How American anthropologist William Mulloy helped restore Easter Island sites and giant moai — and jump-start a cultural renaissance

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American anthropologist William Mulloy, a professor at the University of Wyoming, at the Orongo village ceremonial site on the southwestern tip of Easter Island. On the rock behind Mulloy are bird-man petroglyphs. Photo courtesy of Brigid Mulloy, Rapa Nui Remembers

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the sixth post about my adventures. See June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

Many, many thanks to Brigid Mulloy, daughter of Emily and William Mulloy, whom you’ll read about below, for permission to use family photographs and quote from her blog.

“… The whole population was quick to grasp the advantages to the island of the project. It was something that could give them pride in both their ancestors and themselves, something that stayed on the island instead of being carried away to some faraway museum. We also tried to promote the idea that future archaeological finds should be preserved on the island rather than being sold to tourists or used as building stones.”

— Emily Ross Mulloy, wife of William Mulloy, writing to her family in Michigan, about the groundbreaking restoration work her husband and his team were undertaking on Easter Island in 1960

With little dissent, it can be convincingly argued that esteemed American anthropologist-archaeologist William Mulloy was one of the fathers of modern history on Easter Island and, furthermore, the impetus for its surging tourism industry today.

England’s Katherine Routledge (1866-1935) laid the groundwork for modern academics with her seminal work “The Mysteries of Easter Island,” published in 1919. Her book, based on the 17 months she spent on the island — also known as Rapa Nui — in 1914-15, was the first catalog of the massive statues called moai, and a study of the culture and legends of a Pacific island people.

But it was the clear-eyed insight, unrelenting drive and deep respect for the Rapa Nui people that inspired Mulloy to help restore some of the iconic stone giants to their rightful geographical locations in the latter half of the 20th century.

Mulloy (1917-1978), a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, was 38 years old when he first ventured to Easter Island. He was part of a team cobbled together by Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), who was planning to excavate sites at Rano Raraku (the main moai quarry), Ahu Vinapu (on the southern portion of the island) and Poike (the northeastern tip).

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The Vinapu site was where Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl’s team, including Mulloy, undertook early excavations. The huge stone blocks that make up the ahu — ceremonial platforms — are excellent examples of Rapa Nuian construction skills.

Over seven months in 1955-56, Heyerdahl also was investigating how Rapa Nuians raised the moai to a standing position. This research, calculated to test antiquated methods as recounted by a contemporary islander, was successfully carried out on a single moai at Ahu Ature Huki, near Anakena Beach (see June 17 post).

Up to the time of his invitation to join the Heyerdahl team, Mulloy’s area of concentration had been studying the Native Americans of the northwestern Plains of the United States, particularly the states of Wyoming and Montana.

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Also at the Vinapu site is Ahu Vinapu, with five face-down moai (center back of photo), several round pukao, or topknots (far right), and a rare, red scoria moai (front), the same material from which the topknots were made. Mulloy was credited with unearthing the moai, which may be one of the few representations of a female.

But the trip to Easter Island changed Mulloy’s life. Here was an exciting opportunity to examine how such an isolated people — the triangular-shaped island, among the most remote, inhabited places on Earth, is about 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) west of Chile — developed not only as a society but as a viable, creative population seemingly without much outside influence.

From this experience grew the idea of establishing an outdoor museum to honor the Rapa Nui people and their heritage, while at the same time recognizing that showcasing the unique moai could become an economic basis for the future, drawing curious visitors from around the globe to see the towering figures for themselves.

And so from the late 1950s almost until his death, Mulloy made repeated trips — more than a dozen — to Easter Island, working around his schedule and commitments to the University of Wyoming, where he joined the faculty in 1948.

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The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, an inland site, and the first complete restoration of statues to their ahu. Mulloy and his team did the work in 1960. These are the only moai that face the ocean.

In 1960, he and a team of Rapa Nui men spent more than a year restoring Ahu Akivi, the first complete ahu (ceremonial platform) to have its moai replaced atop it. Manual labor was used in all aspects of clearing the site, reconstructing the ahu and raising the moai. Mulloy commuted daily to the site on horseback, his daughter recalls.

Many of the scientific papers Mulloy wrote were in collaboration with Chilean archaeologist Gonzalo Figueroa (1931-2008), with whom he had first become acquainted on the Heyerdahl crew, and who was an instrumental part of the 1960 group. (Figueroa was affiliated with the University of Chile.)

