Photo Credit: Bruce Henderson
Bruce Henderson

Of all the ethnic groups in America in 1941, perhaps none had greater motivation to fight the Nazis than the Jews. And among them, perhaps none were better equipped to do so than German-born Jews, who knew the language and psychology of the enemy. Approximately 10,000 German Jews served in America’s armed forces during World War II, including 1,200 men trained at Camp Ritchie, a secret military camp in Maryland. Known as “Ritchie Boys,” these young men later served with combat units in Europe, interrogating German prisoners of war and collecting key intelligence.  

Bruce Henderson, a Vietnam War veteran and the author of 20 books – including a #1 New York Times bestseller – had no intention of ever writing about the Ritchie Boys. In fact, he had never heard of them despite having written two books on World War II. But then an obituary in his local newspaper about one of the “boys” caught his eye. The result is his newest book, published last month, “Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler” (William Morrow).

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The Jewish Press: How would you describe the work of the Ritchie Boys?

Henderson: First, I should say that they were trained for a minimum of eight weeks in Camp Ritchie and learned the basic techniques of interrogation. They also learned the makeup of the German army – its units, their history, even their commanding officers. And they were assigned to every combat unit then preparing for the Normandy invasion.

The theory was that the best time to interrogate a prisoner was when he’d been newly captured – when he was scared, hungry, and disoriented. So they had to be up near the front lines. They jumped with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day and were with Patton’s tanks racing across Europe. They were in every battle and campaign in the European theater.

You say the Ritchie Boys studied the units of the German army. Why?

One of the techniques of interrogation is called superior knowledge – overwhelming the prisoner with details about his own army. You want the prisoner to think, “These guys already know a lot about our forces, so what harm is there in me telling them a little bit more?” Also, they needed to put into context what they were being told. How would they know if the information they were being given was real if they didn’t know the details of the enemy units themselves?

How did German soldiers react to being interrogated by Jews?

I asked these former Ritchie Boys that, and they said very few of them ever described themselves as Jews. There were exceptions, though. One of the Ritchie Boys in my book spent some months in Dachau before he got out of Germany, so when he was interrogating this very arrogant SS officer who was refusing to give him the time of day, he said, “You know, I learned a thing or two about interrogating and treating prisoners from Dachau where I was an inmate.” The SS officer blanched and thought, “I better start talking.”

Although anyone with common sense would know that German Jews bore no love for Nazi Germany, governments and bureaucracies often don’t possess common sense. Once could easily imagine, for example, the U.S. government making a blanket rule in 1941 that no one born in Germany could join the American army. Why didn’t it? 

That’s a very good point. And it wasn’t only the government and bureaucracy that had those prejudices, if you will. Can you imagine when these guys with their German accents got into their units? Some of their division officers said, “What are we going to do with them? Can we trust them with guns?”

But they would respond, “Look, there will come a time when you’ll need us.” And sure enough, that time came because some of the information these Ritchie Boys got from German prisoners of war was pretty important, like “Where is that minefield? Is it over here or over there?” And that kind of information saved American lives. It only took one or two of those instances for these Ritchie Boys to be very appreciated.

As far as the government is concerned: When the war broke out, the German Jews who had come in the 1930s were still by and large not U.S. citizens. They were actually designated as “enemy aliens” because they were citizens of a country we were at war with. The army was allowed to draft them, but they couldn’t send them overseas in combat units until they became American citizens. But then somebody got really smart in the Pentagon and said, “They’ve got the language skills and know the culture, psychology, and geography of the enemy better than anybody we can teach. So let’s bring them into military intelligence, train them in interrogation, and put them in these small units.” So that’s what they did.

Did the government distinguish between German-born Jews and German-born non-Jews?

I don’t think there were that many [non-Jewish] Germans coming over in the 1930s. But there was a concern about getting double agents. So, I think they certainly trusted Jews born in Germany who had escaped more than maybe [a non-Jew] who had just come in recently.

What percentage of the Ritchie Boys were Jewish?

About 40 percent. And approximately 60 percent of the German-born Ritchie Boys were Jewish. But there were other groups in Camp Ritchie too. There were Japanese Americans, for example, who were there to learn how to interrogate prisoners in the Pacific.

The loyalties of the German Jews in Camp Ritchie clearly were with America. But how did the government determine the loyalties of the remaining 40 percent?

Well, for one thing, you couldn’t volunteer to go to Camp Ritchie. In fact, you couldn’t volunteer for military intelligence for that very reason – because if you were a double agent, that’s exactly what you would want to volunteer for.

Also, they would do FBI background searches on these guys before they were deployed in military intelligence. They were very careful. Also, some of these other guys who spoke German were Americans; they knew the language because they were of German stock or had learned it in school.

You write in Sons and Soldiers that German-born Jews could interrogate prisoners of war better than American-born German speakers. How so?

They knew the slang. They even sometimes knew the regional slang, and to be able to throw that at a guy could really surprise him and throw him off balance. And that, of course, was what they were trying to do during an interrogation – keep the prisoner uncomfortable, off balance, and wanting to give them information to get a cigarette, a candy bar, a hot meal, or just know they’re safe. Some of these German prisoners believed the propaganda their own forces were telling them – that if they were captured, the Americans would shoot them and eat them for dinner.

So knowing the culture and psychology of these prisoners [was really helpful]. I mean, these guys went to middle school with some of the soldiers who were now in Hitler’s army. They were former neighbors. They knew how they operated. They knew what they liked and what they didn’t like. They knew what buttons to press.

According to a book published in 2009, The Enemy I Knew, German-born Jews did more than just interrogate prisoners during World War II. They also translated key German documents and diaries on the front and provided insight on the strength of the German economy simply by letting experts examine the clothes they were wearing, which they had bought in Germany before the war. Can you address this topic?

The translation sounds like the work of a Ritchie Boys team because that was part of their job, but you’re right, a lot of German-born Jews were doing things for the army who hadn’t necessarily graduated from Camp Ritchie. For example, Henry Kissinger didn’t go to Camp Ritchie, but once he got to Europe, they [took advantage of] his language skills and started using him for interpretation of documents and also some interrogation.

And then there was also the larger strategy stuff you talked about. Some of these guys never left Washington but they were doing important work analyzing information coming in from the battlefield based on their knowledge of the German economy and industry. You know, how many ball bearings, for example, are the Germans capable of making next year.

What was it like for you interviewing these Ritchie Boys? Not that many members of this “greatest generation” are still left. 

The people I interviewed for the book ranged in age from 90 to 99 and were really a humble bunch. This is my third or fourth World War II book in a row, and I made a commitment after the first one that I was going to spend my time and energy and whatever talent and skill I have telling the stories of that generation while we still have some of them here. It’s an honor. I don’t think any war is a good war, having been in one myself, but World War II was maybe the last war where it was really clear that it was good against evil. If they hadn’t been victorious, this world would look much, much different than it does today.

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