CATEGORY: News and Community; Philanthropy
George Weidinger donates his photographs to Hospice of the Western Reserve, but his personal story goes beyond a thousand words.
It was a mystery involving top-secret military work that lasted six decades, and a Mayfield Heights man was in the midst of it: Exactly what went on behind the fences of Fort Hunt in Fairfax County, VA, a secret military intelligence facility, that operated during World War II, was so confidential the outfit remained unknown until 1978.
It was so secret, it was not even given an official name and so confidential, the workers could not even tell their spouses about it.
“We went only by the name ‘P.O. Box 1142.’ Everybody had to sign a paper to never talk about what went on there,” World War II veteran and former P.O. Box 1142 monitor George Weidinger, says. “We didn’t say a word, even to the wives. I was only married for six months; we had other things to talk about.”
The unit’s name was designed to avoid detection. It’s mission? Help end WWII by gathering information from German prisoners.
The now-defunct facility, once part of George Washington’s farmlands—and the secret military intelligence operations that occurred there —remained a secret until 2007, when documents were released and the significance of the P.O. Box 1142’s work was publicly acknowledged. Living members of the team reunited in 2007 for a formal dedication.
Weidinger’s path to Fort Hunt was a winding one that began half a world away and eventually led him to Cleveland and the love of his life, his wife Nina.
Born in 1923, he was raised Protestant in Vienna, Austria by his two parents who had converted from Judaism. He was forced to quit school at 15 and his family fled the country, fearing for their lives.
“In 1938 Hitler took over Austria,” he says. “His troops threatened to take my parents to a concentration camp. I was told the next day I couldn’t go to school because I was Jewish.”
His father’s work connections brought the family to Cleveland and the German speaking Weidinger, who never finished high school, began working for a lamp manufacturer on Euclid Avenue.
He tried to join the Marines, but was denied since he was not a United States citizen at the time. Weidinger was eventually drafted and through connections, put his knowledge of the Germans and his German language skills to work at Fort Hunt.
“I desperately wanted to get into military intelligence,” he says. A friend from Vienna who came over a year earlier and had become an intelligence officer, helped him.
At Fort Hunt, where more than 4,000 prisoners of war were housed from 1942 through 1946, members of P.O. Box 1142 interrogated prisoners, listened in on conversations and read their correspondence. Weidinger says the work was mundane and says he didn’t realize its importance until years later.
“I stayed in the room the size of a closet and used a recording device,” he says. “I was assigned three cells to listen to. Some (prisoners) would sleep, some would talk. If a conversation took place of importance, I would record it.”
Those prisoners included high-ranking enemy officers and scientists of the Third Reich including rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, Heinz Schlicke, inventor of infrared detection and top German spy Reinhard Gehlen. His work resulted in several advances for the United States.
“We found out Peenemünde (a town in Germany) was building V-2 rockets. We bombed the hell out of it,” Weidinger says.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND MEMORIES
While Weidinger’s work at Fort Hunt remained quiet, his life since has been anything but. He and his wife traveled the world extensively before she died in 2011, collecting memories and taking thousands of photographs along the way.
“It was love at first sight,” he says of their meeting in 1939. “I was working at a lamp factory called Railley Corp. on Euclid Avenue assembling lamps and there were two young ladies worked in the shipping department,” George recalled. “One turned to the other and says: ‘See this guy over there? I will marry him.’ True story.” They had three children.
Mementos and photographs from their travels to 79 countries (including two trips on the Concorde and almost two dozen trips back to Vienna) are purposefully placed throughout his Mayfield Heights house. He has meticulously categorized and digitally saved those photos, framing and giving them away.
“I never sell my photos,” Weidinger says. “I give them to people and ask them to make a donation to Hospice of the Western Reserve.” It’s his way of paying back to the organization that cared for his Nina.
To date, he has donated 1,018 framed photographs since Nina’s death, and raised more than $8,400 in memory of the woman he was married to for 69 years. Many of the framed photographs were donated to Hospice of the Western Reserve facilities, adorning hallways and meeting rooms.
Gratitude for the care that Nina received moved George to make this donation. “After she was admitted to Hospice our whole family came to see her. My granddaughter asked ‘how are they treating you?’ The answer of my wife, ‘Wonderful.’ Knowing what Hospice did for her gives me the incentive to give back something meaningful. I know that giving them something beautiful to look at will help them. And the fact that her name is mentioned is very important to me.”