In January 1960, summer in the Southern Hemisphere, Mulloy brought Emily, who herself had studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico; their son, Patrick; and daughters Kathy and Brigid, the youngest, at 8 years old, to Rapa Nui. They stayed for 13 months, learning Spanish and Rapanui, and integrating fully into island life. Some of the living conditions were primitive, but the family quickly adapted.

In those days, of course, the Internet didn’t exist. There was barely any communication from the outside because the scheduled supply ship visited only once a year. Even largely cut off from the world, the sojourn on Rapa Nui was a profoundly satisfying, eye-opening adventure for the Mulloys, made more so because they experienced it as a family.

“We sighted Easter Island from afar early Monday morning, at first it just looked like a blue cloud low on the horizon,” Emily wrote of her initial impressions. “Later it grew until you could see the two volcanoes at each end and a low flattish part between. It is bigger than you would expect from photos and much less rugged. By noon we were sailing along the south shore and were surprised to find the slopes of the volcanoes quite green with a lot more trees.”

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Brigid Mulloy, with members of her adopted family, Martin and Ursula Rapu. Brigid is wearing a red plaid dress that her mother, Emily, sewed for her to mark the Mulloy family’s departure from Rapa Nui in 1961. Photo courtesy of Brigid Mulloy, Rapa Nui Related

In May, several months into Mulloy’s work at Ahu Akivi (on the mid-central western part of the island), an enormous tsunami, spawned by an earthquake off the coast of Chile, destroyed Ahu Tongariki, on Rapa Nui’s eastern coast (see March 6 post). Tongariki was in ruins until 1992-95, when funding, imported Japanese heavy equipment and technology were finally mobilized for a full restoration.

The seven moai at Ahu Akivi, are the only ones on Rapa Nui that face the sea. They are farther inland, about 1.5 miles (3 kilometers) than the 15 aligned moai at Ahu Tongariki, or at Ahu Nau Nau on Anakena Beach (see June 17 post), also on the eastern side of Rapa Nui and within steps of the coast.

But don’t make too much of how the Ahu Akivi moai are positioned. In that archaeologists believe that the moai “watched over” their descendants, the ample space in front of the platform offered the resident clan access to enough resources for the effective development of a community.

Mulloy believed that the long-ago inlanders were farmers, as opposed to those closer to the ocean, who relied more heavily on fishing and seafood.

The seven Ahu Akivi moai are very close in form and height (taller than 13.2 feet or 4 meters), likely indicating that they were all carved in the crater at Rano Raraku around the same time, and transported across the island to their platform, possibly in the very early 15th century. In the overall scheme, archaeologists date this group to the late period in which islanders were still carving moai.

The full platform is 297 feet long (90 meters), but the section that the moai reside on is only 125.4 feet (38 meters). Around the back are two pits that Mulloy believed were crematoria. One pit contained burned human bones of some quantity, and small statues that might have been burial offerings.

The location of Ahu Akivi may also have a celestial component. On the spring and fall equinoxes — about March 20 and September 22 — the platform lines up with particular stars. These dates would, of course, be important to people relying on the land for sustenance.

It was a partly cloudy day, with steady light rain when I visited. This did not stop our guide from delivering the full complement of information about the site or our small group from exploring it. The rain did hamper picture-taking, so in several photos, I have water spots on my lens and some blurry shots.

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The final resting place of William and Emily Mulloy’s ashes. The plaque is attached to a piece of stone brought down from the quarry at Rano Raraku. The Tahai site, restored by Mulloy and his team 1968-70, is in the background. Ahu Ko Te Riku (with topknot) is at far left. To its right is the lone figure of Ahu Tahai. 

It had long been Mulloy’s dream to live permanently on Rapa Nui. Over the decades, he had participated in the restoration of additional sites around the island, including the ceremonial village at Orongo, which I’ll discuss in a future post.

In the late 1970s, that goal looked close to fulfillment, until Mulloy was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on March 25, 1978 in Laramie, Wyoming. His ashes were buried under a plaque near Ahu Tahai (see February 12 post), a coastal complex that he helped to restore.

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A close-up of the sentiments, expressed for eternity.

The simple bronze plaque, attached to a piece of a stone transported from the quarry at Rano Raraku, reads: “By restoring the past of his beloved island he also changed its future.” Tributes in Spanish and Rapanui are also on the plaque.

Decades later, when Emily died, also of lung cancer, her family brought her ashes to rest alongside William’s.

