Dairy Farm for the Win

At Vint Hill Farms, code breakers intercepted crucial messages from around the world.

In 1942, a Virginia dairy farmer was listening to his short-wave radio when he picked up something entirely unfamiliar: conversations in German. The chatter turned out to be exchanges between German taxi drivers and their dispatchers, more than 6,000 miles away. Excited by what he’d heard, the farmer invited his fellow radio hobbyists to come listen for themselves. “One of them was an officer in the Army Signals Intelligence Corps,” says Jason Hall, now executive director of the Cold War Museum at Vint Hill Farms.

It turned out that the low-power taxi transmissions were coming from Berlin. That these conversations were being heard at Vint Hill Farms, 11 miles northeast of Warrenton, suggested that the property could be a valuable military intelligence asset.  

The Army quickly surveyed the site and discovered that its remote location and electromagnetic geology created the ideal environment for communications intercepts. In June 1942, six months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government exercised the right of eminent domain and purchased Vint Hill Farms for $127,000.  

Station 1: The World’s Largest Listening Post

Soon, the rural dairy farm bristled with antennas capable of picking up communications—specifically diplomatic communications—from places like Madrid, Helsinki, Moscow, Dakar, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo, according to Mike Bigelow, command historian for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command. The farm-turned-surveillance station became known as Station 1 and was equipped with barracks, intercept and code rooms, and classrooms.

As the U.S. mobilized to fight World War II, the Signals Intelligence Service (S.I.S.) was looking for a space near Washington to accommodate the people they were hiring and training. On a return trip to D.C. from Vint Hill Farms, the team of Army officers noticed Arlington Hall Junior College For Women, just five-and-a-half miles west of the White House. The yellow brick school and grounds would make an ideal headquarters and, as they had done with Vint Hill, the Army purchased Arlington Hall under the War Powers Act. By August of 1942 they had moved in.

Together, Vint Hill and Arlington Hall gave the White House and Pentagon immediate, accurate information on Germany and Japan’s strategies, military deployments, and more. Station 1 became the world’s largest listening post—known as “Washington’s Ears” to insiders. Its high-directional, shortwave antennas were linked to special teletype lines that relayed messages to Arlington Hall. There, the messages were decoded, analyzed, translated, and distributed to President Roosevelt along with the secretaries of War and State, the military’s Chiefs of Staff, and the director of the Office of Strategic Services. 

Hiring and Training Code Breakers

During World War II, over 10,000 women in the Army and Navy analyzed and broke codes. “Vint Hill was one of the first places in the U.S. where women trained to become code breakers,” says Jason Hall. The S.I.S. recruited college women and teachers who possessed mathematical ability, foreign language skills, high integrity, and discipline: any woman who disclosed her work would be treated as a spy and shot.

In interviews, the women were asked, “Do you like crossword puzzles?” And, “Are you engaged to be married?” If they answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second one, the interview continued.

Once hired, they were trained in Morse code and cryptography as well as Japanese, German, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. And if they were not assigned to Europe or the Pacific, the newly minted female code breakers remained at Vint Hill to serve in the Second Signal Service Battalion as high-speed radio, teletype, and switchboard operators.

A Breakthrough Message From Berlin

On November 10, 1943, Private Leonard A. Mudloff and his team intercepted a detailed report from Baron Oshima, Japan’s ambassador to Berlin. The report revealed where the Nazis expected the Allied forces to attack next and concluded that they had almost zero chance of success. This breakthrough in cryptanalysis would change the course of history.

The ambassador’s message quickly made its way to General George C. Marshall and to Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, President Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to General Eisenhower, this information made a significant contribution to planning the Normandy invasion—and misdirecting the Germans so the Allies could storm the beaches. 

After the war, Omar Bradley, Joint Chiefs Chairman, visited Vint Hill to thank the officers and soldiers for serving “so silently and yet so magnificently.” Vint Hill intercepts revealed exactly how and where German military units were deployed, giving the Allies an advantage in planning the invasion. Both Vint Hill and Arlington Hall were crucial in making the D-Day landing—and the war in Europe and the Pacific—successful.

Code-breaking “saved many thousands of lives and shortened the war by no less than two years,” according to Major General Stephen Chamberlin, General MacArthur’s Chief of Operations. 

Keeping the Story Alive

Vint Hill continued to provide active intercepts until after the Vietnam War. When the Army finally closed Station 1 in 1997, Virginia Congressman Frank R. Wolf said losing it was like losing a member of the family.

In 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia dedicated a historic marker to Vint Hill Farms Station. By then, Private Leonard A. Mudloff, who’d intercepted the crucial Japanese transmission, had died. But his daughter was on hand to speak to her father’s contribution to military intelligence. “I’m proud of him and pleased Vint Hill is getting recognition,” she said. “Some don’t really know what went on here.” 

The former dairy farm turned spy station is now home to Vint Hill Craft Winery. But to get the property’s full history, don’t miss the adjacent Cold War Museum, which keeps the story alive by providing a detailed background on Vint Hill’s role in World War II. While sipping a glass of Vint Hill’s Bombshell Cabernet Sauvignon, you can see where the intercepts from the Japanese ambassador came to Private Mudloff. Stay for a bite at the winery’s Covert Café.

But keep your ears open. You never know what you might hear. And who might be listening.

VintHillCraftWinery.com, ColdWar.org

This article was originally published in our August 2022 issue.

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