1.0. Who are the Ritchie Boys?
The Ritchie Boys is a term commonly used to refer to a group of U.S. soldiers trained at Camp Ritchie during WWII (source). They trained in intelligence gathering and interrogation techniques and were responsible for gathering more than 60% of combat intelligence on the Western Front for the U.S. and their allies (source). Significantly, the story of the Ritchie Boys was classified until 2000 and so they are sometimes referred to as the ‘unsung’ heroes of WWII (source).
The Ritchie Boys are most notable for the large number of members who were Jewish immigrants who had fled Europe from Nazi persecution (source). Emphatically, approximately 44% of the soldiers were born outside of the US and 19% were born in Germany. These men are hailed as heroes for their part in bringing down the Nazi regime that they fled from years previously. In August 2021, the US Senate passed a bipartisan resolution, explicitly honoring the service of the Ritchie Boys in WWII.
2.0. Camp Ritchie, Maryland
Camp Albert C Ritchie was a 632-acre camp near Cascade, Maryland. The Maryland National Guard bought it in 1926 and named it after the sitting Governor of Maryland at the time, Albert Ritchie (source). They then upgraded it to an official Army Post and refurbished the camp as the new Military Intelligence Training Center, more commonly referred to as MITC, on June 19, 1942 (source). However, soldiers within the camp would sometimes refer to the acronym as ‘Military Institution of Total Confusion’, according to former Ritchie Boy Guy Stern (source).
3.0. The Ritchie Boys’ Origins
As many of the soldiers came from Germany or Austria, they were extremely useful to the U.S. and their allies. Fluency in the German language and understanding of local customs made their intelligence analysis invaluable. Nonetheless, other nationalities include: French, Italian, and Polish. Some of the Jewish refugees had arrived to the US as children and without their parents (source). This was because Jewish relief agencies could often only take a single child from each family out of Germany. There was therefore an additional motivation on the part of immigrants to end the war in Europe and take down the Nazi regime, in hope of reuniting with their families.
Soldiers were either drafted into the army, or volunteered. The Pentagon had a list of US residents with language skills and would directly pick from this list the individuals who would attend training at the Military Intelligence Training Center (MITC).
4.0. Training at MITC
4.1. Training Part I
- Terrain intelligence
- Signal intelligence
- Morse code
- Intercepting enemy communications
- Psychological warfare
- Handling of carrier pigeons
- Intelligence report writing
- First Aid
- Anti-Tank gunnery
- Close combat fighting*
During this time, the camp trained the soldiers to understand the enemy’s armies and their organisational structure. Furthermore, the camp facilitated two field exercises where the boys would be dropped into unfamiliar terrain. These exercises tested the soldiers on the skills they were learning at MITC.
*Frank Leavitt, former professional wrestler, was allegedly responsible for teaching the ‘close combat fighting’ class to the Ritchie Boys.
4.2. Training Part II
For the final three weeks of training, the Ritchie Boys would receive specialised training depending on their skills. Such specialties could include:
- Photo Interpretation Training
After training, the government fast-tracked the US citizenship application for any non-US citizens before the boys travelled overseas or to another army department to begin the mission to take down the Nazi regime (source).
5.0. Role In WWII
The Ritchie Boys participated in every major battle in Europe during the Second World War (source). Some of the men stayed in the U.S. and helped translate primary sources of intelligence about German troops, weapons, equipment and strategic plans. Most, however, travelled back to Europe to gather intelligence on the front lines, and often directly from Nazi soldiers.
For interrogators, their role was to elicit information from Nazi Prisoners of War. Because they spoke the mother tongue of the prisoners, the Ritchie Boys were often able to assess additional intelligence that was missed by Americans and their translators. A common interrogation tactic was using the Germans’ fear of transfer into Soviet custody (source). Some of the Ritchie boys would dress in a full Russian uniform to incite fear into the German soldiers.
5.2. Operation Overload
Many of the Ritchie Boys participated in Operation Overload (source). This operation involved travelling to France, three days after D-Day, and interrogating captured Nazi soldiers. The unit operated out of ‘the Cage’ which was the term used to describe the makeshift interrogation room that they built from barbed wire in the sand. The goal of the operation was to get tactical and strategic information that could further the goals of the US and their allies in the War.
Being part of the Ritchie Boys did pose additional challenges. For example, due to their accents, other soldiers often suspected the boys of being spies (source). One guard shot one of the Ritchie boys during the night after the guard heard his accent. Furthermore, according to the Holocaust Museum, Nazi forces captured two of the Ritchie Boys, identified them as being German-born Jews, and executed them (source).
6.0. After the War
After the war ended, some of the Ritchie Boys stayed in Europe with hopes of reuniting with their families. Those who remained in Europe worked on reestablishing newspapers and on denazification programmes (source). Many, however, returned to the U.S. and continued to further their careers within the U.S. army and beyond. Furthermore, some played a role in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi War Criminals (source).
7.0. Stories of the Ritchie Boys
7.1. Guy Stern
Guy Stern, born in 1922, was 15 years old when he fled from Nazi Germany and went to live with an uncle in St. Louis, US (source). Prior to the war, US Navy rejected his application when he applied for the Intelligence Unit due to him not being born in the states. However, the government drafted Stern in July 1943 because of his language skills and sent him to MITC. At Camp Ritchie, Stern underwent specialist training as an interrogator.
After the war, Guy Stern returned to Germany on an attempt to find his parents, younger brother and sister who he hadn’t seen for 8 years. Sadly, he was told that by neighbours that they had been deported and he would never see them again.
Guy Stern has spoke openly about his time in the US Army and has released a memoir called ‘Invisible Ink’ about his remarkable life (source).
7.2. Richard Schifter
Richard Schifter was born in Vienna, Austria (source). When he was 15-years old, Nazi police captured his parents and told them that they needed to leave the country. As Richard was the only member of his family who managed to obtain a US visa, he travelled alone to the US in December 1938.
Once the war started, a General from the Pentagon drafted Schifter into the army because of his knowledge of the German language. After receiving specialist training in interrogation techniques at Camp Ritchie, Schifter was deployed in Spring 1944.
After the war, Richard Schifter returned the the US and enrolled in Yale Law School before becoming a diplomat. He has served as Deputy US Representative to the UN Security Council and as US Representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights. He has also worked as a Special Advisor to the Secretary of State.
The Ritchie Boys were a group of brave soldiers who gathered a substantial amount of intelligence in WWII for the US and their allies. They are particularly remarkable for many of the soldiers had fled Nazi Germany as children and wound up back in Europe interrogating Nazi soldiers and fighting for liberation in Europe. Their stories inspired a 2007 documentary and they were awarded the Elie Wiesel Award in 2022 from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.