Camp DeWolfe Blog
As we remember the 70th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy, check out how Benson House at Camp DeWolfe played an important role on Channel 4:
Wading River retreat house was FBI disinformation operation in World War II
Originally published: May 31, 2014 7:16 PM
Updated: May 31, 2014 8:53 PM
By ROBERT E. KESSLER firstname.lastname@example.org
FBI agent Richard Millen, who set up the Benson House radio site in Wading River. The Benson House in Wading River was an isolated FBI radio transmission location, where agents pretended to be Nazi spies during World War II. (Credit: Suffolk County Historical Society)
These days, Benson House, located on a scenic, waterfront bluff 150 feet above Long Island Sound in Wading River, is a retreat house and office on the grounds of the Episcopal diocese’s Camp DeWolfe.
But during World War II, the three-story house was a highly secret — and still now mostly unheralded — FBI radio transmission location. From there, between 1942 and 1945, FBI agents pretending to be Nazi spies in the United States transmitted false information to German Army intelligence headquartered in Hamburg. The agents also learned what the German high command was thinking and planning, based on questions the “spies” were tasked to answer.
In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI is planning to unveil a plaque at the house on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. to finally widely publicize the building’s historic wartime roles, which included helping to deceive the Nazis about where the Allied invasion of Western Europe was to take place.
While the Normandy landing occurred June 6, 1944, officials said the ceremony will take place the following day, a Saturday, because it is the most convenient for the several hundred former agents and World War II veterans from Long Island and nationwide who are expected to attend.
During the war, the FBI “spies” at Benson House reported back a stream of information that created two phantom Allied armies, one in Scotland that was supposedly planning to invade Norway, and one in southeastern England aiming to land at the Pas de Calais, northeast of Normandy, according to a new book written by Raymond J. Batvinis. The FBI agents transmitted false information from real Nazi spies who, unbeknownst to Germany, had turned themselves in and were cooperating with the FBI, Batvinis says.
Batvinis grew up in East Islip, and his parents worked at the state psychiatric hospital in adjacent Central Islip. He is a former senior FBI counterintelligence agent who retired from the bureau in 1997, then went on to earn a doctorate in history and is now a professor at George Washington University.
Surprisingly very little has ever been written about Benson House, but its operation is featured in Batvinis’ newly published book about the FBI’s longtime leader and the bureau’s fight against Nazi agents in the United States, “Hoover’s Secret War Against Axis Spies.”
In addition to its role in the Normandy deception, the FBI’s “Nazi spies” also helped persuade the United States to go ahead with the development of the atomic bomb because the Germans were working on the same project, according to Batvinis’ more than six years of research that included FBI records from the time. Batvinis says the agents also helped divert Japanese resources and attention from the U.S. plans in the Pacific both to invade the Marshall and Gilbert Islands and Okinawa. The false information from Benson House indicated that the United States planned instead to invade the Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan, and Formosa, which was passed from Germany to Japan.
German intelligence was continuously asking the agents to obtain information about “experiments performed in the United States relative to the shattering of atoms” and told them the German army was anxious to develop high explosives from atoms, Batvinis says.
Benson House was not the only source of information that both helped persuade the United States to go ahead with the bomb’s development and deceive Germany and Japan. But it played a large, if until now, unsung role, Batvinis says. The isolation of Benson House — named later after Mary Benson, who donated money to the diocese to buy the property after the war — was one of the reasons it was selected for the secret transmission station.
To further conceal its operation, the FBI moved into the ground floor of the house a “tubercular” looking agent, Donworth Johnson, his wife, Betty Ann, and their then 2-year-old daughter, Vicki Jean. The idea was that Johnson, who was actually healthy, could say to any curious neighbors in the sparsely populated area that he was too sickly to be in the military, according to Batvinis and Vicki Jean Johnson, in a recent interview. The radio operators lived and worked on the second and third floors, and came and went at night. The basement had an electric generator to provide power to the overseas radio transmitters, in order to avoid running up high electric utility bills, and a large muffler concealed the sound of the generator, Batvinis said.
Security was also provided by an FBI guard dog named Clifford, who became a very special agent one day, the now 73-year-old Johnson recalled her late mother telling her. Wearing only a diaper, 2-year-old Johnson had wandered the few feet from the back of the house to the edge of the high bluff and was about to fall over.
But Clifford grabbed her by the diaper and carried her back to the house, Johnson said.
1. What’s your name? Stephany Turcios (Mostly everyone calls me Steph!)
2. What’s your age? 22
3. What’s your hometown? Baldwin, Long Island
4. What college/university do you attend? What major? I graduated in January from St. John’s University in Queens, NY with a BS.Ed in Childhood/Special Education. In January I began a fellowship program at Hofstra University on Long Island. Here I am studying and working to earn a Masters degree in Early Childhood Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis, focusing on Early Intervention services.
