As the Army Intelligence community celebrates 236 years of contributions to Americaâ€™s military during its 2012 anniversaries, it is appropriate to acknowledge the 70th Anniversary of the Military Intelligence Training Center, at Camp Ritchie, Md., and a little-known but courageous group of Soldiers who trained there, the Ritchie Boys. These men were Jewish-German refugees who fled their native country prior to the war and settled in the United States. When their new country got involved in the fight against Hitler, they went back to Germany, but in a GIâ€™s uniform.
Many Germans living in the United States at the time of the war were drafted into the U.S. Army. Needing their native language skills, the Military Intelligence Service sent them to a remote military installation near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland.
Camp Ritchie, named for the then governor of Maryland, Albert C. Ritchie, was built in 1926 by the Maryland National Guard. The facility was converted to Regular Army and became the Military Intelligence Training Center on June 19, 1942. Throughout the war, nearly 19,000 soldiers went through the two-month combat intelligence training course at the MITC. When counterintelligence specialists began training there in August 1944, drafted German refugees and other European Jews began arriving for specialized training. They became known as the â€œRitchie Boys.â€
The Ritchie Boys, like other MI Soldiers, received intensive classroom instruction in Morse code, photo interpretation, prisoner-of-war interrogation, and German Order of Battle. They also underwent close combat training and participated in strenuous field exercises.
To make their training more realistic, a mock German village was built and role-players were brought in to participate in interrogation sessions. These role-players were often other soldiers, but later they were actual German prisoners captured in the African campaign.
The training included mock Hitler rallies, with German tanks made out of cardboard and formations of German troops parading through the streets. The students remembered the training as being more intensive than any college course they had ever taken, before or after the war.
Because most of the documents related to Camp Ritchie were lost in a fire, it is unclear how many German refugees went through the MITC program. Some sources estimate that it was â€œthousands.â€
After completing their training, the Ritchie Boys were made instant American citizens and then sent into the European Theater, typically in six-person teams assigned to combat divisions.Â Some also served as members of the new Counter Intelligence Corps Detachments, many of which were fielded to overseas theaters during World War II.
Most of the Ritchie Boys were attached to infantry divisions that arrived shortly after the Normandy invasion. They interrogated German prisoners of war, prepared propaganda leaflets, broadcast propaganda via radio at the front lines, and located and interpreted German documents and maps. They were responsible for locating and apprehending individuals in â€œautomatic arrestâ€ categories, which included any German officer with rank higher than a colonel, and for interviewing German citizens for relevant information and as part of the de-Nazification process.
From such sources, they gathered key intelligence regarding the massive buildup of German forces immediately preceding the Battle of the Bulge, and were also present during the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
Why would these soldiers want to return to Germany after the war started? Most felt a duty to their adopted country. They also still had family in Germany and felt an intense personal desire to fight Fascism.
The danger was great. If captured by the Germans, they were in danger of being sent to concentration camps because of their Jewish faith. In fact, many altered their dog tags to reflect a different religious affiliation. Philip Glaessner was one of the Ritchie Boys who was captured and spent nearly 18 months in a German POW camp, struggling to hide his German heritage. They were also in danger of being mistaken as the enemy by Allied soldiers, as in the case of one who was shot by an American sentry after speaking a password with a German accent.
Camp Ritchie held a special place in the hearts of the Ritchie Boys. Victor Brombert, one of the Ritchie Boys, said that Camp Ritchie â€œgave us a sense of a meaningful activity that in one way or another connected with our real personal life and experience. The teams were bright, available, not always courageous, not always expert warriors, by a long shot, but certainly their heart was in it.â€
The MITC was closed when the war ended, and the story of the Ritchie Boys was nearly lost. But their story came alive again when Christian Bauer released a film called â€œThe Ritchie Boysâ€ in 2004. This film is available in the MI Library. It is a story that was long overdue.