In 2006 when World War II veteran Fred Michel received a phone call from the National Park Service inquiring about his time in the service, he was reluctant to provide much information.
Unlike other WWII veterans, Michel never really spoke about his time in the military, he never received a medal or any recognition for his service — and Park Ranger Vincent L. Santucci wanted to know why.
Santucci gathered Michel’s story and the untold stories of more than 50 other WWII vets who served at the POW camp known as P.O. Box 1142.
After years of interviews, dead-ends and research, Santucci and the National Park Service, with a little help from the C.I.A., have finally uncovered the details of the American military’s best kept secret.
Shippensburg University history professor Steven Burg invited Santucci to share his findings.
Santucci helped unravel the mystery of P.O. Box 1142 Thursday night in Dauphin Hall to a group of about 30 students, most of whom are working toward a master’s degree in history.
During WWII, all prisoners of war were distributed to war camps according to their skills.
For example, Pine Grove Furnace State Park housed POWs who had forestry or logging experience. P.O. Box 1142 housed the most intelligent prisoners, including Hitler’s right-hand man Reinhard Gehlen and Nazi rocket-scientist turned NASA engineer Wernher von Brauhn.
The information gathered there was so guarded and confidential that all employees, including Michel were sworn to secrecy.
In fact, Michel’s wife of 60 years had no idea what the nature of his work was.
After Santucci and his team interviewed Michel, their pursuit for the truth attracted the attention of the Pentagon.
Reaching out for help, Santucci convinced the Chief of Army Counterintelligence to issue a letter to all WWII veterans, notifying them that their secrecy agreements are now void and encouraging them to speak about their experiences at P.O. Box 1142.
Months after the letter was issued, Washington Post reporter Petula Dvorak contacted Santucci, which resulted in a front-page story about his findings.
The Associated Press picked up the story and it ran countrywide.
“That opened a Pandora’s box of information,” Santucci told students.
Veterans were not the only ones taking notice. It was not long before Santucci got his very first call from the C.I.A.
“Pretty soon the C.I.A and the Park Service became best friends,” Santucci said.
After years of research, the unlikely team of C.I.A. agents and National Park Service workers spoke with more than 70 employees of the camp.
The interviews are all currently being transcribed and archived and will be available to the public for research purposes.
Of all the information gathered and stories heard, the most shocking thing Santucci learned was how humanely all the prisoners were treated.
A majority of the veterans were German-born Jews who fled to the United States in hopes of fighting the Nazi regime.
However, when face-to-face with the some of the most notorious, powerful men under Hitler’s command the veterans at P.O. Box 1142 interrogated the prisoners humanely, using negotiation tactics over violence and little to no intimidation.
Since the details of P.O. Box 1142 were kept silent for decades, and all records were destroyed, including employee records, the veterans that served at P.O. Box 1142 were never honored or reunited.
Santucci decided to do something. On October 5, 2007, The National Park Service held the first ever P.O. Box 1142 reunion. At 11:42 a.m. a flag was raised in honor of the veterans. “There wasn’t a dry eye there,” Santucci said. After an hour of anecdotes and poignant details of the reunion, Santucci opened his presentation up to questions from Dr. Burg’s history students.
Although many questions were answered, one remains. Why was it called P.O. Box 1142? Santucci theorizes that it could be linked to an English bedtime story or a glitch involving missing mailboxes at the Alexandria, Va. Post office. For now, that still remains a mystery. Santucci is still employed by the National Park Service and has been sharing his stories for about five years. Thursday’s presentation was his second at SU.