5. What’s your favorite food? I love home cooked meals, especially from my culture. Now that I am living on my own I really miss ‘real’ food (Easy Mac and Ramen noodles is just not the same)!
6. What’s your favorite camp activity and why? I might be a bit biased, but Arts & Crafts really is my favorite camp activity! It was so rewarding to see campers who didn’t consider themselves very artistic grow to really take pride in their creative work by the end of the sessions. It also gave campers time to express themselves and their feelings while at camp by using a different outlet.
7. What are you most looking forward to about summer and why? I cannot wait to see returning and new campers/staff! The Camp family has such a special bond that can’t be found anywhere else.
8. What’s your favorite camp core value (community, Christian Formation, Developing Leaders or Natural Setting) and Why? ‘Developing Leaders’ is my favorite camp core value. Each camp activity from cabin clean-up to the challenge course, provides campers with unique experiences to develop leadership qualities while providing opportunities to directly apply them. This value really applies to everyone at camp; campers, LITs, staff etc. By helping campers realize their full potential and supporting the development of leadership skills, we as staff are serving as role models to the campers.
9. What do you love most about Camp DeWolfe? My most favorite thing about Camp DeWolfe is the diversity found within the camp family. We have campers/staff from so many different cultures and backgrounds. I think this adds to the uniqueness of Camp DeWolfe. The diversity found at camp gives campers exposure to customs and perspectives different from their own. This truly adds new depths to each core value at Camp DeWolfe.
10. What’s your dream job/vocation/calling for life? Currently I am a substitute teacher for NYC, but I am looking forward to the day I have my own classroom! Specifically, teaching in modified settings with students with special needs is my goal. Also, I really want to teach in a community where there is a need for Spanish speaking educators. I feel that I could use my language skills to support parent/family engagement while serving as a community advocate!
A commemoration of the role that the Benson House played in the Normandy Invasion will take place on Saturday, June 7 at Camp DeWolfe. The event, being coordinated by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI with Camp DeWolfe, will begin at 10:30 am and will include a dedication ceremony, lunch, and tours of the house. If you are a veteran or know a veteran who would be interested in attending, please let Denise Fillion know by email: email@example.com.
Just weeks after the December 7th Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI began using Benson House as a top-secret radio site transmitting and receiving encoded messages with the German Abwehr in Hamburg who believed that they were secretly communicating with their espionage agents in the New York area. Working with US and British deception specialists, FBI radio operators continuously transmitted a blend of accurate and false information to the Germans from January 1942 until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.
In the spring of 1942, Benson House played a pivotal role in President Roosevelt’s decision to pursue development of the atomic bomb. A year later, in the summer of 1943, FBI operators began radioing bogus reports designed to freeze German forces in place in northwest Europe to prevent their redeployment to strengthen the Italian and Eastern Fronts. As 1944 approached, the Benson House deceivers shifted transmissions, this time to a carefully calibrated stream of truths and fabrications designed to confuse German military leaders about the size and disposition of Allied forces in Great Britain, together with the time and place of the actual invasion. It also sent false information to the Japanese about American advances in the Pacific.
Someone once said that the object of historical scholarship is not to inform – but to remind. With that in mind the Society anticipates a wonderful day of careful reflection on this unique place in the history of the Second World War and the anonymous Americans who worked there.
Ray BatvinisHistory Committee Chairman
Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7)
On Sunday 18th May 2014, over 150 guests visited Camp DeWolfe for the Annual Open Day. With God’s blessings of sunshine and warm spring weather, campers and their families, youth groups and their church leaders, and local community residents enjoyed an afternoon in God’s natural setting at Camp DeWolfe!
The day was filled with talks and tours, fun and games, arts and archery, ga-ga ball and basketball, beach walks and BBQs and even closed with a camp-fire and s’mores.
As a sample day in the life at Camp DeWolfe, both young people and adults enjoyed meeting new people in this community where all are welcome, from Brooklyn to Montauk, and from New Jersey and Staten Island! Bishop Provenzano and the Camp Board joined in the fun too.
There is still time to register your youth for camp, so don’t miss out today here!
What’s your name? Rosalind Bryan
What’s your age? 23
What’s your hometown? Chichester, a city on the South east coast of England
What college/university do you attend? What major? I graduated last year from Bath Spa University, I studied a new course called: ‘Idea, Amterial, Object’ which was a kind of product design course.
