“Nazis on the Potomac” – with former National Park Service Chief Historian Bob Sutton
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is the former chief historian of the National Park Service, Bob Sutton. And what a wonderful conversation we had. His book, "Nazis on the Potomac," tells the true story of the top-secret World War II military intelligence facility P.O. Box 1142. Present day, Fort Hunt, around 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. It was here, between 1942 and 1945, that around 3,500 thousand high-level German prisoners were interrogated, captured documents analyzed and ways to help Americans escape and evade Nazis in occupied Europe studied. The story of P.O. Box 1142 is particularly incredible because many of the interrogators were German-born Jews. This story was almost lost to history, but thankfully because of the efforts of the National Park Service and Bob, it never will be.
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Andrew Hammond: I just wanted to start off - can you just tell our listeners a little bit more about your book, "Nazis on the Potomac"? Because there is a literal component to the actual title, right? There were Nazis on the Potomac.
Bob Sutton: There really were Nazis on the Potomac.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Bob Sutton: What happened with this book is - I worked for the National Park Service. I was - when I retired, I was the chief historian for the National Park Service. And in the - about 2000 - early 2000s, we found out that one of our parks, Fort Hunt, which is in the D.C. area between Alexandria and Mount Vernon, was a secret location during World War II, so secret we didn't even know what it was. We owned - you know, we owned Fort Hunt, and we didn't even know what was going on there. But during World War II, there were three programs that were functioning at Fort Hunt. One was one to bring in the highest level - not necessarily the highest level, but the highest-value Nazi prisoners - there were about 3,000 or so in all - into Fort Hunt. And they were interrogated. And then there was a surveillance system that was set up - had microphones all around the fort - so they could listen in on conversations. And in some cases, they used stool pigeons to get information out of them.
Bob Sutton: So we had this amazing story that we really had not known anything about. So that was - another part of the program was documents. There were tremendous, huge number of captured German documents. And they were brought to Fort Hunt, and there were teams that actually went through and translated and interpreted the documents. The third program was a program called escape and evasion, and they developed packages for flyers, for American flyers, so if they were shot down or their plane went down for any reason, they could hopefully escape. So they had things that would hopefully help them escape. But if they didn't and they were in POW camps, they set up a very elaborate crypto-communication system to communicate between Fort Hunt and prisoner POW camps.
Bob Sutton: And they would send packages to them. And it's just - that's an amazing story in and of itself. They would say, you know, packages coming at such and such a time, and they'd look for it. And it would have things like radios that were hidden in baseballs or radios that were hidden in cribbage boards, maps that were hidden in game boards and so forth. So these three programs were at Fort Hunt. And when we found out about it - when the park service found out about it, we started contacting as many of the veterans who had been stationed there as we could find. Unfortunately, most of them were gone, you know, by - 2006 is when we really started this program. Most of the veterans who were there were - had died, unfortunately. But we were able to locate about 65 who were there. And we did oral history interviews with them. And so that sort of became the basis of this book.
Bob Sutton: Now, to me, the most interesting part of the story was that many of the men who were soldiers at Fort Hunt whom we interviewed were actually German or Austrian Jews who were able to get out of Germany or Austria in the 1930s as children. So by this time, they were either teenagers or young adults. And they came to - they were brought to Fort Hunt for obvious reasons. I mean, first of all, German was their native language. So they could do interrogations. They could do document translations. They could listen in on conversations and so forth. But the stories of many of these people - how they were able to get out of Germany or Austria in itself was a fascinating story. And then the interrogations were just, really, pretty amazing. So we had these wonderful interviews. We had made transcripts of them. Most of them were actually videotaped as well. So we had - you know, we had, like, three different versions of each of these interviews - oral history interviews. And it looked like it was - they're just maybe going to sit there. So several years ago, I decided that - with a little bit of prompting from a few people, that really the story needed to be told. It needed to be something that wasn't going to just, like, vanish forever. And so that's how I got interested in writing the book.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, there's so much follow-up questions I have there. What a fascinating thing to discover. World War II, in terms of stories, is just the gift that keeps on giving, isn't it?
Bob Sutton: Right, it is. It is.
Andrew Hammond: You thought you'd heard all of the amazing stories...
Bob Sutton: Yep.
Andrew Hammond: ...And another one comes up.
Bob Sutton: Now, one thing that's - that is part of the story is that all the people who were stationed at Fort Hunt were sworn to secrecy, and they were sworn to secrecy in such a way that they were sort of told that they would take this story with them to the grave. And by about '90s - by the 1990s, almost everything in World War II had been declassified, so now this information was available. And a couple of these - couple of people we interviewed, we had to, like, show them the interviews that they had conducted with their names signed on it.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Bob Sutton: So that they would be comfortable telling us their stories.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And where - like, where are all of these interviews and videos? Are they public - are they publicly available? Can our listeners go and look at them on...
Bob Sutton: They can. They can. Yes, Fort Hunt actually has posted most of the interviews. I don't think they quite have all of them up yet, but most of them are available.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Wow.
Bob Sutton: And they go - if you go to the National Park Service, Fort Hunt, you can, I think pretty easily get to the site and look at the interviews.
Andrew Hammond: So I haven't had a chance to go there yet, but I've been to Fort Washington, just across the...
Bob Sutton: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...River. So at Fort Hunt is there physical buildings and stuff that people can go to see or is it just a park now?
