Guy Stern’s on-the-job training began 10 minutes after he landed at Omaha Beach — one of the Allied entry points into Normandy in 1944.
Three days earlier, the Allies had invaded Normandy on D-Day. The first German prisoner Stern, a recent graduate of an US Army interrogation training program, questioned was a sergeant from an artillery unit.
“I started asking questions: ‘Where is your company located?’” recalled Stern. Today 95, Stern still works at the Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, after an illustrious career in higher education. “He refused to talk. My feelings were that I was a failure.”
Then “an artillery shell [came] over,” said Stern. “We both hit the ground… After the shell explosion, there was a bit of dust. I got up immediately and told him to get up.
“He, of course, as an experienced soldier, [knew that if there was] one artillery shell, there was no reason not to think a second or third would follow. He must have been under the illusion that I was a death-defying soldier. He got up.”
Stern noted that “the fact that I was so ‘courageous,’ as he thought, was nothing more than inexperience. He was still lying on the ground… He got up again, and started answering the questions. I [thought to myself], ‘OK, you can do your job.’”
Stern and his fellow program graduates did their job in unique circumstances: They were German and Austrian Jews who had escaped the Nazis for the United States. Many of them, including Stern, left behind cherished family members. After World War II broke out, they used their knowledge of German language and culture as US army interrogators.
Training at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, they earned the nickname of “the Ritchie Boys.” Now they are the subject of a new book, “Sons and Soldiers,” by bestselling author Bruce Henderson.
“I wrote several books on WWII. I never heard of these guys,” said Henderson. He first learned of the Ritchie Boys by reading a newspaper obituary of one of them.
‘I wrote several books on WWII. I never heard of these guys’
“It got me on the story,” he said. “What an amazing dramatic arc in this life,” — as well as the lives of “other men [who came] out of Nazi-occupied Europe as boys, then went back with special training.”
As interrogators, they sought both tactical and strategic information. Tactical information might include the location of a minefield and other intelligence that could save American lives, while strategic information was related to questions such as “where should we meet the German army next,” and “how many tanks [they have],” Henderson said.
10,000 men and 60% of the credible intelligence
Henderson cited a postwar report that attributed over 60 percent of credible intelligence from the European theater to the Ritchie Boys teams.
Henderson said that 10,000 men served with the Ritchie Boys, with the largest group being 3,000 German-born Jews. The group is also the subject of a documentary film, “The Ritchie Boys,” by German filmmaker Christian Bauer.
“I interviewed over 12 men,” Henderson said. “They were in their 90s when I interviewed them, 90 to 99.”
“First, there would be a pre-interview over the phone,” he said. “Not everyone has 70-year recall.”
Henderson would ask “what happened, what they were willing to tell,” and then travel to their home city for interviews.
“[I would get] as much information as I could,” he said. “Documents, letters, diaries, that kind of thing.” And he decided “there would be a finite number of protagonists that I would keep coming back to.”
Stern made the cut. He served in the European theater from D-Day until the fall of 1945, winning five battle stars and a Bronze Star (in July, he was also decorated with the French Legion of Honor).
While Stern said he was not in the forward lines, he noted, “We were exposed at times, especially to the German counterattack in the winter of 1944-45.”
Attached to the First Army, he said, “I was involved in every campaign, from Normandy through France — St. Lo, Paris, the Battle of the Bulge into Belgium. We were thrown back one time there, then we advanced into Germany and our war ended with everybody else on V-E Day.”
While the Ritchie Boys Henderson focused on all left Europe after the war ended, others continued serving during the Nuremberg trials.
“I did not include [the trials],” Henderson said. “If I had been inclined, it would have been 1,000 [pages].”
But, he asked, “Can you imagine [them] questioning and interrogating top Nazi war criminals? [The Ritchie Boys] actually did take part in that.”
‘Can you imagine [them] questioning and interrogating top Nazi war criminals?’
Henderson said that several Ritchie Boys he interviewed, including Stern, discussed entering the Buchenwald concentration camp.
“[For] these guys, one of their motivations in going overseas was not only patriotically wanting to fight,” Henderson said, “they’d dream of going over and somehow finding their families.”
But the camps were “the last place they wanted to find them,” Henderson said. “Guy went in there. He served as a translator. The Americans were speaking to the inmates, with all the horrible scenes we’ve come to expect. [Stern’s] family was not there.”
Stern traveled to his hometown of Hildesheim to inquire about his parents and siblings.
