How a public park in the suburbs of Virginia helped beat the Nazis

tags: Nazi

Karen Duffin is a producer for This American Life.

 Karen Duffin

Back in 2006, a woman named Sandy Gray decided to go on a tour of the park near her house in suburban Virginia. It's a national park, but less like Yellowstone, more like a neighborhood park-- soccer fields, softball diamonds, picnic pavilions. Over 100 acres. It's called Fort Hunt Park.

The park ranger ran through the history of the place. She told Sandy's group it had been part of George Washington's estate. She pointed to structures from the Spanish-American war. But when she got to World War II, she said that is a mystery.

We know there was a secret military program here, code named PO Box 1142. She said the rangers had been trying for years to figure out what it was, even asked the Pentagon about it. But they said they thought the files had been destroyed.

 Sandy Gray

And when we got to this point, she said we probably never will know the whole story.

 Karen Duffin

This is Sandy. Turned out she knew something the rangers didn't.

 Sandy Gray

So I was thinking whether or not I should say anything because I was questioning whether I was supposed to know anything. So I raised my hand and I said you know, I think I can hook you up with someone who was here during that time.

 Karen Duffin

Sandy had never heard of PO Box 1142. But she remembered that her neighbor had said he'd worked at the site during the war. So she gave the rangers his name, Fred Michel. And later, back at the office, they huddled around a speaker phone and they dialed his number.

The head park ranger at the time was Vince Santucci. He told Fred they were calling about PO Box 1142.

 Vince Santucci

And there was a little bit of silence. And the first comment that comes back is how do you know about PO Box 1142? So we went in to explain what we were doing. And his response was that he's not able to share anything with us because he signed a secrecy agreement. In fact, that he didn't tell his wife of 65 years. And he said, I wish I could share it with you, but he couldn't.

 Karen Duffin

The rangers hung up and panicked. They worried Fred might be their only shot. World War II vets were in their 80s, 90s, or dead. So they went back to the Pentagon. And said, we found a guy, but he won't talk. Can you help?

So the director of Army Intelligence wrote Fred a letter clearing him to speak....

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