Bob Sutton: So Fort Hunt has a very interesting history. It was part of George Washington's plantation. It was actually the river plantation on his - in his farm. And around 1900, the army - the American army realized that their defenses on - especially coastal defenses, were just totally inadequate. Most of them dated even before the Civil War. So there was a huge effort to rebuild and build new coastal defense systems. And of course, one of the major ones was on the Potomac River. They already had Fort Washington, but they decided that they needed a fort on the other side of the river. So they built Fort Hunt. And so these are coastal artillery batteries. So there's nothing you can do with them. And they're huge concrete installations - huge. And they - I mean, it would take - I don't even know how much it would take to blow them up, but they're there.
Bob Sutton: So the original Fort Hunt is still there. But everything from this period, from the World War II period, is gone. There's one building there that's a C - an NCO quarters that dated from the early fort that's still there. There's a - we actually have a - now have a plaque and a flag to commemorate Fort Hunt. There's still some - you can see some foundations if you're sort of creative and walk around the fort. You can see some of the foundations from the buildings that were there. But part of the arrangement for using Fort Hunt in World War II - at the time, it belonged to the National Park Service. And so the military had to get a cooperative agreement with the park service to use the fort during World War II. And the agreement was that they could use it during the war plus one year. But at the end, they would have to - they'd have to get rid of all the buildings that they built, which they did.
Andrew Hammond: What an amazing story. And especially because there's three different parts to it. So I just wondered if you could tell us just a little bit more about them in terms of the first part - MIS-Y, MIS-X and then the MIRS. So the first one, as you said earlier, that's for interrogating high-level German prisoners...
Bob Sutton: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...War scientists and weapons scientists and so forth. The second part is escape and evasion for Americans that are in Europe. And then the final part is to analyze, as I understand it, literally tons of documents...
Bob Sutton: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...That were captured. So where did those documents come from? Are they with the people that were there, or were they sent over by the pallet from Europe or...
Bob Sutton: During - at the early part of America's entry into World War II, they set up a pretty sophisticated and elaborate system that worked pretty well. In the field, they had, like, an officer and a couple of enlisted men, and their main job was to capture every single document that they could find. If it was in German, they captured - they got it. They didn't have to understand what it said. They didn't have to know anything about German. But if it - if they could see it was German, they would capture it. The first - generally, the first step of the process - they would send these documents to London. There was a - there was another office, MIRS, Military Intelligence Research Service.
Bob Sutton: So the first stop was London. And so they would do sort of the initial analysis. Then they would package everything up and send it to Fort Hunt. And so there were literally tons, tons of documents. There were about 20 soldiers at - in this section at Fort Hunt. The officer in charge was - he was born in Germany, but he came to United States when he was very young. His name was John Kluge. And John Kluge, in the mid-1980s, was the richest man in the United States. He owned a company called Multimedia and had nothing to do with his time at Fort Hunt, but he was in charge. And all of the soldiers who were there were German immigrants.
Bob Sutton: And there's one person there who I would become very close to. He's still alive. Paul Fairbrook is his name. And he has - he - I don't know that I could have written that section without his help. He had - he's kept a lot of the materials in his home. He copied them and sent them to me. And then I spent hours, you know, following up interviews with him - sharp as can be, just a wonderful, wonderful resource. But what he said was that they - the documents would come in and then there were - each man in this program had a specialty. So his specialty was the high command of the German army. And so this - they would come in in big sacks. They would dump the sacks out. They'd say, OK, you know, here's high command. Here's German youth. Here's this. And each person would have a specialty. And they became real experts at reading the German documents.
Bob Sutton: The Germans were fastidious record keepers, and that was probably good for them. But as a couple of people that we interviewed said, it probably was even better for the United States because they learned how to interpret these things. So there was one document in particular called a pass in German. I don't remember what the German word was, but in English, it's called - they called it a passbook, kind of like a passport, not quite the same. But it would have, you know, where they were from, where they had fought, you know, what - the different places they'd been. If they got an award, it would say what kind of award they got. And this turned out to be one of the really, really good sources of information were these passbooks.
Bob Sutton: Another thing the Germans did was they were - they - the Germans actually had official brothels for the soldiers and sailors. And they were for the soldiers and for the sailors. I mean, that was part of - one of the perks they had. But they were required to keep a card that said to which one they went to and who the person was that they saw. And that turned out to be a wonderful thing as well because some of these guys felt really guilty about going to these brothels. And so in the interrogation, they'd say, oh, you know, I saw that you went to brothel, blah, blah, and you met with Maria. How was that? And the guy would be just absolutely stunned. How in the world would they know that I went to that brothel? And even more, how would they know that I saw Maria? Now, of course, the reason they had the name there was if there was a disease, you know, a VD that came, then they would know what to do with it. So some would go, you know, if they know that much, I might as well just tell them everything I know because they have amazing information. Or even better, they'd feel guilty. And the more they pressed on the guilt, the more they would tell. And so those turned out to be amazing things.
Bob Sutton: But there was another thing that Paul Fairbrook found. He - one of his things was to look at the organization chart of the high command. And right after the assassination attempt on Hitler, he found that there was a new box on this chart for a morale officer. And so he started digging and found out that this was established right after the assassination attempt. And what became more and more and more important toward the end of the war, for Hitler, was to make sure that all the soldiers were loyal. And so he wrote - he actually wrote up a little report on this. And, I mean, he actually sent me a copy of it. And - but that's - they were all just dedicated. They said - people who were in the MIRS said that they didn't really have to be supervised. And John Kluge said they really didn't have to be supervised. They were so motivated that they just would almost be excited when this bag would come in with materials in it. And so it's absolutely fantastic service.
