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.
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.
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.
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