At the small museum named for German missionary Father Sebastian Englert, who lived on the island for 34 years and also made a lasting contribution to its cultural preservation, is a library named for Mulloy. It houses the professor’s vast collection of books covering Easter Island and Polynesia.

Brigid Mulloy, recently retired in Hawaii, remembers her childhood days on Rapa Nui with great fondness. On her blog, Rapa Nui Related, she has posted excerpts from her mother’s letters home, which make for fascinating reading, and also about her father’s formative years. Don’t miss the post on the fund-raising efforts that saw one of the Tongariki moai heads being installed on Park Avenue in New York City in 1968. Go to brigidmulloy.wordpress.com for more on the family’s special relationship with Rapa Nui.

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All over Portugal, lightweight, versatile cork is a heavyweight in the business world

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Cork postcards are an inexpensive and easy-to-pack souvenir from Portugal. I found these by the riverside in the Belem area of western Lisbon, but they’re also available around town. I plan to use them as coasters. Read below for further information on the postcards.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series on my spring trip to Portugal. See June 2 for a post about unexpectedly meeting TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon and July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto. 

The next time you open a bottle of wine, rest your chilled cocktail on a coaster, or pin a note to an old-fashioned bulletin board, stop and say a quick “thank you” to Portugal. Chances are, the cork in the stopper, coaster and the bulletin board’s background material originated in this western European country.

According to the website http://www.worldstopexports.com, Portugal was the No. 1 cork exporter in 2016, accounting for 63.1 percent of the refined tree bark sent around the world. All that cork produced in excess of $1 billion for Portugal, far outdistancing No. 2 Spain, which had sales of $278.8 million and 17 percent of the market.

Filling out the top five: France, $73 million (4.4 percent); Italy, $44.8 million (2.7 percent); and Germany, $34.4 million (2.1 percent). Cork is produced in many countries, from Africa (Morocco, Tunisia) to China to South America (Chile), but the next 10 top exporters all together don’t begin to approach the output of Portugal.

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A selection of the inventory at Cork & Co., where nearly everything in the Lisbon shop is made from cork. The company has a second location in Porto.

On my May trip to Portugal, I noticed cork products everywhere. From simple trivets, to purses to postcards. In shops devoted to cork, the workmanship of the items was excellent, and that quality comes at a price. But if your heart’s desire is a wallet, umbrella — cork is waterproof — or apron, you won’t be disappointed.

The mercado (market) in Porto, in northern Portugal, and the Saturday-Sunday flea market along several blocks of the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon, turned out to be good places for less-expensive goods. An added bonus: The vendors behind the cork-heaped tables and hanging displays may have had a hand in the manufacturing of the goods, and they’re open to bargaining.

At the two-story Mercado do Bolhão in eastern Porto, I bought a cork purse with a painted floral design for a friend’s daughter. For myself, I got a trivet — a ladder of four chunky fish, alternating head to tail, bound together by braided rope. The covered market dates to the 19th century, and it caters to locals, selling a wide variety of fresh and frozen fish and seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables, cheeses, olives, flowers, bread and more. It’s fun even if you aren’t looking for cork souvenirs.

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The fish trivet from Porto’s Mercado do Bolhao and my book cover from the flea market on Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon.

On the Avenida da Liberdade, I bought a book cover for under $10 from a woman who had designed and sewn the versatile material, “cork leather,” if you will. It marries well with stamped designs, and also takes to dyeing. My book cover has both. The bottom part is a solid, rich navy, and the tan top has a repeating pattern of stamped fish, anchor motifs and maybe a stylized Viana heart, a religious symbol in Portugal.

The woman said the cork is very supple and easy to sew. Even though it is thin, it isn’t on par in thickness with most cotton and silk fabric. When I’ve filled the included notebook, I can replace it with one of similar size. I particularly like the little faux silver spoon that serves as part of the clasp.

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This is the purse I bought for a friend’s daughter. The shoulder-length strap is tucked inside for photo purposes. The purse is fully lined inside and has another zip-close compartment on the back. 

Cork has small indentations like you would expect to find in tree bark. Some products have a more pebbly-looking finish — the processing must be different — but are still smooth to the touch, what you’d associate with bulletin boards and coasters.

