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Fort had a secret mission in WWII

December 10, 2004|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

CASCADE - Long before the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base shut down, the property in Cascade played a secretive, yet important role during World War II.

Known then as Camp Ritchie, the site was used to train men in espionage and psychological warfare.

"It was set up as an espionage school. Everything was very secretive here," said Steve Stouffer, the Army's current site manager of the base.

A 2004 documentary written and directed by native German Christian Bauer reveals some of what went on at Camp Ritchie through the story of a group of Jewish men who fled the Nazis, trained at the site and went to Europe as U.S. soldiers.

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The documentary, "The Ritchie Boys," has received international acclaim and is one of 12 films eligible to be nominated for an Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Web site.

The mission of the men - trained in intelligence and interrogation - was to find and "break the enemy's morale," according to the film's Web site, www.ritchieboys.com.

"Everything that's critical for war, they had to learn it here," Stouffer said.

"They wanted to go back to Germany to fight ... they were at risk more than the other soldiers," Stouffer said of the Jewish men.

Stouffer said the men would have been killed if they had been captured and it was discovered they were Jewish. As a result, many threw away or altered their military dog tags which contained the Star of David, indicating they were Jewish.

"If they were captured, that was certain death," Stouffer said. "They would be shot on site."

Stouffer spent time with the production crew and four of the Ritchie Boys when they arrived for filming at the former base last year.

"As soon as they stepped foot on the fort, their memories came alive," Stouffer said.

"The Ritchie Boys" Web site explains their many duties.

"On the front lines from the beaches of Normandy onwards, the Ritchie Boys interrogated German prisoners, defectors and civilians, collected information of tactical and strategic importance: about troop size and movements, about the psychological situation of the enemy, and the inner workings of the Nazi-regime," the Web site states. "They drafted leaflets, produced radio broadcasts and even published a German newspaper dropped behind enemy lines. In trucks equipped with amplifiers and loudspeakers, they went to the front lines and under heavy fire tried to persuade their German opponents to surrender."

Stouffer said the crew was at Fort Ritchie in March of 2003 and returned in the fall of that year for more filming. The film premiered in Toronto early this year, he said.

One of the Ritchie Boys featured in the film is German-born Guy Stern, who made his way to the U.S. in 1937, signed up for the Army in 1942 and was eventually sent to Camp Ritchie, where he became a POW interrogator, according to "The Ritchie Boys" Web site.

He landed in Normandy two days after D-Day, where he interrogated German prisoners in France and Germany and received the Bronze Star for his work, according to the Web site. Stern later learned that his parents, brother and sister were killed in Nazi death camps, according to the site.

Another of the Ritchie Boys, Fred Howard, worked with Stern in interrogating German POWs, according to the Web site. Both Howard and Stern convicted war criminal Dr. Karl Schuebbe, who had killed thousands of people with morphine, the Web site states.

Howard, born in Silesia in 1922 as Fritz Ehlicher, came to the U.S. in the late 1930s. He joined the Army in 1943 and was trained at Camp Ritchie, the site states.

Stouffer, who said the German film crew had to get special clearance from the Army to be on the federally owned property because they were foreign nationals, said he was worried at first that the documentary would have an anti-American slant.

That turned out not to be the case, he said.

"It was done very nicely for the sake of history, and what those boys had to go through," Stouffer said.

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