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Ritchie Boys: The secret U.S. unit bolstered by German-born Jews that helped the Allies beat Hitler

The story of the Ritchie Boys
Stories from members of the Ritchie Boys, a secret U.S. WWII intelligence unit bolstered by German-born Jews 26:52

For as casually as we often toss around the word "hero," sometimes no lesser term applies. Tonight we'll introduce you to members of a secret American intelligence unit who fought in World War II. What's most extraordinary about this group: many of them were German-born Jews who fled their homeland, came to America, and then joined the U.S. Army.  Their mission: to use their knowledge of the German language and culture to return to Europe and fight Nazism. The Ritchie Boys, as they were known, trained in espionage and frontline interrogation. And incredibly, they were responsible for most of the combat intelligence gathered on the Western Front. For decades, they didn't discuss their work. Fortunately, some of the Ritchie Boys are still around to tell their tales, and that includes the life force that is Guy Stern, age 99. 

  Guy Stern

Jon Wertheim: You work 6 days a week, you swim every morning, you lecture, any signs of slowing down?

Guy Stern: Well I think not (laugh) but I don't run as fast, I don't swim as fast but I feel happy with my tasks.

A few months shy of turning 100, Guy Stern drips with vitality. He still works six days a week and if you get up early enough, you might catch him working out at his local park in the Detroit suburbs.

But ask him about his most formative experience - and he doesn't hesitate. It was his service in the military during World War II.   

Jon Wertheim: What was it like for you, leaving Nazi Germany, escaping as a Jew, and the next time you go back to Europe it's to fight those guys?  What was that like?

Guy Stern: I was a soldier doing my job and that precluded any concern that I was going back to a country I once was very attached to.

Guy Stern: I had a war to fight and I did it.  

Stern 80 years ago

This is Guy Stern 80 years ago.  He is among the last surviving Ritchie Boys - a group of young men – many of them German Jews – who played an outsized role in helping the Allies win World War II.  They took their name from the place they trained - Camp Ritchie, Maryland  – a secret American military intelligence center during the war. 

Starting in 1942, more than 11,000 soldiers went through the rigorous training at what was the army's first centralized school for intelligence and psychological warfare.  

David Frey: The purpose of the facility was to train interrogators.  That was the biggest weakness that the army recognized that it had, which was battlefield intelligence and the interrogation needed to talk to sometimes civilians, most of the time prisoners of war, in order to glean information from them.

David Frey is a professor of history and director of the Center for Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 

Jon Wertheim: How effective were they at gathering intelligence?

David Frey: They were incredibly effective. 60-plus percent of the actionable intelligence gathered on the battlefield was gathered by Ritchie Boys

Jon Wertheim: 60% of the actionable intelligence?

David Frey: Yes

David Frey: They made a massive contribution to essentially every battle that the Americans fought - the entire sets of battles on the Western Front.

Recruits were chosen based on their knowledge of European Language and culture, as well as their high IQs. Essentially they were intellectuals. The largest set of graduates were 2,000 German-born Jews.

David Frey: If we take Camp Ritchie in microcosm, it was almost the ideal of an American melting pot. You had people coming from all over uniting for a particular cause.

Jon Wertheim: All in service of winning the war?

David Frey: All in service of winning the war. And there's nothing that forges unity better than having a common enemy. 

  David Frey

David Frey:  You had a whole load of immigrants who really wanted to get back into the fight.

Immigrants like Guy Stern. He grew up in a close-knit family in the town of Hildesheim, Germany. When Hitler took power in 1933, Stern says the climate grew increasingly hostile.

Guy Stern: My fellow students – it was an all male school – withdrew from you.

Jon Wertheim: because you were Jewish you were ostracized?

Guy Stern: That is correct.

Guy Stern: I went to my father one day and I said "classes are becoming a torture chamber"  

By 1937, violence against Jews was escalating. Sensing danger, Stern's father tried to get the family out.  But the Sterns could only send one of their own to the U.S. They chose their eldest son.  

Jon Wertheim: Do you remember saying goodbye to your family?

Guy Stern: yes

Jon Wertheim: What do you remember from that?