Along the waterfront in the Belem section of western Lisbon, I bought four thin postcards (I did see racks of these in other locations). Two exceedingly thin slices of cork, each 6 1/4 by 4 1/4 inches in size, are glued together. One side has the design and the other has a barcode, the place for a stamp, address and writing space. I’m not sure how well the postcards would do passing through an automated sorting system, whether it would be too rough and damage them, so perhaps they wouldn’t reach their destination intact. Instead of mailing them to friends, I intend to use them as coasters.

I can’t remember how much I paid, but they were cheap. Each has a different design. One celebrates the art of Portuguese tiles. Another pays homage to the country’s seafaring history with a speedy caravel centered on a tile. Another has two electric trams like you’d see on the streets in Lisbon, and the fourth a colorful, red-crested cockerel, an enduring Portuguese icon with its own story.

As my postcard and guidebook tell it, a 16th-century pilgrim (or possibly 14th century) on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain was accused of theft in Barcelos, a walled village with a medieval tower in northwestern Portugal. He was sentenced to death by hanging. His appeal to the judge rested on a humble rooster.

Legend has it that the pilgrim said a cooked bird would “rise from the plate and sing,” proving his innocence. Apparently, as the judge was about to eat the rooster, it crowed. The pilgrim was saved. I saw many a rooster perched on top of cork stoppers, the perfect pairing of Portuguese symbols for the shopping public.

Cork is a renewable and recyclable resource, and it’s biodegradable. The lightweight material comprises the outer layer of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber L.), which grows particularly well in countries around the Mediterranean.

Large pieces of bark can be stripped every nine years or so from the trunk, by skilled professionals using a specialized ax. (This is a good-paying job because the expertise is so specific.) The season for doing this is between May and August. However, a tree has to mature to about 25 years old before it can be harvested for the first time. It also has to meet circumference and height minimums.

Cork floats, which makes it popular with fisherman, who use it in their nets or on individual fishing lines. It’s employed in soundproofing and flooring, to the delight of architects and other designers who feature it in their building plans.

Footwear, toys, jewelry, clothing, furniture, desk accessories — cork appears in them all. NASA is even high on the material, incorporating cork into heat shields for spacecraft.

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This business in Porto surely would custom-make goods for the home or office. Note the long, upright rolls of cork for sale at the left of the photo.

In Porto, I also passed a shop that had standing rolls of cork and a lot of business and home decor accessories. It looked like it took custom orders. It was not touristy at all, as I saw no cork-and-ceramic souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the address or the name of the shop.

No matter. Even if I hadn’t already made my cork purchases, the possibility of another memento was probably just around the corner.

Quick reference: In Porto: Mercado do Bolhão, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Near the Bolhão metro stop, market is on the corner of Rua Formosa and Rua Sá da Bandeira. In Lisbon: Cork & Co., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Rua das Salgadeiras 10, in the Bairro Alto neighborhood. Also a store in Porto at Rua do Almada 13. www.corkandcompany.pt For additional information on cork, its harvesting and production (and more), see top commercial producer Amorim’s website: www.amorimcork.com. Company heir Americo Amorim, Portugal’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $4.8 billion (part of that is oil holdings), died last month at age 82.

In London, underground silver vaults are a collector’s dream destination

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Part of the well-organized showroom at Koopman Rare Art, the only business that is above ground at the London Silver Vaults. Koopman sells some items crafted from gold, and many centuries-old, museum-quality silver pieces.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos except where noted. All rights reserved.

Imagine the wealth and plenty of some Victorians, who possessed so much contemporary and heirloom silver that they couldn’t store it all in their stately London homes.

That’s how the London Silver Vaults came into being, in1876, but then known as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit. Then as now it is an underground repository for vast collections of fine silver cutlery, tea sets, double-handled serving plates, mirrors, objets d’art, engraved tankards, footed wine coolers, ornate soup tureens, delicate cruet sets, and on and on. Jewelry and important personal papers were also safeguarded here.

The Chancery Lane location is marked on many modern maps, and it is mentioned briefly in some guidebooks, as the vaults are open to the public.

But few visitors to London, especially if they aren’t silver collectors, know about the vaults and rarely explore the antique troves in the subterranean location.

Many months ago, I saw the show “Secrets of Underground London” on my local PBS affiliate, in which the vaults were included. So when planning my recent trip, I thought I’d explore this little-known attraction.

I was not disappointed as I leisurely wandered in and out of the individual vaults for several hours. I saw fewer than 10 other tourists. The experience was a cross between viewing the decorative arts of a less-well-organized Victoria & Albert Museum and a very, very, very high-quality flea market.