Andrew Hammond: It's interesting you mention John Kluge. Before I came to the Spy Museum, I was at the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress...
Bob Sutton: Is that right?
Andrew Hammond: ...On a Kluge fellowship.
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: So small world.
Bob Sutton: Well, you know, the funny thing was, when we were interviewing soldiers, we couldn't get to him. We just - they couldn't. And what - actually, when they interviewed Paul Fairbrook, they started talking to him and he said, well, have you interviewed John Kluge? And they said, well, no, we can't get to him. He says, oh, well, I'll take care of that. So he picks up the phone. Hey, John, these folks from the Park Service want to talk to you. And boom, they - you know, we're able to get in. And they actually were able to interview him just a year or two before he passed away.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And the interviews - the public are able to get access to that interview.
Bob Sutton: Absolutely.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Bob Sutton: Absolutely.
Andrew Hammond: That's on the Fort Hunt site.
Bob Sutton: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Bob Sutton: John Kluge is on there, Paul Fairbrook. Yes, they're all on there.
Andrew Hammond: And I understand from your studies as well, the enlistees were given quite a degree of latitude to just do their thing.
Bob Sutton: They were. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Andrew Hammond: And that's not always the case - right? - especially in World War II.
Bob Sutton: And, you know, it's funny. They - I think John Kluge is - one thing that he learned from this, if you have people that are dedicated, you kind of just turn them loose like he did with these folks. And Paul Fairbrook said that he, Kluge - really, his German was not very good. I mean, he was from Germany. He was born in Germany, but he was - his language was not the best. And so he understood that if you have all of these people who are fluent - I mean, that's their native language - just let them do it.
Andrew Hammond: And if you're a German Jewish refugee to the United States who cares about your people and about the course of the war, then you've got a lot of skin in the game. There's a lot of natural motivation that comes from that, right?
Bob Sutton: Yes. And that was - some of the questions we asked, there was one person that I really wish I could have met him, but he was - had passed when I started on this book. His name was Rudy Pins - Rudolph Pins. And he gave a fantastic interview. But he also had published a brief autobiography from the time he was a child up to and through World War II. What's fascinating is after that, we have absolutely no clue what he did. I mean, we interviewed him, but he was very cagey about what he did after World War II. But what he talked about during - he actually probably spent as much or more time at Fort Hunt than the others that we interviewed. He was there for, I think, about two-plus years. His primary duty was to do interrogations, but he also did listening, you know, the surveillance. And so his observations were very, very useful.
Bob Sutton: And his family - he was part of a program from Germany. There was a program that allowed - and it wasn't a federal program. It wasn't a government program. The government allowed it, but it wasn't an actual federal program. They allowed Jewish organizations to bring children over to the United States, about a thousand. Actually, there were more than a thousand. They could come over, and they could either stay with family members who were here or foster families. And so his parents found out about this program. Rudy Pins' parents found out about this program. They allowed him to come. He actually stayed with a family in Cleveland. So he actually was here for quite a while, you know, sort of independently before World War II - talked about this whole thing. And he said that his parents allowed him to come because - and I'm sure this is true of many, many, many German or Austrian Jews - they all thought that Hitler was an aberration, that he is so crazy that the German people just would not stand for it, and they would vote him out of office. And they could, you know, join again as a big happy family, which of course, they never did.
Bob Sutton: So Rudy Pins - his situation was true of many of the soldiers who were at Fort Hunt in that he was allowed to come over, but his family was still in Germany. And of course, they perished in the Holocaust. And some of them had - some of them came with their families to the United States. Many of them came with their families. For example, Paul Fairbrook came with his family to the United States. But I think everybody - I don't know that for a fact, but I think everybody, if they - even if they came with their families, they had extended families that were still in Europe who perished in the Holocaust. So they have this going on in their minds. So Rudy Pins - every time he interviewed a German soldier, he was thinking, my parents, I've lost contact with them. I don't know what's going on. And so he had that sort of in the back of his mind every time he would earn interrogate a German.
Bob Sutton: But he also realized that most of the people that he interviewed - there were some exceptions, some radical, you know, SS guys. But most of the people that he interviewed were soldiers who were doing their jobs as - the same as he was doing his job. And he knew that if he were on the battlefield and they were on one side, and he was on the other side, they both would try to kill each other. But in this case, he realized that they were doing their job. And in many cases, they were - toward the end of the war, they were very open in talking, in giving information because I think they could kind of sense - after D-Day, many of them could sort of sense that the war was probably going to end and not going to end well for the Germans. And so they were more - as the war progressed, they were more and more open about information.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. So the MIRS - that's really, really fascinating. And MIS-X - that's the escape and evasion. And the British counterpart to that is MI9 I believe.
Bob Sutton: Right, right.
Andrew Hammond: And there's also some really good books on this. Phil Froom...
Bob Sutton: Tremendous, tremendous information.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Bob Sutton: And actually, there's been so much written there. One of the funny little stories about Fort Hunt - in the - in 1991, I think - I don't remember exactly the date - one of the soldiers who was in the escape and evasion program, his name was Shoemaker. He wrote a book about - called "The Escape Factory." He wasn't supposed to. It was still secret. And when he wrote this book, the Army tried to buy up every copy they could get. And still, if you want to get the hardback, it's very expensive because there aren't very many copies around. Eventually, it was also published in soft back. So the park had actually a fair amount of information when they started doing the interviews. They had quite a bit of information about the escape and evasion program from this book, from - at least, from one side of it. I mean, he - one of his jobs was to go out and get things that they could use to hide different - like, radios in. And so they - he was - that was one of his jobs.