Guy Stern: Handkerchiefs (pause), I couldn't know at that point that I would never see my siblings or my parents again nor my grandmother and so forth and so on.

Guy Stern arrived in the U.S. alone at age 15, settling with an uncle in St. Louis. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Stern, by then a college student, raced to enlist. 

Guy Stern: I had an immediate visceral response to that and that was this is my war for many reasons.  Personal, of course, but also this country - I was really treated well.

In New York, Paul Fairbrook had a similar impulse. Now 97, Fairbrook is the former dean of the Culinary Institute of America. His Jewish family left Germany in 1933 when he was 10.  

  Paul Fairbrook

Jon Wertheim: Why did you want to enlist initially?

Paul Fairbrook: Look I'm a German Jew.  And there's nothing that I wanted more is to get some revenge on Hitler who killed my uncles, and my aunts and my cousins and there was no question in my mind, and neither of all the men in Camp Ritchie.  So many of them were Jewish.  We were all on the same wavelength.  We were delighted to get a chance to do something for the United States.

At the time though, the military wouldn't take volunteers who weren't born in the U.S. But within a few months the government realized these so-called enemy aliens could be a valuable resource in the war.  

Paul Fairbrook: You can learn to shoot a rifle in 6 months but you can't learn fluent German in 6 months. And that's what the key to the success was

Paul Fairbrook: You really know an awful lot of the subtleties when you're having a conversation with another German and we were able to find out things out in their answers that enabled us to ask more questions. You really have to understand it helps to have been born in Germany in order to – in order to do a good job.

Both refugees like Fairbrook and Stern, as well as a number of American born recruits with requisite language skills, were drafted into the Army and sent to Camp Ritchie.

Jon Wertheim: How did you find out you were going to go to Camp Ritchie?

Guy Stern: I was called to the company office and told you're shipping out. and I said "may I know where I'm going?" and he said "no, military secret".  

Jon Wertheim: They swore you to secrecy?

Guy Stern: Yes.

Originally a resort, Camp Ritchie was a curiously idyllic setting to prepare for the harshness and brutality of war. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland – it was away from prying eyes and prying spies – but close enough to decision makers at the pentagon.  

Jon Wertheim: Give us a sense of the kinds of courses they took.

David Frey: Well the most important part of the training was that they learned to do interrogation, and in particular of prisoners of war.

David Frey: techniques where you want to get people to talk to you.  You want to convince them you're trustworthy. 

David Frey: But they also did terrain analysis, they also did photo analysis, and aerial reconnaissance analysis. They did counterintelligence training.

Jon Wertheim: This was really a broad range of intelligence activities.

David Frey: It was a very broad range. And they did it all generally in 8 weeks

Jon Wertheim: What you describe, it almost sounds like these were precursors to CIA agents.

David Frey: They were in fact. Some of them were trained as spies and some of them went on to careers as spies

Victor Brombert: My parents were pacifists so the idea of my going to war was for them calamitous, however they realized that it was a necessary war, especially for us.

  Victor Brombert

Victor Brombert, now 97 years old, is a former professor of romance languages and literature at Yale and then Princeton. He was born in Berlin to a Russian Jewish family. When Hitler came to power, the Bromberts fled to France, and then to the U.S., eager to fight the Nazis, he, too, joined the Army. After recruiters found out he spoke 4 languages, they dispatched him to Camp Ritchie, where strenuous classroom instruction was coupled with strenuous field exercises.  

Victor Brombert: There were long and demanding exercises and close combat training.  "How to kill a sentry from behind." I thought, "I'm never going to do that," but I was shown how to do it.

Jon Wertheim: So physical combat training as well as intelligence?

Victor Brombert: yes, well with a stick.  You sort of swing it around the neck from behind and then pull.  

Among the unusual sights at Ritchie: a team of U.S. Soldiers dressed in German uniforms. The Ritchie Boys trained for war against these fake gGermans with fake German tanks made out of wood. Another unusual sight: towering over recruits, Frank Leavitt, a World War I veteran and pro wrestling star at the time, was among the instructors.  

