John Gunther Dean was prominently known as a career Foreign Service Officer (FSO) where he worked as an ambassador in Cambodia, Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand, and India from the 1960s to the 1980s. The native German immigrated to the United States when he was just a boy, attended public school in Kansas City, Missouri, graduated from Harvard University, and served two years in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during World War II. His service in the MIS was kept a close secret for five decades, an oath to silence until their wartime activities were declassified in the 1990s.
When Dean entered U.S. Army Basic Training, he was singled out and summoned to the Pentagon where he confirmed an Army officer’s suspicion that he was fluent in German. All of his peers at Fort Belvoir, an Army base in Virginia, had orders overseas, but Dean was handed a nickel and a phone number and sent on his way.
“There was a drug store,” Dean told NPR in a 2008 interview. “I went in, called the number and they said, ‘Dean, you stay outside and we’ll pick you up in a staff car.’ And they drove me up towards Mount Vernon and that’s how I ended up at Fort Hunt. It must have been end of November, early December 1944.”
Fort Hunt was the location of a top-secret military facility that had three confidential programs responsible for building escape and evasion (E&E) kits for allied airmen and commandos serving overseas (MIS-X), interrogating captured German prisoners (MIS-Y), and even had its own research initiative. The site was nonchalantly referred to by its mailing address, P.O. Box 1142, located in Alexandria, Virginia. The facility housed nearly 100 barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard watchtowers.
MIS-X, the E&E component at Fort Hunt, was so secret that only those who were read in on the program were aware of its existence. The British unit MI9 had realized the effectiveness of creating makeshift survival kits that were disguised as something else in the event a pilot was shot down and became a prisoner of war. The MI9 would send packages for them to open discreetly and use to escape confinement. MI9 was so successful they even used a Monopoly board game to smuggle contraband passed guards.
MIS-X created two prisoner relief organizations similar to the Red Cross, who sent packages to POW camps under the Geneva Convention. MIS-X also sent packages to POW camps, except they contained items in the same context as their British counterparts.
“If a pilot was shot down, we’d send him a package with a baseball,” said George Weidinger, a native of Austria who fled for the U.S. to ultimately join MIS. “Inside that baseball was a radio. There also were playing cards that could be peeled to reveal escape maps. MIS-X created more than 5 million uniform buttons with compasses hidden inside.”
The Strategic Interrogation Center, also known as MIS-Y, the Army’s MIS, and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) debriefed some 5,000 high-ranking German prisoners, including Wernher von Braun, a German scientist who became one of America’s leading space experts following the war; Reinhard Gehlen, a Nazi general who infamously led a CIA-supported German intelligence agency called the Gehlen Organization post-World War II; and Heinze Schlicke, the inventor of infrared detection and stealth radar technology. Other POWs who were interrogated, often by Jewish immigrants using non-violent techniques that avoided torture, were German U-boat commanders and Lufftwaffe pilots, including one general with knowledge of offensive and defensive air warfare.
The interrogators built trust by playing chess and finding commonalities to connect with the German POWs.
The research department was able to further understand German U-boats, rocketry such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets, microwave and infrared technology, and a host of priceless information gathered by MIS-Y. Weidinger, who had the responsibility of listening in on the conversations between German POWs in their barracks, was told, “You speak German. You’re going to be a monitor. Here’s your room. You sit, and you’re going to listen to this.” Their rooms had been wiretapped and sometimes the MIS intelligence officers, including Fred Michele, posed undercover as German POWs in the barracks to gain valuable intelligence.
“During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone,” George Frenkel told the Washington Post in 2007, as they were being recognized after nearly 60 years of secrecy. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”