Bob Sutton: So I decided that this escape and evasion piece would just be a chapter. Originally, I was going to have it as an appendix, but I just - you know, it's so interesting. I felt, you know, you just have to include this. The other reason I included it was because not only were everybody at Fort Hunt sworn to secrecy after the war, they were sworn to secrecy within Fort Hunt. So the people who were doing - now, of course, everybody knew that there were Germans there because they were all over the place. So, I mean, there's no secret about German prisoners being at Fort Hunt, right? But they didn't have a clue. If you were doing - if you were in MIRS, you might have three meals a day with the guys in escape and evasion, but you had absolutely no clue what they were doing. And they had absolutely no clue what anybody else was doing. And it was - to me, that's one of the most fascinating parts of the story, is they really took this secret piece seriously.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And just before we pivot back to MIS-Y, for MIS-X, that was just an outpost at Fort Hunt? Or that was the headquarters, and the main operation was there?
Bob Sutton: The main operation was there, yes.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Bob Sutton: They had several buildings where they - for one - one part of it was the cryptology. And the guy who was in charge of cryptology, he was - actually, one of the things that is in some ways sad but in other ways wonderful, some of the people we interviewed - the guy who developed the cryptology program, Silvio Bedini, was literally in bed. I mean, it was in his last - he was in his last illness when he - when we interviewed him. And I actually watched the video because I was fascinated with it. And he's in bed, and they're asking him questions when he's in bed. And his kids are there, you know, explaining things. And I go, whoa. And then a couple weeks later, he's gone. And that happened with several. And there was one who - the park service was ready to go and interview a fellow - I think he was in Cleveland if I'm not mistaken. And so they were ready to get on the plane. The family called and said that he had just gone into a coma. So they canceled their flight.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Bob Sutton: Monday morning, the family called and said that he'd come out of the coma, looked around, and he said, where's the park service? They jumped on a plane and went and actually interviewed him as well. So a lot of these were - I mean, literally they got it - they got the interview maybe weeks or months before these folks passed.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. It's just a really amazing story. And did the National Park Service, did they also - or do they also look after Camp Tracy?
Bob Sutton: Camp Tracy was not part of the National Park Service.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Bob Sutton: It wasn't. And actually, the only reason that there's a connection with the park service is because the park service actually owned the property, and they had it before and after World War II. So that's the only reason - that was the only, really, connection to the park service. I don't think the park service had a clue what was going on there.
Andrew Hammond: OK. OK.
Bob Sutton: I mean, most people had - didn't have a clue what was going on.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah. And just for our listeners, Camp Tracy - that was like a counterpart to Camp Hunt, and it was out in California. And it had more Japanese prisoners that were also being interrogated and so forth.
Bob Sutton: Yes. Yes, Camp Tracy was in California. It had been a spa, actually. And the woman who owned the spa had lost her son in World War I. And so she made a deal. I don't remember what the Army had to pay for Camp Tracy, but it was, you know, like, minimal amount of money. And they - it was essentially the same system, set up the same system. The main difference, though, was that most of the soldiers who did the interrogations were not necessarily fluent in Japanese. And so the Army actually hired nisei, who were the second-generation Japanese, to do the actual questioning. And that actually had two purposes. One was the Japanese prisoners were far more open talking to someone who - you know, a nisei, than they were to talking to someone who was not.
Bob Sutton: We didn't do too many - we did one interview with a fellow who was there. He was actually raised in Japan. He understood Japanese fairly well, but he couldn't speak it very much. So that was the - and apparently that was fairly common. And so he was at Camp Tracy. The thing that, to me, is fascinating about Camp Tracy is that Japanese, their culture was you don't - you just don't get captured. I mean, it was in their little book that they carried with them. You don't surrender. You just don't. Well, some of them did. And when they did, they were brought to Camp Tracy. And it was same thing. They would be interviewed. One thing about both Camp Tracy and Fort Hunt, soldiers, either Japanese or German soldiers, would be interviewed. But as soon as the interview was over, in most cases they'd send him on to a POW camp. So they were not official POW camps because technically you weren't supposed to interrogate people. But they did. And so they - it was kind of a gray area. But they considered it a temporary site rather than a permanent POW camp.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. So the interviews for the National Park Service, were you involved in any of them, Bob, or...
Bob Sutton: I was not. I was not. Actually, I became chief historian fairly late in the process. And there was an article, a wonderful article, in The Washington Post, just, like, the weekend before I was - actually started as chief historian. And I did not know about this program. And so the superintendent at the George Washington Parkway, which runs Fort Hunt, was a good friend of mine. I had been the superintendent at Manassas Battlefield and of course knew all the superintendents in this region. And so he was a good friend. So I called him up, and I said, look, I really want to find out about this program. And so within a week or so, I went over and met with him and met with all of the folks who were doing the oral history interviews. And we started talking, and they said, you know, we're going to sort of wind down because we don't - we've interviewed about everybody that we can in this area, but we don't really have any travel money. So I said, well, how about if I find you some travel money? And I was new. So I thought, well, maybe like - so I was actually able to find enough money, so they could actually go and do all of the interviews where they were required to travel.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Bob Sutton: So that was my contribution. And of course, I was very interested in some of the people they were interviewing. And I also was very interested in looking at their technique. I actually had - eventually, within a year or so when I was there, I actually hired a woman who was - her specialty was oral histories. And so I made sure that what they were doing was what they were supposed to do, you know, the best practices for doing oral. And they absolutely were first rate. And then we helped doing some of the - we helped - we actually helped do some of the transcripts from the interviews.