Training was designed to be as realistic as possible. The Ritchie Boys practiced street-fighting in life-size replicas of German villages and questioned mock civilians in full scale German homes. Some of the prisoners were actual German pows brought to the camp so the ritchie boys could practice their interrogation techniques. 

Jon Wertheim: I understand you – you had sparring partners. You playacted

Victor Brombert: One had to playact with some of the people were acting as prisoners and some of them were real prisoners.

By the spring of 1944, the Ritchie Boys were ready to return to Western Europe – this time as naturalized Americans in American uniforms.  

Still, if they were captured, they knew what the Nazis would do to them.  

Some of them requested new dog tags – with very good reason.

Jon Wertheim: This dog tag says Hebrew. Did your dog tag identify you as Jewish?

Guy Stern: I preferred not having it. I asked them to leave it off.

Jon Wertheim: You didn't want to be identified as Jewish going back to Western Europe.

Guy Stern: No because I knew that – the contact with Germans might not be very nice.

On june 6, 1944, D-Day, the Allies launched one of the most sweeping military operations in history. A mighty onslaught of more than 160,000 men, 13,000 aircraft, and 5000 vessels.   

Guy Stern: We were on a PT boat taking off from Southampton. And we all were scared.  We were briefed that the Germans were not going to welcome us greatly. As a Jew, I knew I might not be treated exactly by the Geneva rules.  

Divided into 6-man teams the Ritchie Boys were attached to different Army units. When they landed on the beaches of Normandy, Wehrmacht troops were waiting for them – well-armed and well prepared.  

Victor Brombert was with the First American Armored Division to land on Omaha Beach.  He is still haunted by what he experienced that day.

Victor Brombert: I saw immense debris.  Wounded people.  Dead people.

Victor Brombert: I remember being up on a cliff the first night over Omaha Beach. And we were strafed and I said to myself, "now, it's the end" because I could-- you could feel the machine gun bullets

Jon Wertheim: Is that when you first realize – I'm – I'm in a war here?

Victor Brombert: Yes, I realized that I was afraid.  I never calculated that there is such a thing as terror, fear.  So I experienced viscerally, fear.

On the front lines from Normandy onwards, the Ritchie Boys fought in every major battle in Europe, collecting tactical intelligence, interrogating prisoners and civilians, all in service of winning the war.

In 1944, the Ritchie Boys headed to Europe to fight in a war that was for them, intensely personal. They were members of a secret group whose mastery of the German language and culture helped them provide battlefield intelligence that proved pivotal to the Allies' victory. The Ritchie Boys landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and helped liberate Paris. They crossed into Germany with the Allied armies, and witnessed the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.  All the while, they tracked down evidence and interrogated Nazi criminals later tried at Nuremberg. It was also in Europe that some of them, like Guy Stern, learned what had happened to the families they left behind.  

By the summer of 1944, German troops in Normandy were outnumbered and overpowered. The allies liberated Paris in August and drove Nazi troops out of France.  But Hitler was determined to continue the war. In the Ardennes region of Belgium, the Germans mounted a massive counteroffensive, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Jon Wertheim: I see a tent in the background of that photo right in front of you

Guy Stern: Yes, that's my interrogation tent

Jon Wertheim: So this is you on the job.  You're in Belgium?

Guy Stern: Yes, doing my job interrogating.  Right.

Amid the chaos of war, Guy Stern and the other Ritchie Boys had a job to do. Embedded in every army unit, they interrogated tens of thousands of captured Nazi soldiers as well as civilians – extracting key strategic information on enemy strength, troop movements, and defensive positions. They then typed up their daily reports in the field to be passed up the chain of command.

Victor Brombert: Our interrogations - it had to do with tactical immediate concerns.  And that's why civilians could be useful and soldiers could be useful, "where is the minefield?" very important because you save life if you know where the mine – "where is the machine gun nest?"  "How many machine guns do you have there?" "where are your reserve units?" and if you don't get it from one prisoner, you might get it from the other.  

97-year-old Victor Brombert says they relied on their Camp Ritchie training to get people to open up.

Victor Brombert: We improvised according to the situation. According to the kind of unit, according to the kind of person we were interrogating. But certainly what did not work was violence or threat of violence. Never. What did work Is complicity.

