In July 1942, as Japanese forces gobbled up Alaskan islands and the U.S. flew its first bomber missions over Nazi Europe, 36 student soldiers reported for training at a small, remote camp in the Maryland panhandle. The soldiers became the first Ritchie Boys, part of a training program that would eventually send over 15,000 intelligence specialists into combat around the world, including 2,000 Jewish refugees who returned to Europe to defeat Hitler.
The Ritchie Boys
The idea for the intelligence training program came before American involvement in World War II. The U.S. instated the draft in 1940 to prepare for possible conflict. Military planners quickly realized they needed much better intelligence gatherers for the new, fast-paced, mechanized warfare.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall pushed for a new, tactical intelligence gathering. Britain agreed to host American observers in its intelligence units.
Those observers recommended that intelligence training be centralized. And so, the Army looked for a place to train tactical, flexible and smart soldiers as intelligence gatherers.
It settled on the Maryland National Guard's Camp Albert C. Ritchie, shortened to Camp Ritchie. Hence the name Ritchie Boys, even though that name grew out of a 2004 documentary and was not common during the war.
And then the military leaders had a stroke of genius. They decided that the best troops to fill this unit wasn't Americans smart enough to learn a new language. Instead, the Army wanted civilians who knew a target language and preferably had experience in a target country.
Refugees and other immigrants. The Army wanted immigrants. And they got almost 2,000 German and European refugees who fled the Nazis and other oppressive regimes. And the Army convinced them to join the new, top-secret unit, learn battlefield intelligence gathering, and then go to the front lines to read documents and question prisoners in real-time.
This was a gutsy move by the soldiers. Many fled Europe precisely because of the threat Nazis posed to Jewish people. Now, these 2,000 volunteered to go back. In total, Camp Ritchie trained over 15,000 soldiers during the war, with speakers of languages like Polish, Yiddish, Japanese, and more joining their German brethren.
The intel specialists in Europe
Most of the graduates of Camp Ritchie spoke German or Italian, and so saw some involvement in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. But the Army really got them into the fight on D-Day and after. Some Ritchie Boys came ashore on D-Day, 63 parachuted in with the 101st, and follow-on forces often brought additional Ritchie Boys with them.
Military leaders coveted the intelligence from Ritchie Boys for the speed at which it was gathered and for the cultural context the immigrants could add. When a prisoner told a Ritchie Boy something suspicious, the native European was more likely to know something was up. They could think like the German units they were hunting.
Historian David Frey estimated that over 60 percent of actionable intelligence gathered on the battlefield in Europe came from Ritchie Boys.
While the Ritchie Boys' primary duty was intelligence gathering, many received citations for their valor in combat. In total, Ritchie Boys received 65 Silver Stars and dozens of other medals for valor and performance.
For many, coming back to Europe as a soldier was an empowering as well as terrifying mission. Henry Abraham, a son of a German World War I-veteran, remembered his father surviving the concentration camps of Sachsenhausen and Dachau. But he also remembered returning to Europe as an Army officer and finding his elementary school teacher.
Seven years after I had escaped the Nazis’s grasp, I returned—as a Ritchie Boy, American citizen, and U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant—to my birthplace, war-torn Offenbach au Main, and attended a poignant service in my boyhood synagogue. I sat in a pew with my elementary school teacher, a Protestant, holding my hand throughout the liturgy. His support of my studies had cost him his job in 1934.
After the war, Ritchie Boys assisted with the Nuremberg Trials to guarantee that Nazis and their victims received justice. Some even hunted for their missing family members and, when they couldn't find them, put their intelligence skills to work gathering evidence of Nazi crimes.