recent missives, his irreverence is informed by post-Fort Hunt assignments, which included testing the success of the Chinese so-called “brainwashing” of American soldiers, coordinating spies in Korea, and researching the reliability of information obtained by forced interrogation.
He called his most recent offering, which went out July 27, a “Special Patriotic Newsletter,” with the sub headline “4 God and Country and Cold Cash.”
“Mr. George W. Bush has just announced a brand new set of rules for the interrogation of men who have been captured alive and put in prison. The CIA is not to torture them in the future. That would be wrong. They may be coaxed, tricked, threatened, frightened, manipulated and forced to answer questions (even if they may not know the answers, and must make one up) but keep it secret. And the taking of photographs of any prisoners being made ‘uncomfortable’ is strictly forbidden.”
He had this to write in the aftermath of media reports this spring about the British sailors captured by the Iranians: “We do not know what prompted Iran’s restraint. Whether it comes from that county’s strong religious beliefs, their strict moral codes, their civil laws or their culture. But it appears that the Evil Axis Iranians did not have anyone urinating on their Christian Bible, have them strip and wear a dog leash or have any of them ‘water-boarded.’”
Sitting at his computer sorting through online news sites, the old intelligence officer is still watching and listening, with his sense of humor intact. His irreverence speaks to a strategy he deployed as a sanity-protecting practice throughout his long military career. His daughter, who is among those who look forward to receiving his newsletter every four or five weeks, gently chides her father: “Remember what you told me?” she says. “ ‘The best survival technique is a sense of humor’?”
“No,” Kohn says. But then he smiles knowingly, and kisses his daughter on the head moments later as she walks past him through the living room.
• • • – – – • • •
The vast majority of the surviving military personnel that were stationed at PO Box 1142 will gather in Alexandria, Virginia this fall. On Oct. 5, they will stand before a brand-new flagpole planted in precisely the same spot as the flagpole that stood at Fort Hunt during World War II. When an atomically calibrated clock strikes 11:42am on the dot, soldiers will fire off a cannon on loan from the Arlington Cemetery and a bugler will play. Other festivities will round out a full weekend.
Kohn won’t be there. He and Helen are growing too frail to travel across the country. Besides, Ret. Maj. Arnold Kohn isn’t all that into ceremony.