Within weeks of the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy had seized so much property in and around Washington that people joked the war would already be over if America’s armed forces were as good at capturing enemy territory.
The expansion of the peacetime military throughout 1941 had already left Washington bursting at the seams. The population had nearly doubled, to one million, in less than a year. And a town that recent arrivals described as combining “northern charm and southern efficiency” was scrambling to find office space and housing for all the clerks, typists, and other new government workers flooding in. The Pentagon, rising on swampy land across the Potomac, was going to be the world’s largest office building when it was finished—but that was the catch; it wasn’t finished. And so the army and navy were snapping up land and existing buildings wherever they could, invoking sweeping emergency powers that allowed them to condemn any private property “in the interest of the war effort.”
Barbed wire fences and Quonset huts started popping up in the strangest places around the capital: parks, dairy farms, girls’ finishing schools, country clubs. In those days no one asked questions, and when the war ended, much of this property reverted to other uses, no one the wiser about what had gone on within their gates during four years of war.
Many of Washington’s well-traveled tourist sites—the National Air and Space Museum, Arlington Cemetery, the FDR and Iwo Jima and World War II memorials—bear witness to the great events of World War II. But off the beaten path there can still be found ghosts of some of Washington’s most closely guarded secrets of the war.
None were more closely guarded than Fort Hunt’s. Once part of George Washington’s nearby Mount Vernon estate, Fort Hunt was given to the National Park Service in the 1930s; most Washingtonians, if they’ve heard of it at all, know it today as a place for picnics and family reunions. On the unseasonably warm fall weekday morning I was there, though, it was eerily deserted. The torpid loom of the tidal Potomac and its still wild and undeveloped shoreline south of Washing ton lay heavy in the air, reminding me of the tale that British diplomats through the end of World War II received extra tropical pay for duty in Washington. Several huge emplacements for coastal defense guns dating from the Spanish-American War stood oddly juxtaposed by volleyball courts and picnic pavilions. I could still make out the words NO SMOKING stamped into the concrete wall of what must have been the powder magazine.
Only within the last few years have the veterans who were stationed at Fort Hunt during World War II felt free to speak, and park ranger Brandon Bies has been collecting their stories; he recently helped prepare exhibit panels that tell about the work of the mostly Jewish German refugees who played a crucial role interrogating captured Nazi U-boat crews and scientists who were brought to Fort Hunt by night in windowless buses. More than 150 buildings, all long vanished, were hastily erected to house the prisoners and troops.
The extraordinary secrecy surrounding Fort Hunt was in part due to the fact that the interrogations were “not exactly legal,” as a Park Service history notes: the three thousand German prisoners who passed through Fort Hunt’s “Temporary Detention Centers” were kept there for weeks or months before the Red Cross was notified of their capture and they were transferred to official POW camps.
An even more secret project at Fort Hunt was designated MIS-X; not even the fort commander was privy to it. This was where the army produced escape equipment that could be hidden in packages sent to American POWs: maps and money concealed in checkerboards, radio parts tucked into hairbrush handles or shoe heels, compasses in buttons. By the end of the war, more than three hundred pack ages of these goodies per week were going out from Fort Hunt.
When I first moved to Washington thirty years ago I frequently drove by the Navy Chapel on Nebraska Avenue near American University, and wondered what the navy was doing with an outpost in the northwest reaches of the city, so far from the Pentagon or its World War II–era sites on the Mall and the Navy Yard. It wasn’t until years later I learned that just behind the chapel was the building where some of the most dramatic intelligence coups of the war were pulled off: the breaking of German U-boat messages enciphered with the super-secret Enigma machine.
In what was probably one of the best American real estate deals since Manhattan was purchased for $24 in beads, the navy in late 1942 snapped up Mount Vernon Seminary—a posh finishing school for girls from wealthy families, complete with red brick buildings, tennis courts, a rustic “tea room,” and a lovely chapel—for $800,000, a fraction of its value. (The school had all of Christmas vacation to find a new home, and finally rented classroom space on the second floor of the nearby suburban branch of Garfinkel’s department store.) A double row of chain link fence went up, patrolled by marines with submachine guns. The school chapel became the Navy Chapel. And the grounds were soon filled with new buildings of the innocuously named Naval Communications Annex.
In fact, it was the new headquarters of OP-20-G, the unit in charge of breaking Axis naval codes. By the end of the war, 2,800 members of the women’s naval service, the WAVES, were working at the annex, living in barracks built across the street on a site that now—in an interesting twist of history—houses the Japanese embassy. Many were mathematics students recruited from Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and other top women’s colleges.
The WAVES’ introduction to OP-20-G made a lasting impression on them: ushered into the chapel, the women were warned that if they ever spoke a word about their work, they would be shot.
The army meanwhile had acquired its own posh girls’ school for its code breakers: Arlington Hall Junior College on Rt. 50 in nearby Virginia. So quickly did the army move in that some of the students were still in the dormitory when a guard detail showed up to take possession. Today the seventy-acre site houses the State Department’s training center; the yellow brick façade of the school’s main hall with its stately Ionic columns, and a portion of the original parklike grounds with its rustic stone footbridges, is about all that remains from the war era. A small plaque inside the front door honors the thousands who “labored in silent devotion” here to produce “priceless items of communications intelligence which saved countless lives.”
The navy still uses the Communications Annex site for a variety of functions unrelated to code breaking. After the war all but one of the 121 huge, special-purpose calculators—known as “bombes”— that the WAVES used to break the daily U-boat Enigma setting were destroyed.
To see the lone survivor, along with a great archive of photographs and other artifacts documenting the work that went on at Nebraska Avenue, you need to take a drive up to the National Cryptologic Museum. In addition to the bombe, you can see a variety of World War II–era code machines, both Axis and Allied, and even try coding and decoding your own messages on a real, working Enigma machine. I found being able to touch this piece of actual history strangely addictive, and with the museum mostly to myself, there weren’t hordes of school kids making me feel sheepish about playing with it for so long.
Probably because more high government officials in 1945 played golf than attended girls’ schools, the army after the war did not attempt to hold on to one of the stranger sites it acquired around Washington. Area F, more commonly known as the Congressional Country Club, was the major location for training OSS agents in guerilla warfare and sabotage. OSS veterans recall living in tents around the clubhouse, assaulting mockup railway trestles on the greens, and blowing up the club’s manicured box wood hedges with grenades. It took years for the golf course to recover, but the club, located on prime real estate in Bethesda, Maryland, today charges $100,000 for a membership—so apparently it didn’t suffer too badly in the long run for its involuntary contribution to Washington’s secret war effort.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.