Andrew Hammond: And how did you do the research for the book? Did you read the transcripts or listen to the interviews or both?
Bob Sutton: Both.
Andrew Hammond: Both. Wow.
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Bob Sutton: And actually, mostly, as I really got into the book, of course, COVID came along. And the park archives were closed. The National Archives were closed. So fortunately, I had done quite a bit of work before COVID came, and so I had most of the information I needed. But there were - I couldn't, you know, follow up with some things. And the other thing I was frustrated with - I would come across something in an interview, and I'd go, darn, why can't I go back and talk to this guy because I want to find out more about this little piece here? And of course, most of them were gone. But there were five soldiers - or four soldiers who were there who were still alive. I talked to them extensively. And it was very, very helpful because there were - some of the really critical questions that I had, they were able to answer. So, like, Paul Fairbrook was - I don't know that I could have done the chapter - I could have, but it would have been very, very different had I not been in touch with him.
Andrew Hammond: And just before we go on to discuss MIS-Y a little bit more and the interrogations, can you, just for our listeners - how is the National Park Service set up for something like this? So everybody's got an idea in their mind about the National Park Service, which is picked up largely from popular culture or the occasional week, you know, going out into the other parts of the country. But in terms of the management of historical sites or in terms of interpreting them, just to - give us the Cliff - the elevator version of how that happens...
Bob Sutton: Well...
Andrew Hammond: ...If possible (laughter).
Bob Sutton: ...First of all, about two-thirds of all national park units are historical or cultural. And so that's one thing. And in some cases, there - the documentation is excellent. I mean, there's really good documentation for whatever site that we interpret, either from documentary research or from archaeology. And so we have generally pretty good information. So, for example, I was a superintendent at Manassas Battlefield. I mean, there are just volumes and volumes and volumes and volumes, both of documents, memoirs, just all kinds. You know, there's tremendous information on Civil War battlefields.
Andrew Hammond: A superintendent is the person that runs the site?
Bob Sutton: Yes, I was the boss.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Bob Sutton: I ran the site. So, tremendous information - I mean, essentially, anything you need to know, we had. So that's - that is one end of the spectrum. But then there are some like Fort Hunt. We did not know the story at all. We didn't. I mean, it just wasn't there. But one thing that we've done at many of our parks - not all, unfortunately - but we have a historical resource study. That's one of the programs that we have. And there had been one done for Fort Hunt, and that's how they essentially discovered about this program. Because the - when he was - when this person was working in the archives, he found out that the story about these programs at Fort Hunt was declassified. And so he actually had a little - one chapter on this program.
Bob Sutton: And so that's one of the best ways that we have of learning about the history of a site. We'll actually - we'll commission - in some cases, we have people on staff that do this, not very often. But we commission a historic resource study to be conducted on a park, and they'll go - they'll find everything that there is available on that site. Unfortunately, we have not been able to do that with all of our parks, but many we have. And it's - it turns out to be a very valuable resource. Doing what we did at Fort Hunt is actually fairly unusual, where we didn't know the story. We were able to locate people. We were able to get the money - the park had money. I was able to provide some money so we could do - we could actually interview everybody that we found. That's relatively unusual, that - to have that level of oral history. But one of the things that I did as chief historian was I hired a historian, Lu Ann Jones, who actually is a - one of the highest regarded oral historians in the country. And so she has set up an oral history program throughout the park service to do things like this.
Andrew Hammond: So just to stay on the National Park Service for one more minute. The - so you've got the chief historian. Help us understand - how many historians do you have? How is it structured? Is there some kind of central historical office or does each site have, you know, someone that's doing some research?
Bob Sutton: It...
Andrew Hammond: I mean, I just say this because there are just some absolutely phenomenal public historians in the National Park Service. Like, when you go to these sites, they're just knocking it out of the park. So how do they get that knowledge? How is history structured in the park in terms of education and interpretation?
Bob Sutton: Well, the - I was the chief historian, and I had an office. It was - by the time I got there, it was shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. I had four historians working for me when I left, and they were all phenomenal. So, you know, I was very lucky. So that was the chief historian's office. Now we were independent. Now we would do work, like, for example, this project at Fort Hunt. I mean, I get involved in that. One of the things that I felt was important as chief historian was to get parks that had similar themes working together. So when I sent - when I gave the folks at Fort Hunt the money to do oral history interviews around the country, I said, look, one of the things you're going to do is you're going to go - if you're in San Francisco, you're going to go to Golden Gate Park because there's a huge World War II story there. And you're going to get them involved. Or here, locally, some of the sites here - Prince William Forest Park, which is a camp park, during World War II, the OSS trained at - trained there. And that's a story.
Bob Sutton: So what I tried to do was to get stories like Fort Hunt, where - Fort Hunt is primarily a picnic area. You know, if you go there today, it's a fantastic picnic and recreation area, but it had the story as well. So everybody looks at it as a picnic area, but I thought that there were a lot of stories of World War II in parks that were not being interpreted as World War II stories. And so that was what I thought part of my job was, was to get parks that have similar themes working together, sharing information. And part of the reason for that was when I was at Manassas Battlefield, we had done that with Civil War battlefields.
