The Ritchie Boys
In the words of filmmaker Christian Bauer:
"The Ritchie Boys" is the untold story of a group of young men who fled Nazi Germany and returned to Europe as soldiers in US-uniforms. They knew the psychology and the language of the enemy better than anybody else. In Camp Ritchie, Maryland, they were trained in intelligence and psychological warfare. Not always courageous, but determined, bright, and inventive they fought their own kind of war. They saved lives. They were victors, not victims.
"The Ritchie Boys were not victims, they were victors. That was very important for me to show," writes German documentary filmmaker Christian Bauer about why he made his standout documentary detailing the extraordinary determination and accomplishments of German Jews in the United States who joined the Army's Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during WWII to defeat Hitler's military machine. In telling the story of the Ritchie Boys, Bauer focuses on the lives of a handful of the approximately 10,000 soldiers sent by the U.S. Army to train for the MIS at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. In doing so, Bauer humanizes the individual efforts of those contributions during the war, but he is also careful to refrain from over-inflating their sacrifice.
"The Ritchie Boys did not really see themselves as heroes," Bauer continues. "They were happy that the country which had given them refuge offered them the opportunity to fight with what they knew best: The language, their culture, and the psychology of the enemy."
Bauer, who spent 15 years trying to make The Ritchie Boys, was able to bring the project together after a meeting in Germany with Guy Stern, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German and Slavic Studies at Wayne State University who was in Germany to give a lecture. The documentary, made for German television, grew from their initial meeting to provide little-known evidence about the lives of the Camp Ritchie soldiers and their ensuing relationships during and after WWII.
Among the men profiled were Werner Angres, a former history professor, Sy Lewen, an artist working in New York, and Fred Howard, a New York-based designer who was teamed with Guy Stern as Army Interrogators of Prisoners of War (IPWs) in Europe after the Allied Invasion in June, 1944.
Together, their stories bring a sense of the spirit, determination, and humor the young soldiers carried to the fight knowing full-well the on-going horror they would encounter as a result of Nazis policies.
"I wanted to show the enthusiasm and the determination of these guys," says Bauer. "I also wanted to let the audience feel that they were young, foolish at times, and that they are proud of what they did."
In what year were you assigned to Camp Ritchie and how did that come about?
Fred Howard: I came into the Army in late '42. Based on my professional life as an industrial designer, and I was technically very capable and I wound up in the engineers. It was put out that the Army needed people that spoke German for interrogation purposes and intelligence work at all levels. I was at Ft. Belvoir and I was picked out and wound-up at Camp Ritchie.
Describe the atmosphere at Camp Ritchie. It has been described as a camp full of intellectuals.
I'm not sure that is correct. I would have to include myself in that. We were a cross-section of bright young men. There were a lot of smart people; there is no question about it. And the training was very intense. More intense than I think we realized at the time. Guy described it. It was very tough training and it had to be done very quickly.
The film details the work done at Camp Ritchie as the early development of Psychological Warfare or Psy-Ops. Did you realize at the time that you were at the forefront of U.S. war strategy to defeat the Nazis?
I did not. You have to remember, we were given the basic instruments. How you used it and how you developed it, was in large measure developed individually. Nobody else told us at Ritchie what we finally did -- the methodology we developed. The thing that was so stark was the fact that the Germans were so afraid of the Russians and weren’t afraid of us at all. The fear of the Russians was so enormous because of the atrocities they had committed against them. If the individual German soldiers didn’t participate themselves, they certainly knew about the atrocities.
What was the strategy that you and Guy Stern developed to get information from the Germans?
We played with our knowledge of the situation. We decided that Guy would become a Russian and that we would identify him a Commissar Krukov and that he would be a liaison officer. There was a sign in his tent that identified him as that. And it worked to get information out of the Germans.
When you participated in the invasion of Europe, did you feel you were adequately prepared?
I was very prepared. But I'll tell you, the advantage I had, first of all had something to do with my own family background. The desire to do something against the Nazis combined with the desire to help this country was overwhelming. And again, as the film points out, with the work we put in, we were relentless. We didn’t need to be coaxed to do a good job, if you can imagine a bunch of guys like that. Everyone was well motivated.
Can you provide some background about your life before you arrived in the United States?
Guy Stern: My father was a clothing merchant, my mother a housewife and I had two siblings. In school I did particularly well in German and German essays which came in handy later. In 1934 I was a member of a German athletic club and was removed by orders from the highest (levels of Government) because all Jews had to be eliminated from German sports. I learned English in my high school and I also had a private teacher who had lived in the United States and was a fanatic baseball lover. So, I came here well-prepared knowing the national pastime.
How was the decision made for you to come to the United States?
In 1937 my parents had ample evidence that we could not stay in Germany. My father's clientele was shrinking because of boycotts (of Jewish businesses). So they solicited my mother's brother, who lived in the United States, to give me an affidavit (for entry into the U.S.). Later, I found myself standing in front of Malcolm C. Burke, the Consul in Hamburg who let me through in very quick order. I found out years later from a book called Why Six Million Died, by Arthur Morse, that Burke used every loophole to let people through.
Tell us about the process of joining the Army and being assigned to Camp Ritchie.
I finished high school here; worked for one year in restaurants; and got a job across from the university in a hotel. I tried to enlist in Naval Intelligence but they only took (native-born) Americans. In 1942 I got my draft orders. I was sent for basic training in Texas. When I was nearly through basic training I got confidential orders to report to Camp Ritchie.
How did you become an IPW (Interrogator of Prisoners of War)?
I had taken German Stenography in high school as an elective. I was given a refresher course in German Stenography so that if any documents written in shorthand came to the MIS, we would be able to read them. One thing I don't know if Fred Howard remembers vividly, is the final MIS examination at Ritchie which was to identify German Army items. It was one of the toughest I have ever taken even though I ultimately acquired a Ph.D.
As an aside, did it seem surreal to have left Germany and then find yourself in the Army, preparing to return to fight the Nazis?
Yes, but my acculturation was much faster than that of others. I was sent to Soldan High School when I arrived in St. Louis and the reception at that high school was so cordial. I was put in the advisory of the German teacher and was placed into the journalism program and within days I was a fledgling journalist. I started writing for a college newspaper and had two scoops. I became Americanized because I fell in love with jazz, and St. Louis was right for that. I managed two interviews: one with Benny Goodman and one with Thomas Mann and that made me a hero at my high school.
Why do you think the United States prevailed in a war where other nations might have failed?
I have never seen our nation as united in one spirit. I'll give you two examples. Number one, if I went into a bar on pass into Baltimore, I never paid for a drink. Invariably, somebody would come up to me and say, "Hey, what are you having, soldier?" Secondly, during maneuvers in Louisiana we were allowed to go to services. When we came out of the synagogue, every one of the soldiers was told to go home with a family for Passover meal and ceremony. Sure, there was solidarity with Jews, but it happened in all aspects of life. There was such solidarity.