What’s your favorite camp activity and why? I love being outside and am looking forward to spending most of this summer enjoying all the activities camp has to offer.
What are you most looking forward to about summer and why? I am looking forward to experiencing new things and to form new friendships under the American sun.
What’s your favorite camp core value (community, Christian Formation, Developing Leaders or Natural Setting) and Why? Being with people who have common values in Christianity and to enjoy all the opportunities we are given.
What do you love most about Camp DeWolfe? A safe Christian community and the beachfront.
What’s your dream job/vocation/calling for life? My dream job would be to plan weddings for couples. I love the idea of being part of an important journey people go through. I am going back to the UK to start a job in Event Planning, so it’s a start to the dream.
What’s your name? Kyle Anthony Walter Viola
What’s your age? 21
What’s your hometown? Patchogue, New York
What college/university do you attend? What major? New York University: Applied Psychology / Social Entrepreneurship minor
What’s your favorite food? Lasagna
What’s your favorite camp activity and why? Archery is my favorite camp activity because it’s a fun practice to cultivate focus and discipline in order to hit the bullseye.
What are you most looking forward to about summer and why? Getting to know all the campers and staff because we are the body of Christ.
What’s your favorite camp core value (community, Christian Formation, Developing Leaders or Natural Setting) and Why? Christian Formation because I love worshipping and reading the Word.
What do you love most about Camp DeWolfe? It’s wonderfully organized!
What’s your dream job/vocation/calling for life? To become a counselor in the city and then become a social entrepreneur in the long term!
What’s your name? Seth Acosta
What’s your age? 22
What’s your hometown? Cottenwood, Arizona
What college/university do you attend? What major? Dutchess Community College, Art Major
What’s your favorite food? Asian Food
What’s your favorite camp activity and why? Archery is fun!
What are you most looking forward to about summer and why? The warm sun!
What’s your favorite camp core value (community, Christian Formation, Developing Leaders or Natural Setting) and Why? I like the Natural Setting because I like to explore
What do you love most about Camp DeWolfe? The beach and the woodlands
What’s your dream job/vocation/calling for life? Video Game Design
What’s your name? Anthony O’Reilly
What’s your age? 20
What’s your hometown? London, England
What college/university do you attend? What major? St Mary’s University London (2nd year history and philosophy)
What’s your favorite food? Breakfast as they say is the most important meal of the day so a good old fashioned English fry up!!
What’s your favorite camp activity and why? Anything music or sport. In music I love the campfire atmosphere singing about all different kinds of things, and I have always taken to sports in general. I can’t wait to try some of the American sports at camp that I haven’t tried in England!!
What are you most looking forward to about summer and why? I have heard so many great things about the ‘long island sound’ – although I have never been so far I’m eager to see all that Long Island has to offer. But most importantly for me I am looking forward to meeting new people from new cultures and making life-long friends with both campers and my fellow counselors!!
What’s your favorite camp core value (community, Christian Formation, Developing Leaders or Natural Setting) and Why? In all honesty all of the above are important but for me community and Christian formation are most important. I have always love being part of a community myself and try to play an active role at home in London. After all there’s no point in having something good if you can’t share that experience with others!! And Christian formation is also most important because it appears to be a wholly fun way of connecting with God and for me that is something we must do every day!!
What do you love most about Camp DeWolfe? Although I haven’t been I love it already. It seems to attract such good staff and campers and the location seems perfect!! I have seen ALL the youtube videos!
What’s your dream job/vocation/calling for life? To be honest I don’t 100% know. I’d like to be a religion teacher in a school one day but I would also love to travel. So teaching would be my dream job but I’m unsure whether or not I will do it soon or later in life!
You are invited to the 2nd Annual Faith Formation Convocation in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island! This program is open to all! Don’t miss it for a day to learn, connect, grow and gain valuable resources and insights to take back to your church. The Camp DeWolfe team will see you there!
There’s a lot of fake out there. In a culture of manicured online profiles, electronically altered images, and relentless deception in advertising, it’s difficult to know who our friends are and whom we can trust. Not to mention how easy it is to buckle under the pressure and try to become the images we see. We all must seek our own real identity from a trustworthy source. God is the most trustworthy friend any of us will ever know. This summer, Camp DeWolfe’s program and theme will be “Get Real” – teaching campers and staff that we are not created in the image of popular culture. We are created in the image of God, who loves us just as we are and asks us to love others in the same way.
The Christian Formation program will each day guide and engage campers as they:
- EXPLORE scripture — what it says and what it means for them
- EXPERIENCE a wide variety of activities that develop the Get Real theme and help campers connect with Bible teachings and Christian community
- EXPRESS their growing love of Jesus through worship and song