Jon Wertheim: What -What do you mean?

Victor Brombert: By complicity I mean, "Oh we are together in this war. You on one side and we on this side. Isn't it a miserable thing? Aren't we all sort of, tired of it?"

Jon Wertheim: The shared experience?

Victor Brombert: The shared experience, exactly. Giving out some cigarettes also helps a lot. A friendly approach - trying to be human. 

The Ritchie Boys connected with prisoners on subjects as varied as food and soccer rivalries but they weren't above using deception on difficult targets. The Ritchie Boys discovered that the Nazis were terrified of ending up in Russian captivity and they used that to great effect. If a German POW wouldn't talk, he might face Guy Stern dressed up as a Russian officer. 

Guy Stern: I had my whole uniform with medals. Russian medals and I gave myself the name Commissar Krukov.

Jon Wertheim: That's what you called yourself?

Guy Stern: That was my pseudonym.

Jon Wertheim: How did you do commissar?

Guy Stern: Thank you for asking (laugh) I gave myself all the accouterments of looking like a fierce Russian commissar.

Guy Stern: And some we didn't break but 80% were so darned scared of the Russians and what they would do.

Jon Wertheim: So there's a real element of - costumes and deception and accents. 

Guy Stern: Yes and it's theatrics in a way yes.

Their subjects ranged from low-level German soldiers to high ranking Nazi officers including Hans Goebbels, brother of Hitler's chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

Another bit of indispensable Ritchie Boy handiwork: the order of battle of the German Army. Paul Fairbrook helped write this compact manual -  known as the red book  – which outlined in great detail the makeup of virtually every Nazi unit, information every Ritchie Boy committed to memory.  

Paul Fairbrook: When the soldiers said "I'm not going to talk" they could say "wait a minute. I know all about you. Look, I got a book here and it tells me that you were here and you went there and your boss was this." And they were impressed with that.

Jon Wertheim: So it sounds like this gave the officers in the field a guide to the German Army so they could then interrogate the German POW's more efficiently.

Paul Fairbrook: That's exactly right.  

The Ritchie Boys earned a reputation for delivering important tactical information fast, making a major contribution to every battle on the Western Front.  

Jon Wertheim: Their work saved lives?

David Frey: Absolutely. They certainly saved lives. I think that that's quantifiable.

David Frey teaches history to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

David Frey: Part of what the Ritchie boys did was to convince German units to surrender without fighting. 

Jon Wertheim: And you're saying some of that originated at Camp Ritchie?

David Frey: Much of it originated at Camp Ritchie because it had never – it hadn't been done before. How do you appeal to people in their own language? Knowing how to shape that appeal was pretty critical to the success of the mobile broadcast units.  

In trucks equipped with loudspeakers, Ritchie Boys went to the front lines under heavy fire, and tried, in German, to persuade their Nazi counterparts to surrender. They also drafted and dropped leaflets from airplanes behind enemy lines.  

 Jon Wertheim: This was one of the leaflets that was dropped out?

Guy Stern: Out of a plane. I have some that were shot.  

Guy Stern: This one was our most effective leaflet and why was that?  Because Eisenhower had signed it and the Germans had an incredibly naïve approach to everything that was signed and sealed.

Jon Wertheim: And you think because it had that signature, somehow that certified it.

Guy Stern: Yes, that carried weight and the belief in the printed matter was very great.

Jon Wertheim: That's the kind of thing you would know.

Guy Stern: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: As a former German who understood the psychology and the mentality.

Guy Stern: That's correct.  

Apart from the fighting, there were other threats confronting the Ritchie Boys. Given their foreign accents, they were in particular danger of being mistaken for the enemy by their own troops, who instituted passwords at checkpoints.  

Victor Brombert: What happened to one of the Ritchie Boys - at night on the way to the latrine, he was asked for a password and he gave the name - the word for the password - but with a German accent. He was shot right away and killed.

Jon Wertheim: Did you ever worry your accent might get you killed?

Victor Brombert: Yes of course. You know, I don't talk like an Alabama person or a Texan.

By the spring of 1945, Allied Forces neared Berlin and Hitler took his life in his underground bunker. Germany surrendered on May 8 of that year. 