The closest tube stop is Chancery Lane, on the Central Line. Follow the signs and it’s about a five-minute walk to the entrance. Holborn and the Inns of Court are one tube stop to the west, and St. Paul’s Cathedral is one stop to the east, so the general area has a lot of interesting history and important buildings to explore. Make a day of it.

About 30-plus vaults, and when I say vaults I mean rooms of varying size with heavy metal doors like you would see in a bank (secured each night), comprise the site.

My overriding thought was: Who polishes all this gleaming stuff? And how often? There is so much of it in each vault that it would be a full-time job for several people, who, just as they got to the end of the inventory would surely have to start all over at the beginning, a never-ending loop of dust, polish, buff; dust, polish, buff — and gently at that.

Some dealers are members of the British Antique Dealers Association, the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association or other antiques groups. Their business card shows their affiliation, sometimes with an imprint. Many specialize in English-made merchandise, but some also feature imported silver.

At vault 17, I had a chat with Gideon Cohen about what he looks for when he’s buying silver for his business (www.gcohen.co.uk). His requirements are pretty straightforward, self-explanatory and likely similar to those of other dealers.

He considers “quality, condition, craftsmanship and commercial viability.” I suppose he could also add “age” to that list, as in Edwardian, Georgian, Regency, Victorian or whatever the appropriate historical period.

Even with the required hallmarks, I asked him how tough it would be to make and pass off a counterfeit piece.

Silver is “as difficult to forge as it is to forge currency,” he replied.

A piece of English silver will generally have several hallmarks — a series of small illustrative stamps of letters and figures hammer-and-punched into the metal — which will reveal the purity of the silver, where it was made (country and city), what year (indicated by a letter’s font) and who the craftsman was. Some older silver will have a monarch’s head in profile to indicate a duty was paid. If it was made in another country, it will bear an import mark also.

For example, a piece stamped with a crowned leopard’s head means that it was crafted in London before 1820. After 1820 to the present, the uncrowned leopard indicates London-made. A walking lion (sometimes called “rampant”) stamp claims the sterling purity standard for England.

These symbols can be decoded from books, such as Bradley’s Book of Hallmarks, or from charts available online. Your shopping success would also benefit from some pre-visit hallmark research.

Some of the vaults are well-organized and you can get a clear-eyed view without having to rearrange the goods. But others are, and there’s no politer way to say this, cluttered, with  inventory stacked on shelves and jumbled on the floor (especially the hefty bigger pieces) clogging the aisles in no discernible order so that you have to step over the silver in some spots to get to the item that’s caught your attention.

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English silversmith Paul Storr, born in Westminster, made this rococo-style tureen in 1819-1820. It’s on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Don’t let this deter you. There are intriguing treasurers, some of which date to the 16th century, but seeking them out may try your patience. Generally, the older the piece, the more expensive. And if it’s the work of a famous craftsman, such as Paul Storr (1741-1844), a master of neo-classical style, or Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751), a French Huguenot who came to London as a child and later claimed British earls and dukes among those who purchased his creations, then prepare to open your wallet wide.

Some dealers specialize in particular goods, such as the woman who is very big on spoons, from tiny barely adorned ones used to portion salt to shellwork-encrusted serving size.

Most were friendly and eager to discuss their wares, answering questions about acquisition, price and the all-important hallmarks.

Each vault, often in the same family for generations, has a website, so you can evaluate the stock before you go. This alone can take hours, and I’d advise this step, especially if you are looking for something in particular, such as a snuff box, tea service or candlesticks.

Don’t hesitate to send an inquiring email. They’ll be more than happy to answer questions. And for that matter, if you see something you want to purchase from the comfort of your home, they will arrange shipping to the United States and many other global destinations.

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The ground level entrance, before proceeding downstairs to the vaults.

Once inside the entrance, the first business you’ll see is Koopman Rare Art (www.koopman.art). It’s the only one above ground and it also has one of the largest showrooms. Much of the inventory is museum-quality, which is no surprise in that Koopman boasts some of the major art institutions of the world among its clients.

In the lobby, pass the security guard and go down a few stairs to the hallway to the vaults. Technically, photography is forbidden, but in several vaults permission was granted. This is handy if you see something you like but aren’t quite ready to buy. You’ll have the digital image on hand to jog you memory or compare it to a piece that you’re inspecting/considering in another vault.

