Help the National Park Service to Uncover the Secret Story of PO Box 1142 and MIS-X at Fort Hunt, Virginia
This article is posted on behalf of the US National Park Service
Were you, or did you know any, British servicemen during World War II who interacted with the escape and evasion activities of American servicemen? Were you aware of Americans trained as a "Code Users" that enabled them to send secret messages home? As a POW did you ever see an American receive a care package with a radio, a map, a compass, German currency, or other escape devices hidden inside? Are you aware of American escape and evasion debriefings? If so, you were probably know about a secret program known as MIS-X, and you can help reveal the secret work done at P.O. Box 1142.
Fort Hunt is located eleven miles down the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Focusing upon recreational activities, like biking and picnicking, many visitors are unaware of the Fort Hunt's unique history. In the 1700s, President George Washington, who lived at his nearby home of Mount Vernon, farmed the site. A century later in the 1890s, the War Department established Fort Hunt as a coastal artillery post designed to protect Washington, DC from naval assault. During the Depression, Fort Hunt served as a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Today, the site is maintained by the National Park Service as part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Yet it is the World War II era at Fort Hunt that offers the most intriguing story and the largest mystery.
In May, 1942, the U.S. Army needed a secure intelligence center and it chose Fort Hunt for its proximity to the nation's capital and the newly-constructed Pentagon. For the next four years, Fort Hunt assumed a decidedly military, though mysterious, air as it was transformed into a top secret Military Intelligence operation. In fact, the facility was simply known as PO Box 1142.
The old fort rapidly mushroomed into a major installation with 150 buildings, lofty guard towers, and multiple alarmed fences. The most secretive project was known as MIS-X, and it went into operation in October 1942. Only top U.S. War Department officials and the President of the United States knew of its existence. Even Fort Hunt's post commander was uncertain of what MIS-X was doing within his own camp.
Select military personnel were trained by the MIS-X staff of PO Box 1142 on how to evade capture and, if captured, how to escape. These personnel were then expected to pass their special training along to servicemen. In addition, some air crewmen were trained as "Code Users" or "CUs" in order to send home secret messages, if they were captured and made Prisoners of War.
Clerks working for the Director of the Censorship scanned all incoming POW mail for the names of known CUs. When one appeared, it was picked up by an MIS-X officer and transported to PO Box 1142. Crypto analysts at PO Box 1142 then decoded the message, and passed it along through the chain of command. The decoders composed a return message to the POW on civilian stationary, posing as family members or girlfriends. This secret correspondence continued undiscovered throughout the entire war, and by this means, MIS-X was in regular contact with virtually every German POW camp.
In February 1943, MIS-X technicians at PO Box 1142 began operations in a building they called the "Warehouse". According to the Geneva Conventions, POWs were entitled to receive parcels from family members and humanitarian organizations. MIS-X established two fictitious relief organizations, the "War Prisoner's Benefit Foundation" and the "Serviceman's Relief", as a cover for smuggling escape and evasion materials into POW camps. Since the Germans would almost certainly scrutinize the packages, it was essential that the technicians hide escape aids within seemingly mundane items. After much trial and error, they became experts at hiding compasses and tissue-paper maps in the handles of shaving brushes, shoe brushes, and Ping-Pong paddles. Checkerboards were steamed apart and maps, documents, and currency inserted. Shoe heels could easily contain other materials.
But even with the best equipment, there was a limit to what Fort Hunt's technicians could produce at the Warehouse itself. MIS-X contacted various American companies, who - sworn to secrecy - agreed to make their products with hidden materials. The F.W. Sickle Electronics Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts, manufactured a specially designed miniature radio transmitters that were secreted in baseballs by the Goldsmith Baseball Company. The U.S. Playing Card Company inserted map segments within special peel-away cards. Boston's Gillette Razor Company magnetized their double-edged blades so that when balanced on a stick or a string the "G" in Gillette pointed north. The Army's supplier of uniform buttons, the Scoville Company of Waterbury, Connecticut, agreed to hide small compasses within five million buttons, with the threaded screw reversed to fool suspicious inspectors. Though they never knew the purpose or destination of these special items, the majority of these patriotic companies never charged the government for their services.
By 1944, the MIS-X operatives at Fort Hunt were sending up to 120 parcels each day to German POW camps. Some packages were "straight" and contained only legitimate, unaltered items. The rest were "loaded" with hidden escape and evasion aids. Since MIS-X was corresponding with many of the camps, a coded letter would warn the POWs in advance that a "loaded" shipment was en route, and would include instructions on how to find the hidden goods.
By late 1944, POWs were sending coded letters back to Fort Hunt asking them to stop shipments of escape items; they simply had no more room in their quarters to hide more materials. By this time, escape had become an increasingly dangerous proposition. After D-Day, Hitler issued his infamous Kommando Order, which created "Death Zones" throughout Europe in areas around munitions, armament, and experimental plants. Any POW captured in these zones was subject to summary execution. MIS-X responded by informing prisoners that they were no longer expected to attempt escape, though they might continue resistance efforts at their own discretion. Late in the war, as Germany's infrastructure and transportation networks crumbled, mail shipments to POW camps also became increasingly sporadic, and packages sent by MIS-X did not always reach their intended destinations.
The end of PO Box 1142 and MIS-X came sooner than expected. Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945, and immediately MIS-X was ordered to cease operations. Throughout the summer, Pentagon officials debriefed the program's participants. Following the surrender of Japan, the War Department ordered all MIS-X records at Fort Hunt destroyed. For 36 hours, the men burned records non-stop, all but obliterating the history of one of the most secret and successful military intelligence operations in American history.
During World War II, over 95,000 United States servicemen fell into enemy hands. Of these, more than 700 managed to escape and return to their commands. Many did so with the help of PO Box 1142. Through their correspondence with the POW camps and debriefings MIS-X collected critical intelligence from behind enemy lines and had an immeasurable effect on the morale of the prisoners.
Six decades later, the National Park Service is endeavoring to reconstruct what actually happened at Fort Hunt. While the staff at George Washington Memorial Parkway has learned a great deal about Fort Hunt, the number of holes in the story seems infinite. In the past couple of years, the staff has successfully tracked down and interviewed a few dozen individuals who served at Fort Hunt during the 1940s. Now the staff plans to expand this oral history project to include the stories of those who benefited from the work of PO Box 1142 and MIS-X. So please contact the National Park Service if you know of the escape and evasion activities of the United States during World War II. The National Park Service is also interested in obtaining copies of papers, letters, photographs, and artifacts that will further document these historic events that helped the United States to win World War II.
Note: This article was adapted from Matthew Laird's "By the River Potomac: An Historic Resource Study of Fort Hunt Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon, Virginia", Cultural Resources, Inc. Fredericksburg, Virginia, August 2000.
If you have questions, comments, or wish to participate in the oral history program, please do not hesitate to contact either of the following staff members:

National Park Service
George Washington Memorial Parkway
c/o Turkey Run Park
McLean, VA 22101

Brandon Bies - Cultural Resources Specialist, 703-289-2534,
David Lassman - Cultural Resources Aide, 703-289-2555,

To learn more about Fort Hunt, the National Park Service highly recommends the book by Lloyd Shoemaker, called "The Escape Factory: The Story of MIS-X, the Super-Secret U.S. Agency Behind World War II's Greatest Escapes", St. Martin's Press, 1990.
U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Matthew Laird, Cultural Resources, Inc., August 2000.