Jon Wertheim: What do you remember feeling that day?

Guy Stern: Elated.

Guy Stern: It was absolutely, "we won kid!" (laugh)

Jon Wertheim: And those are your – those are your comrades.

Guy Stern: Yes.

Jon Wertheim: Those are your guys.

Guy Stern: Yes.

But joy turned to horror as Allied soldiers - and the world - learned the full scale of the Nazi mass extermination.  

Guy Stern recalls arriving at Buchenwald Concentration Camp three days after its liberation, alongside a fellow American sergeant. 

Guy Stern: We were walking along and you saw these emaciated, horribly looking, close to death people.  And so I fell back behind because I didn't want to be seen crying to a hardened soldier and then he looked around to look where I was, how I was delayed, and he, this good fellow from middle of Ohio was bawling just as I was.

A few days later, Stern returned to his hometown, hoping to reunite with his family.  But Hildesheim was now in ruins. A childhood friend described to Stern how his parents, younger brother and sister had been forced from their home and deported.

Guy Stern: They were killed either in Warsaw or in Auschwitz.

Guy Stern: None of my family survived.  I was the only one to get out.   

Jon Wertheim: Did you ever ask yourself why me?  Why were you the one that made it to the United States?

Guy Stern: Yes, even last night.  And I said "Well, huh, in slang, there ain't nothing special about you, but if you were saved, you got to show that you were worthy of it. And that has been the driving force in my professional life.  

Jon Wertheim: So as a way to honor your family that perished.

Guy Stern: Yeah.

After the war, Guy Stern, Victor Brombert and Paul Fairbrook came home, married, and went to Ivy League schools on the G.I. Bill.  Guy Stern became a professor for almost 50 years.

They all rose to the top of their fields, as did a number of other Ritchie Boys, says history professor David Frey. 

Jon Wertheim: I understand there are some Ritchie boys (that) became fairly prominent figures.

David Frey: There are a whole variety of prominent Ritchie boys.  

It turns out author J.D. Salinger was a Ritchie Boy.  So was Archibald Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. As was philanthropist David Rockefeller.

David Frey: Some became ambassadors. Some became critical figures in the creation of the CIA. Others were actually really important in American science.

Jon Wertheim: So there's all sorts of impact years and years and years after the war from this-- this camp in Maryland?

David Frey: It was not only the short term impact on the battlefield.  It was an impact on war crimes. They were critical in terms of arresting the - some of the major figures and gathering the evidence for Nuremberg, then shaping the cold war era, they really played a significant role.

Jon Wertheim:  How do you think we should be recalling the Ritchie Boys?

David Frey: I think we look at this group and we see true heroes.  We see those who are the greatest of the greatest generation.  These are people who made massive contributions.  Who helped shape what it meant to be American and who – in some cases – gave their lives in service to this country.

Jon Wertheim: This - This is a remarkable story.  Why do so few Americans know about this?

David Frey: Because it involves military intelligence, much of it was actually kept secret until the - the 1990's.

David Frey: A lot of what was learned and the methods used are important to keep secret. And only in the early 2000's did we begin to see reunions of the Ritchie boys. 

Now in their late 90s, these humble warriors still keep in touch, swapping stories about a chapter in American history now finally being told.   

Jon Wertheim: What is it like when you get together and reflect on this experience going on 80 years ago?

Guy Stern: We always find another anecdote to tell. (laugh)

Jon Wertheim: You have a smile on your face when you think back.

Guy Stern: Yes, this is what happens.

It was hard for us not to notice that beyond the stories runs a deep sense of pride.

Paul Fairbrook: (laugh) You bet your life I'm proud of the Ritchie Boys. It was wonderful to be part of them! 

Paul Fairbrook: I was proud to be in the American army and we were able to do what we had to do.  I don't think we're heroes.  But the opportunity to help fight and win the war was a wonderful way.  I can look anybody straight in their eye and say I think I've earned the right to be an American.  And that's what – that's what it did for me.

Produced by Katherine Davis. Associate producer, Jennifer Dozor. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Stephanie Palewski Brumbach and Robert Zimet.

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