In several vaults, I asked if prices were negotiable. The answer was yes, but I can’t say if this holds true in all vaults. You may be able to knock off several hundred pounds, but not likely more than that.

Even if you aren’t buying, it’s a tempting place in which to examine elegant articles made through the centuries by brilliantly skilled silversmiths.

Quick reference: London Silver Vaults, 53-64 Chancery Lane. 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays. Not all vendors are open all hours and all days. silvervaultslondon.com

 

How the U.S. Army’s intelligence-gathering Ritchie Boys, many of them Jews who fled the Nazis, served in the European Theater in World War II

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The original caption on this photo of three German prisoners of war reads: ” ‘There is always a moment of intense fear when a soldier is first taken prisoner — as is shown in the face of the Nazi in the center of this group of three captured by the United States 82nd Airborne Division in Belgium.’  The trim on the collar of the center soldier indicates he is a noncommissioned officer.” Questioning POWs was among the duties of the Ritchie Boys, trained in intelligence gathering, at Camp Ritchie in western Maryland during World War II. Several of the young men profiled in the new book “Sons and Soldiers” were attached to the 82nd Airborne. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

The industrious, good folks of western Maryland, many of them farmers, could be forgiven for believing that a German invasion was under way in their neck of the woods not too long after the United States entered World War II.

They often saw men in Nazi uniforms, thunderous heavy trucks and other equipment sporting swastikas, all of which were alarmingly out of place in the eastern United States countryside.

The right thing to do was to alert the local authorities and await confirmation that in the bold light of day, their worse nightmare had come true.

These fairly regular sightings were actually groups of young soldiers attached to the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. In all manner of operation, the center tried to simulate what the troops would encounter once they were posted overseas and questioning prisoners of war, thus the need to practice with authentically dressed German-speaking men.

Fortunately, word soon passed among the locals that their little patches of turf were indeed quite safe from foreign occupation — but to keep what was going on at the center to themselves.

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The stories of six German-Jewish immigrants who served in the U.S. Army unfolds in “Sons and Soldiers.”

The story of Camp Ritchie and the language-proficient soldiers who trained there  are two of the elements — the third is in the subtitle — examined in the recently released “Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler” by Bruce Henderson (William Morrow, 2017, $28.99).

Henderson has written a vivid narrative with enough background on what was developing in Germany in the early 1930s to set the scene for readers who may be unfamiliar with this pre-World War II era.

Likewise, he reconstructs parts of some of the major battles, such as the D-Day landing in northern France and its aftermath, showing how vital the Ritchie Boys’ contribution was in extracting up-to-the-second intelligence from German POWs and interpreting that data, which eventually helped to save American lives.

As he advances six immigrants’ stories, Henderson deftly sums up the young man’s history each time he is reintroduced so that readers can remember who is who.

Followers of this blog may recognize Henderson as the author of the engrossing  “Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War,” about German-born American Navy aviator Dieter Dengler. I discussed that book in my post of October 16, 2016 (see my archive).

I’m going to quibble with the word “untold,” because a 90-minute German-made documentary called “The Ritchie Boys” was released in 2004 (2005 in the U.S.). I haven’t seen it, but reading about it on the film’s website makes it clear that the director, Christian Bauer, covered some of the same material.

Several of the Ritchie Boys, as they were known, featured in the film also play a prominent role in Henderson’s book. Guy Stern, whose story is told in the book, is on the DVD’s cover, with two other Ritchie Boys, Walter Sears and Fred Howard.

And a few of the young men Henderson tracks went on to lengthy, highly successful careers in academia and published their own memoirs and articles. So maybe “largely unknown” or “not widely publicized” would have been more accurate.

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Guy Stern (left), Walter Sears and Fred Howard from the German-made documentary film “The Ritchie Boys.”

The six profiled young men of varying age and economic stature did not know one another while growing up in Germany. What they had in common was that as Hitler consolidated his power from 1933 on, making life increasingly difficult and dangerous for Jews, they had fled, often the lone family member crossing the Atlantic, to freedom in a not-always-welcoming new land.

One of them, Martin Selling, from Lehrberg, a small agricultural village in southeast Germany, had even survived imprisonment of about 90 days in 1938-39 at Dachau, outside Munich, the first concentration camp, established in 1933.

It took a considerable amount of paperwork and a willing family member or individual to sign on as a sponsor for a refugee to come to America. Those who could manage the immigration maze, then found the door nearly closed as, deep in the Great Depression, the number of visas granted dropped from 241,700 in 1930 to 35,576 in 1932.