Bob Sutton: As we were working toward the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we all started communicating amongst ourselves about how we could interpret the Civil War better. For example, what's the most important story about the Civil War? Well, the most important story is that it was really fought over slavery, period. That was it. I mean, there are other things, too, obviously, but we wanted parks to be able to feel comfortable interpreting the institution of slavery as part of their theme studies or theme stories. And so by working together, they were more comfortable doing that. And, of course, people that didn't think that was the right story were not comfortable, and we got a lot of criticism for it. But that was what I saw as one of my jobs as chief historian.
Bob Sutton: Now, in parks - you were asking about beyond the chief historian's office. We had regional offices. I think seven regions. I've been retired for a couple of years, so if I get some of the numbers wrong - we have regional offices around the country, and each of those offices have a regional historian. So what their job is, is kind of like mine, but their job is to work with parks within their region to tell stories within their regions. And so that's their story. And then there are many parks that have a historian on staff. So, for example, a Civil War battlefield typically has a historian on staff - not all. When I retired, I believe there were about 200 historians that had the classification as historian. In other words, the - it's - in the federal government, it's 170 - the 170 series that were actually classified as historians. But beyond that, we probably had hundreds, many hundreds of historians who were really historians. They were trained as historians. That was what their degree was in - in some cases, even advanced degrees. But their classification was not as a historian. So they might have been an interpreter. They might have been a ranger. It just depended. But there are a lot of historians that are not classified as historians.
Andrew Hammond: And across the - just before we pivot back to this story, across the National Park Service, is the intelligence and espionage - is that quite common for there to be some component of that attached to a park, or is it rare?
Bob Sutton: Very, very rare, very rare - I can't think of too many that - where that was. I mean, San Francisco, obviously, that was part of the story there. And, literally, Prince William Forest Park, where the OSS trained, that's part of the story there. But that's extremely rare.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. OK. So let's go back to the interrogations of the Nazis on the Potomac where we started the interview. So what kinds of information did they get? I know that from the MIRS they were able to build up orders of battle and...
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...Help guide commanders for engagements and so forth. But for the interrogations, what kind of information did they get?
Bob Sutton: Actually, if I can go back to MIRS for...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, sure.
Bob Sutton: ...Just a minute, the most important thing that they did was called the red book - "The Order of Battle of the German Army." And it was a very comprehensive book volume. There were three that were published during World War II, and that was their primary focus was to publish this. And it was enormously helpful. It had every single regiment, every - or every single division in the German army, who was the commander, who was the chief of staff, where it was, where it had been, what its function was and so forth. And so that was a tremendously important part of MIRS.
Andrew Hammond: And for order of battle, for our listeners that are not familiar, this is just the disposition and organization of forces, right?
Bob Sutton: Yes. I - when I was writing the book, someone - I actually had a few people look at it, you know, to make sure that that everything was clear. And someone pointed out and said, you know, listeners aren't going to know what the order of battle is...
Andrew Hammond: I'm glad I brought it up.
Bob Sutton: ...Because they're going to think that - you know, that it's a documentation of all the different battles that the German armies fought in. No, actually, it's very different. What it is instead - that's what they call it, but what it is - it's a documentation of all the different units and what they do and the functions. And they would have - for example, there was - by the last volume that they published, there was an extensive discussion of the Gestapo, the SS, and the different functions and how they - you know, some of the real horrible parts of it. So that was a big part of the MIRS.
Andrew Hammond: OK. And...
Bob Sutton: Now we're getting back to the...
Andrew Hammond: And now I've got one final question about MIRS.
Bob Sutton: Oh, dear. I opened up a floodgate.
Andrew Hammond: All of those tons of documents, are they publicly available?
Bob Sutton: Pretty much, yes.
Andrew Hammond: And where?
Bob Sutton: At the archives, in the archives.
Andrew Hammond: At the National Archives. So...
Bob Sutton: And then after World War II - a lot of these people continued after World War II. And so the folks who were involved in MIRS, they actually were sent to Camp Ritchie. And I'll talk about that here in a minute. But they were sent to Camp Ritchie with tons and tons and tons of - more - of German documents to catalog. And so they actually - all the things they had during World War II and then all of the things that they had after the war are at the archives, and they're pretty well catalogued.
Andrew Hammond: So for our listeners, the National Park Service is not a repository where people can go and look at our primary sources or oral histories.
Bob Sutton: Generally, not - most of what we have is copies. So, for example, the - Fort Hunt, their library is part of the George Washington Parkway. And so all of these interviews are there - all the different functions of these interviews. And then some of the documents they collected are there. For example, when they would do a copy of a transcript of an interview that they could show to the person they were interviewing - to show that they could talk about what they had done - those are there. But there aren't a huge number of them, but that's very unusual to have original documents in a park.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And there's so much questions that I would love to ask you about the increasing politicization of history and the history in the culture wars, but I think that's for a different conversation.
Bob Sutton: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: So let's...
Bob Sutton: Sure, we can talk about it, but not today, OK?
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, no. Yeah. So let's go back to "Nazis on the Potomac." That's such an interesting story, and we've touched on all these other parts, so let's get back to your book. So we've got this place. We've got 3,000 Germans who were interrogated. We've got German and Austrian emigres who do the interrogations. Tell us a little bit more about that. So who are some of the high-profile or most notable prisoners who get interrogated? Or give us a story or two. Give our listeners a couple of things just to hang their hat on.
