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'The Ritchie Boys' reunite at camp where they learned how to interrogate POWs

Group made up of German Jews who fled to the United States before World War II

June 19, 2012|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • Guy Stern of West Bloomfield, Mich., shares his story of being a 'Ritchie Boy' during World War II at Camp Ritchie.
By Colleen McGrath, Staff Photographer

CASCADE — Seventy years ago, Guy Stern wasn’t allowed to set foot inside the officers club at Camp Ritchie near Cascade.

But on Tuesday, he was welcomed there as a returning hero.

“I was a buck private,” the 90-year-old Stern said as he stood on the front steps of a restaurant that during World War II served as the officers club. “This is the first time I’ve been allowed inside.”

Stern was among a few dozen of “The Ritchie Boys” who returned from their homes across the country to attend a reunion at the now deserted Army base.

The men who made up the Ritchie Boys were German Jews who fled to the United States before World War II to escape Nazi persecution. Recognizing their foreign language skills as an asset, the Army sent them to Camp Ritchie to be trained in psychological warfare.

About 20,000 Ritchie Boys received training at the camp from July 1942 to September 1945. They were then sent to the European Theater to develop propaganda leaflets and interrogate prisoners of war.

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Now in their late 80s and early 90s, some of The Ritchie Boys who attended Tuesday’s reunion walked with canes, while others struggled to hear.

Stern said he came to the United States when he was 15 with the help of an uncle in St. Louis and a “kind of surreptitious” group called the German American Jewish Relief Organization.

“It had set itself a goal of rescuing 1,000 children from Germany,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have made it without that organization because my uncle, a baker and cake maker, had lost his job at the tail end of the depression.”

Stern said he later learned that members of his family who stayed in Germany were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto and perished in Nazi death camps.

He said The Ritchie Boys were sent to Camp Ritchie to learn, among other things, Morse Code and German stenography to decipher documents written in shorthand.

“We had training with German prisoners who had been shipped here from the Afrika Korps, and we had to interrogate them,” Stern said. “They had been briefed if the interrogator did it right, they would disclose knowledge; if they did it wrong, they would clam up ... your ultimate rating upon graduation was predicated on the way you performed.”

George Kahn, 90, left Germany for France in 1938.

He said he served in the French Foreign Legion until the Germans invaded and disbanded the famed fighting force.

Knowing he couldn’t flee to Spain because it was a fascist state, Kahn left Casablanca and eventually ended up in the United States on Dec. 26, 1941.

He said he was drafted and began serving in the quartermasters until he learned a short time later about his new assignment.

“They needed people who spoke foreign language,” Kahn said. “They told me I was going to Camp Ritchie a month after I was drafted.”

He said he was immediately immersed in interrogation techniques and other essential military training, such as land navigation.

“One night, we (got lost) and ended up in the Confederate cemetery in Gettysburg,” he said.

Before the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, The Ritchie Boys were assigned to different units that staged in England. Many of them landed at Omaha Beach and pushed inland, interrogating German prisoners of war along the way.

“Some would talk, and some of them wouldn’t talk,” Kahn said.



Hagerstown ‘smooching’

Gunter Kosse, 89, left Germany shortly after “Kristallnacht,” or “The Night of Broken Glass” in which Nazis unleashed attacks against Jews throughout Germany in November, 1938.

He said he arrived in the United States in 1941.

“I wasn’t even a citizen, and I was drafted,” he said.

Kosse was in basic training at Fort Lee, Va., when he heard he was shipping out.

“We said, ‘Where are you taking us?’ They said, ‘It’s top secret. We can’t tell you,’” he said.

Kosse said he grabbed his duffle bags, and the cooks at Fort Lee gave him a large breakfast for the road.

“In Germany, breakfast was coffee and a couple of rolls. I was really living it up,” he said.

Kosse arrived at Camp Ritchie at night and discovered that he had been assigned to military intelligence.

On occasion, The Ritchie Boys were issued passes and visited Hagerstown. Kosse said most of the men from town were off fighting the war.

“There were 10 girls for every GI in Hagerstown,” he said. “We took them to the bench and smooched. It was all innocent.”


Violence unproductive

Some of The Ritchie Boys were joined at the reunion by their families.

Walter Kron, 90, attended the event with his son, David, and grandson, Ben.

The elder Kron said the post has changed over the years. Grounds that were once a hotbed of martial activity were occupied on Tuesday with playing children.

“We were very busy. We trained all day and studied all night,” he said. “The level of instruction was so high. The teaching techniques were very much advanced. One-third of the classes were in German.”

He said The Ritchie Boys never used violence during interrogations.

“Physical violence isn’t very productive — that’s movie stuff,” he said. “It comes to the conclusion that people use violence because they like to use violence.”

Ben Kron said he was proud of his grandfather’s involvement in the Allied war effort.

“I never really think of him as a veteran, even though I knew he was an interrogator of German prisoners,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing that he did. I think it took a lot of courage for him to join the Army and go back to Germany.”

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