‘In all likelihood, they were taken from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, the end of the line’
“Later on, I found out from others that they were deported from their hometown to the Warsaw Ghetto,” Stern said. “In all likelihood, they were taken from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, the end of the line.”
“A lot of these guys made it out,” Henderson said. “Their families didn’t.”
Stern is one of six Ritchie Boys whose story Henderson tells. “[You] could have done a separate [book]” on each of the six, the author noted.
A ‘rather unique’ situation
The narrative begins with what Henderson described as the “rather unique situation” of Ritchie Boy Martin Selling.
“He was caught in a roundup after Kristallnacht,” Henderson said. “He was in Dachau for several months and [thought], ‘This is it.’ He did manage to get out. His aunt signed him up for one of the refugee programs. He went to England… The Nazis were still letting them get out.”
Stern left Germany in 1937, aided by two committees, and went to live with an uncle in St. Louis, Missouri. But his immediate family remained in Germany.
‘I was under the illusion that once I reached the US, I would find a sponsor for them’
“I was under the illusion that once I reached the US, I would find a sponsor for them,” Stern said. “At the time, the whole horror of the Holocaust had not crystallized yet.”
But “as time progressed, while in the US, I was upset,” he said. “Time and again, I was tied down in an appeal to get help for my parents and siblings.”
In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the US declared war on the Axis Powers. Stern noticed a US Navy placard calling for the services of those who “have a skill in language or knowledge of enemy culture,” he recalled. But he was turned down.
“An ensign said that my qualifications were good, but on the other hand, I was not a ‘native’ American,” Stern said.
“When the war broke out, [the Ritchie Boys] were still, of course, German citizens,” Henderson said. “They were also enemy aliens. The army needed a lot of bodies. They would draft enemy aliens. But they were not American citizens, and they would not send a German citizen with a gun into combat.”
“I was never able to find out [who it was], but somebody in the Pentagon said, ‘We’re going to train native-speaking Germans who are in America already as a special military intelligence group. We’ll train them in interrogation of German prisoners and send them over with combat teams,’” said Henderson.
Tricks of the trade
It would take place at Camp Ritchie through a three-month training program: six days a week of classroom study, as well as field work. Every month, a new class of small teams would graduate.
The Ritchie Boys learned four ways of interrogating a prisoner. They could display unexpected knowledge about a prisoner’s circumstances to create an illusion of omniscience; bribe a prisoner with tantalizing supplies such as a cigar; or appeal to a common interest, such as sports.
The fourth approach, used for uncooperative prisoners, was to instill fear. Stern recalled intimidating one prisoner by dressing up as a Russian commissar, “Commissar Krukov,” in a good-cop-bad-cop routine with Ritchie Boy Fred Howard (who would go on to found Leggs pantyhose).
Field work involved interrogating actual German prisoners from the Africa campaign, whom Stern called “guinea pigs.” Not everyone passed the curriculum, and those who failed were returned to their previous units. But in 1943, newly minted graduate Stern was shipped to Bristol, England, and ultimately to Normandy.
With D-Day, the Ritchie Boys, now naturalized American citizens, would put their coursework into practice.
“The Ritchie Boys were interrogating German prisoners, turning the tables, if you will,” Henderson said.
Selling interrogated a “real tough, arrogant SS officer who would not give them the time of day,” Henderson recalled.
‘Martin said, I learned a great deal about interrogating when I was an inmate of Dachau, and I’m Jewish’
“It was pretty clear he knew [his interrogator was] a native German speaker,” said Henderson. “He also figured out that Selling was Jewish. He was so obnoxious. Martin said, ‘I learned a great deal about interrogating when I was an inmate of Dachau, and I’m Jewish.’ [The officer] blanched [and realized] things could get a lot worse.”
But, Henderson said, the Ritchie Boys would “not often do that — say, ‘look, I’m Jewish.’ They were taught they shouldn’t.”
Ritchie Boys who were captured and found to be German and Jewish “obviously could be separated from other American prisoners,” Henderson said. “It would not go well for them at all.”
“The fears and concerns were not unwarranted,” he added. “Two Ritchie Boys were captured with a couple hundred other Americans at the Battle of the Bulge. They had [previously] interrogated some of the German prisoners themselves.
“They were pointed out to an SS officer as Jews from Berlin. He separated them from the rest of the GIs, [who were sent] to a POW camp. The two Ritchie Boys walked into a field. [They were] turned around and shot in the back of the head. It was that kind of danger they lived with every day.”