Bob Sutton: Well, let me - can I back up just a little bit?
Andrew Hammond: Sure.
Bob Sutton: Just...
Andrew Hammond: You're the expert (laughter).
Bob Sutton: ...Well, I think it'd be useful to understand. These people, I mean, they understood German, right? They were German immigrants. German was their first language. But they didn't have a clue what they were going to be doing. The one way many of these soldiers were identified - you know, they'd been drafted. They'd be at Fort something or other, either in training or, you know, be assigned to - and the commanding officer would hear their German accent. They'd say, oh, are you German? Yes, I'm German. And one person that I talked to, Peter Weiss, said that his commander said, are you German? Yes. Well, can you speak some German to me? So he had a - spewed off a whole thing of Goethe.
Bob Sutton: But they didn't have a clue what they were going to be doing, right? So many of them - not all of them - but many of them went to a training facility in Maryland called Camp Ritchie, which I mentioned earlier, for training. And there would be different things - different parts of training. They all had sort of basic training exercises there, but they were trained for all kinds of intelligence operations. Most of them actually went to Europe. Just a small percentage of them actually went to Fort Hunt and elsewhere in the States. So they would have - they would teach them training techniques. And what they would do is they'd have German-speaking Americans dressed up in Nazi uniforms, and they'd start interrogating them. And they would do - these American Nazis - quote, "Nazis" - would do everything they could to trip up these poor trainees. And there's one story that I thought was one of the funniest stories that I put in the book.
Bob Sutton: In a training exercise, this American German in a Nazi uniform started talking about a gulaschkanone. Now, if you translate that into English, or even German, it sounds like a cannon. And goulash is a beef stew, right? So he talks about this gulaschkanone. Well, this poor trainee has no clue what a gulaschkanone is. Well, like a lot of things in the military, it's an acronym. And what a gulaschkanone was was actually a field kitchen, right? This poor guy is just so lost with this. And so the guy is just having a lot of fun with him. So eventually, there's goulash going down the mountain, and he's so frustrated that he just has a really hard time with it. So they would do everything they could to throw them off. And some of them actually didn't - were not able to continue. So they were very, very well trained both to do interrogations in the United States or in Europe at Camp Ritchie. So many of them went through that training program. And it was - trained them both as - to do documents as well as to do interrogations.
Andrew Hammond: And for the interrogations at Fort Hunt, I read one quote, and someone was saying that it was a battle of wits, but there was...
Bob Sutton: It was.
Andrew Hammond: ...But they never laid a hand on any of the prisoners.
Bob Sutton: That was, to me, the most important part of the story. And I actually learned that when I first learned about this program because they had a - in 2007, just - as I said, just before I became the chief historian, they had a reunion at Fort Hunt where they invited all the soldiers there. And they made it very, very, very clear that they never, ever used corporal punishment on the German soldiers - never, ever. And it just - and to me, that stuck with me. That was just one of the most important things. And, of course, it was right after Abu Ghraib. So, I mean, there was a good reason why they talked about it, but that was a really important part of the story.
Andrew Hammond: Mmm hmm. And I understand that one of the tricks that they had was saying, if you don't talk to us, you're getting sent to the Soviet Union...
Bob Sutton: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...And you can speak to them.
Bob Sutton: There were two Russian-American soldiers at Fort Hunt dressed in Red Army uniforms. And so if - and in some of the interviews, we actually were able to find even, I think, two German prisoners who'd been there. And so they were able to talk about it from that side. And so, yeah. They would say, you know, you don't want to talk to me? Fine. Ivan (ph) here would be glad to take you to the Soviet Union. Maybe they would like to hear what you had to say. And generally that would work.
Bob Sutton: But the other thing that they did before that, they would do everything they could to make their lives comfortable, the German lives comfortable. So they had all kinds of recreation activities at Fort Hunt. If they provided information, they'd take them to a steak dinner in town. They'd take them to a movie. So they did everything they could to treat them well. But that was sort of the one thing that they had up their sleeve if someone was not talking.
Andrew Hammond: And where were a lot of these Germans from? Did they typically come from certain places? Were they submariners, sailors, army?
Bob Sutton: Early on, most of the prisoners were from the navy from captured U-boats. And so most of them were mariners early on. Later, they were sort of - they became rarer and rarer. But some of the early ones, this is - one of the techniques they had that worked extremely well when they were listening in on conversations - and some of the earliest prisoners actually volunteered for this. A lot of them didn't want to be in the army or the navy. They just - they didn't. And they made it very clear that they had no loyalty to the German government. And, of course, they had to go through different things to convince the Americans that was the case. So they became what the soldiers referred to as SPs, which stood for stool pigeons. And so they would room with some of these German prisoners. And so they would try to draw out in conversations information that they weren't necessarily getting in the interrogations. And that turned out to be probably the best thing that they used for the surveillance program.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And tell us about the case of Werner Henke...
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...The commander of...
Bob Sutton: Yeah. He was...
Andrew Hammond: ...U-515.
