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When U.S. soldiers fought Germany during World War II, there was one group that was particularly motivated—about 2,000 mostly German and Austrian Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis and then returned to Europe to take on their tormentors as members of American military intelligence.
The so-called Ritchie Boys were among roughly 15,000 graduates of training programs at Camp Ritchie, a former National Guard Camp in Maryland named for the late Maryland Governor, Albert C. Ritchie. Many of the German and Austrian Jewish refugees reported to Camp Ritchie while still designated as “enemy aliens.” In exchange for their knowledge of German language, culture and topography, which proved critical in extracting information vital to the war effort, the Army offered citizenship.
“The Ritchie Boys were one of World War II’s greatest secret weapons for U.S. Army intelligence,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, shortly before becoming chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2022, when the museum bestowed the Ritchie Boys with the Elie Wiesel Award, its highest honor. “Many had fled Nazi Germany but returned as American soldiers, deploying their knowledge of German language and culture to great advantage. They significantly helped the war effort and saved lives.”
The Ritchie Boys, some of whom landed on the beaches at Normandy, helped to interpret documents and gather intelligence, and conducted enemy warfare. Divisions that liberated concentration camps included hundreds of Ritchie Boys, who interviewed survivors. According to the Holocaust Museum, two Jewish soldiers were taken captive and executed after being identified as German-born Jews, and there were about 200 Ritchie Boys alive as of May 2022.
Investment banker David Rockefeller and civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin were among the Ritchie Boys, who were assigned to every Army and Marines unit—and to the Office of Strategic Services and the Counter Intelligence Corps.
Although members of the Ritchie Boys were awarded more than 65 Silver Stars, their group was not very well known during the war. That changed over the years as the Ritchie Boys began to receive more recognition. In addition to the Holocaust Museum’s award, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2021 honoring “the bravery and dedication of the Ritchie Boys,” and recognizing “the importance of their contributions to the success of the Allied Forces during World War II.”
David S. Frey, a history professor and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide at the United States Military Academy, said that in the late 1930s, Gen. George Marshall, then the Army Chief of staff, realized that if the United States was going to war, it needed battlefield intelligence capability—which its military lacked.
“In the age of mechanized warfare, you need to know what these large armies look like, what their capabilities are, how they’re arrayed,” Frey says. “So to get that kind of information, particularly from those you capture on the battlefield, you need people who are trained to get that information. To do so, they learned photo analysis, terrain analysis, aerial reconnaissance, enemy army analysis, interrogation, signals intelligence and much more.”
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At a time when the U.S. military urgently needed foreign language speakers, the Ritchie Boys offered a key resource. Many were foreign-born or had lived abroad for significant amounts of time. The group also included large numbers of first- or second-generation Americans who still spoke German or other languages at home, Frey says.
“There were at least 30 languages spoken at Camp Ritchie, but the preference obviously was for German speakers because most of the enemy forces would be German,” Frey says.
He added that the military chose intelligent people “because they had to process a tremendous amount of information.” They were asked, in some cases, to memorize battle books, which told soldiers about the enemy’s organization, structure, capacity, leadership and experience. Some of these books, Frey says, were nearly 500 pages long by the end of the war.
“After the war,” Frey says, “a survey of battalion commanders concluded that intelligence gathered by graduates of Camp Ritchie was responsible for at least 60 percent of actionable intelligence for the Western Front Theater.”
Some faced antisemitism from their fellow soldiers. “Most of the guys in basic training were Southerners who hated the Jewish boys from New York and busted our chops most of the time,” George Sakheim, who had fled to the United States by way of Palestine, told POLITICO Magazine.
Many of the Jewish refugees lost family members, and at the end of the war, they searched for them.
“Some of them were very involved with the collection of information that became the basis of the trials at Nuremberg and subsequent war crimes trials,” Frey said.
Beginning in September 1944, the United States military trained Japanese Americans at Camp Ritchie, and their language skills were also used in the war effort, this time against Japan. Frey noted similarities between the Jewish refugees—who were considered enemy aliens until mid-1942 because they had come from countries the United States was at war with—and Japanese Americans who had been interned.
“It’s not just a story about Jewish emigres,” Frey says, “it’s also a story of what I would call marginal soldiers and their defense of this country.”