Several of the boys escaped Germany more than once. Berlin-born Werner Angress, 16, possessing the blond hair and blue eyes touted by the Nazis as the Aryan ideal, signed up for an agricultural program in Poland, where he thrived for a year and a half. By late 1937, his banker father had hatched an ingenious plan to exit Germany, and smuggle out a strictly forbidden load of cash to boot.

What ensued was a scattered family making an edge-of-their seat dash to Holland. But it worked, and they reunited in Amsterdam. With the Nazi threat growing, Angress, encouraged by his father, was able to use his farming experience and connections to get to the United States in late 1939.

According to Henderson, the secrecy surrounding the buildup at Camp Ritchie was second only to the Manhattan Project, the multi-discipline scientific program that developed the atomic bomb.

By mid-1942, with the U.S. now deeply entrenched in the war, the military recognized what a priceless resource the German Jews represented. Speaking the language as natives was almost secondary. The real value was the insight that these young men, all soon to be newly minted American citizens and noncommissioned officers, would be able to deliver on the German psyche, the society and the culture they had left behind.

From 1942 to 1945, 35 classes of Camp Ritchie trainees completed a demanding eight-week course, more than 17,000 men in all, in subjects such as interrogation of prisoners of war, terrain and aerial intelligence, and photo and document interpretation. The largest number of graduates — 1,985 — were German Jews.

One of the most mentally taxing classes was Order of Battle, an all-aspects study of the German army.

“For all the divisions and other units likely to be encountered in Europe, the students had to learn unit designations, terms and abbreviations, their arsenal of weapons, the nature of their supply system, and their chain of command,” Henderson writes. This included commander’s name, field strength, home station and unit history.

(Online, I found a 1943 “Handbook on German Army Identification,” prepared for use at Camp Ritchie. It runs 77 pages. https://archive.org/details/HandbookOnGermanArmyIdentification.)

Some Ritchie Boys specialized in other languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch, and many were multilingual.

martin_selling-german-jew-ritchie-boys-interrogating-german-soldiers-wwii
Staff Sgt. Martin Selling (left), assigned to the 35th Infantry Division, interrogates German POWs in France in 1944. U.S. Army Signal Corps

One other motivation drove the German-reared soldiers to excel: Once back in Europe, they could try to determine the fate of their families.

At the same time, returning posed an enormous risk: If they should be captured, they would face almost certain death, not only because they would be considered traitors, but because they were Jews. Some of the men had their religious designation omitted from their dog tags, or changed it to “P” for Protestant.

And more than once, some U.S. military members, unaware of the Ritchie Boys’ particular circumstances — and hearing only their German accents — foolishly questioned their loyalty to their adopted country.

The Ritchie Boys took part in every major military action in Europe: From D-Day, to the liberation of Paris, to the failed Operation Market Garden in Holland to the Battle of the Bulge.

(A quick aside: Americans of Japanese descent were also trained in military intelligence gathering. They carried out similar types of functions, such as translating captured documents and interrogating POWs, as their European-based counterparts. The Japanese-Americans in the intelligence service largely served in the Pacific Theater.)

Finally, when the Allies began liberating the concentration camps in 1945, the true enormity of the Holocaust was revealed to men whose very families had perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Guy Stern, assigned to First Army Headquarters, was at Buchenwald three days after its liberation. The last letter he’d received from his family was after they had been deported to Warsaw, Poland, in 1942.

“Guy was instantly struck by the faces of the inmates: loose-hanging skin and slack jaws not unlike the look he had seen on dead soldiers,” Henderson writes. “Even though this is what he had expected to see, nothing could prepare him for the real thing. Many of the liberated prisoners appeared to be more dead than alive, and yet they were all welcoming and thankful and eager to hug anyone in a U.S. Army uniform.”

Stern’s parents and brother and sister were likely transferred from Warsaw to Treblinka, second only to the death camp Auschwitz for number of people killed. He was his immediate family’s lone survivor. Today, he’s 95 and living in Michigan.

Henderson has skillfully depicted the deeply emotional, life-changing journeys of these remarkable men. In the face of enormous challenges and great personal loss, they all persevered.

Additional reference: According to the website, www.ritchieboys.com, the DVD is no longer available for purchase, but you may be able to find it on a streaming service. To see photographs of the Ritchie Boys in Henderson’s book, go to his website: brucehendersonbooks.com