Bob Sutton: Yeah. He was a U-boat commander - actually one of the most decorated commanders in the German army. And he was a really arrogant person, according to all the reports. And he actually thought that the Germans were probably not going to win the war, not because - they just thought - he thought they were so - that Hitler was a joke. And they really could win if they had, like, someone like him in charge. That's probably a little bit more elaboration than I probably should use. But he was terrified that he was going to be turned over to the British because he'd sunk many, many British ships, and he'd be executed by the British. He was afraid of that. Now he would - it would not have happened. I mean, everything he did was as a commander. He didn't do anything out of the ordinary. I mean, what you do as a U-boat commander is you shoot down ships. That's what you do. But anyway, he was terrified that he was going to be shipped off. So he tried to escape from Fort Hunt. He was shot as he was scaling the wall. He did it in broad daylight. It, I think, almost certainly was he was committing suicide by someone else shooting him, right? And that was the only case of a prisoner that we know of who tried to escape - who was killed trying to escape from Fort Hunt.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And just out of interest, have you came across the 1993 book "Lone Wolf" by Timothy Mulligan?
Bob Sutton: I have. I have.
Andrew Hammond: Is it - would you recommend it?
Bob Sutton: It's wonderful.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Bob Sutton: It's fantastic. In fact, he and I - one of the first things that I did, actually, even before my book came out - he and I were on a program with a local library. And it was a lot of fun because I thought I knew a fair amount about Henke - Henke, I think. I can't - I'm not German. I don't speak German.
Andrew Hammond: Henke.
Bob Sutton: Henke - yeah. Anyway, he had so much information. It was wonderful, wonderful to be on this program with him. But yes, it's a fantastic book.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And I believe the 32 Germans and three Italians that were held at Fort Hunt are buried at Fort Meade. Is that correct?
Bob Sutton: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: And where at Fort Meade? Is it publicly accessible, or is it...
Bob Sutton: I honestly don't know.
Andrew Hammond: Not sure?
Bob Sutton: I do not know. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And I also read - just out of interest - I also read that the German naval attache every November goes and lays a wreath on the graves of the Germans that are buried thereabout.
Bob Sutton: I have heard that, too, but I don't know.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Not that sure - OK. Another thing that we've not discussed as - maybe touched on it briefly, but this was so sensitive, and it was known as P.O. Box 1142.
Bob Sutton: Right.
Andrew Hammond: And that story only came out really in the 2000s, right?
Bob Sutton: Right. That was part of the - yeah, it's never called Fort Hunt ever - P.O. Box 1142.
Andrew Hammond: So by calling it Fort Hunt, we are really just reimposing the name of the place where it was located.
Bob Sutton: We are, yes. Right, right. You know, I actually - it'd be interesting to know because I don't know that this ever came out in any of the interviews, but it'd be interesting to know if the soldiers who were there actually knew that the historical name was Fort Hunt.
Andrew Hammond: I wonder.
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And going back to the intelligence that was gathered from these interviews - help us understand some of the effects that - hard to believe that one was that the Germans were loading supplies at railway crossings...
Bob Sutton: Right.
Andrew Hammond: ...Rather than at the heavily-bombed stations, and another one was they were building fake concrete structures around submarine pens to distract allied aerial bombings and so forth. So yeah. Flesh...
Bob Sutton: Well, there...
Andrew Hammond: ...That out for us.
Bob Sutton: So yes, there's - there are a lot of stories about things that they learned from the interrogations and from the surveillance. So one of the soldiers said that he - when he was listening - surveillance in the rooms, he heard one of the officers talking to a man, saying that the - you wouldn't - the Germans wouldn't have to worry because they had developed a rocket program that was going to change the whole course of the war, Peenemunde. Again, I can't pronounce German. I can't (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, Peenemunde.
Bob Sutton: Peenemunde.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah.
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: I've been there. It's a fascinating city. Yeah.
Bob Sutton: Yeah, I've not been there. But anyway, so he said, you know, that's going to change the war. Well, of course they pass that along very quickly. And they don't know exactly what happened. They don't know whether the information didn't get to the right people, whether they actually knew about it, but really couldn't do much about it at that time. They just don't know. But that was one of the things - one of the - they actually heard people talking about the rocket program at Peenemunde.
Andrew Hammond: OK, wow.
Bob Sutton: Another thing that they heard was that the - all the plans for the rocket program were hidden in a salt cave. And there was a German miner - salt miner - who could show them where this salt cave was. Well, of course, that is huge information because the Russians were as interested in finding this as the Americans. And so they got the name of this - of the miner who knew where it was, took them there, and then there's a whole description I actually read - I didn't - I don't think I put it in the book, but the whole description of what they found and how they were able to get the information from - out of there.
Bob Sutton: But as you mentioned, there were a couple of stories about the railroads. The Americans - the Allied - would bomb railroad stations and railroad depots where, supposedly, they were loading information, and they would think that they had taken out all the rolling stock. But the next day, it looked like nothing had changed at all. So part of the information that they got was that the Germans were actually loading and unloading trains at crossings, and they could do that essentially anywhere. And so they started - so then the pilots started looking for crossings. You know, the surveillance would look for different crossings where it looked like there were trucks that were there, and then they'd send the bombers in. And that actually worked very well.
Bob Sutton: And then I believe Hamburg was where the - they used the fake cover over the submarine pens. And the next day, the same thing - submarines are going everywhere, and they couldn't understand how that could happen. Well, then, when they found out that, no, they weren't actually there - they were in a little bit further - they had more effect with that as well. So that's some of the things that they learned.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. Well, you've brought an amazing part of history to light with "Nazis on the Potomac." So congratulations on the book, and...
Bob Sutton: Thank you.
Andrew Hammond: I look forward to any follow-ups that come from it.
Bob Sutton: Thank you.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast, and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence- and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.