How the Ritchie Boys, Secret Refugee Infiltrators, Took on the Nazis

By: Dave Roos  | 
Ritchie Boys
A group of Ritchie Boys gather for a photo by the barracks at Camp Ritchie. Ritchie History Museum

During World War II, the U.S. Army recruited and trained a secret army of nearly 20,000 intelligence officers at a site called Camp Ritchie in rural Maryland. The "Ritchie Boys," as they're known today, weren't your average American soldiers — they represented 70 different nationalities and spoke many different languages.

The best-known Ritchie Boys were 2,800 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who fled the Holocaust, then heroically returned to Europe as American soldiers to defeat Hitler. Their remarkable story has been chronicled by "60 Minutes" and in a 2005 German documentary. But there were also Black Ritchie Boys, Japanese American Ritchie Boys and female "Ritchie Girls," all of whom played a critical and largely unrecognized role in the Allied victory in WWII.

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What Was Camp Ritchie?

When war broke out in Europe in 1941, the U.S. military lagged far behind the British when it came to intelligence capabilities. The Americans knew that if they were going to join the fight, they couldn't win without soldiers trained in the latest interrogation techniques, counterintelligence (spying) and psychological warfare.

In April 1942, the U.S. Army converted a Maryland National Guard site into Camp Ritchie, a dedicated military intelligence training center. From the start, the Army sought out recruits with foreign language skills, particularly the languages of their enemies.

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"You can teach anybody how to fire a rifle in just a few weeks, but you can't teach them fluent German, Japanese or Italian," says Landon Grove, director of the soon-to-open Ritchie History Museum.

Of the nearly 20,000 trainees who passed through Camp Ritchie, about 60 percent were American-born (including Native Americans), and the rest included refugees classified as "enemy aliens" (Germans and Austrians) and immigrants from Morocco, Azerbaijan, Iceland, India and more.

Ritchie Boys
The Composite School Unit was responsible for leading realistic training exercises at Camp Ritchie. The trainees often dressed in enemy uniforms and spoke various languages to make the simulations as realistic as possible.
Ritchie History Museum

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What Were the Ritchie Boys Trained to Do?

For eight weeks, Camp Ritchie recruits learned how to extract information from captured POWs, write propaganda pamphlets to drop behind enemy lines, analyze reconnaissance photos and kill the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, if necessary.

"You name it, they did it," says Beverley Eddy, author of "Ritchie Boy Secrets: How a Force of Immigrants and Refugees Helped Win WWII."

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To complete their training, Ritchie Boys were shipped off to England to learn advanced intelligence techniques. It's there, Eddy believes, that the Americans earned the nickname "Ritchie Boys" from their more experienced British instructors.

Ritchie Boys
A photo of various booby traps which Ritchie Boys learned how to defuse in one of their many courses.
Ritchie History Museum

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The Ritchie Boys in Action

As newly minted intelligence officers, Ritchie Boys were embedded in every American military branch and unit, and they fought in every major WWII battle from the D-Day invasion of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to Iwo Jima.

In fighting the Nazis, one of the Ritchie Boys' most important contributions was something called "The Order of Battle of the German Army" aka the "Red Book." Using captured German documents, the Ritchie Boys assembled a continuously updated master list of every Nazi unit in Europe — its leadership structure, its troop numbers, its battle history, etc.

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"The 'Order of Battle' was crucial for interrogation purposes, and for the Allies to know exactly what they were up against," says Eddy.

The Ritchie Boys conducted tens of thousands of interrogations of both enemy soldiers and civilians. Fluent in the language and culture of their captives, the Ritchie Boys didn't need to resort to violence to get information. Instead, says Grove, they would offer a friendly cigarette and commiserate over local sports rivalries.

"Then they'd launch into this spiel," says Grove. "'Isn't the war awful? You and I aren't really that different. We're all just sick of fighting and want to go home. It'll all be over a lot sooner if you tell me where the minefield is.' And if a Nazi officer was really tight-lipped, they might threaten to hand them over to the 'Russians'" — played convincingly by a Ritchie Boy in a Russian officer's uniform.

According to a U.S. Army report published in 1946, the Ritchie Boys were responsible for gathering 60 percent of all actionable battlefield intelligence in WWII. (Eddy thinks that number should probably be lower, since the Americans who wrote the report didn't know the full extent of the secret British program that cracked the Enigma code.)

Ritchie Boys
Ritchie Boys play-acted and dressed as German soldiers in training exercises. They would build a house and cut one side off so that soldiers could learn how to enter a house and perform functions such as interrogating prisoners and defusing booby traps.
Ritchie History Museum

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Victims of Nazi Terror Sought Justice

Some of the most inspiring stories about the Ritchie Boys concerned Jewish refugees who fled Nazi atrocities in Europe, but bravely returned to fight for the family members and communities they'd lost to Hitler's genocide.

"This was their war, perhaps more than anyone else's," says Grove.

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Eddy cites examples like Ernst Cramer, a German Jew who at 18 years old was imprisoned at the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp. Cramer was one of the lucky few to get an affidavit for release to America. The minute he stepped on U.S. soil, Cramer enlisted in the Army and was sent to Camp Ritchie to train in psychological warfare.

During the war, Cramer wrote pamphlets urging German soldiers to surrender, and when the war was finally over, Cramer helped establish independent newspapers in destroyed German cities.

"He was remarkable," says Eddy. "He was one of the very few German-born Jews who was determined to stay in Germany after the war and work for reconciliation."

In 1937, Albert Rosenberg was a university student in Göttingen, Germany, when he was brutally attacked by an antisemitic mob. He escaped to America, joined the Army and became the leader of a Ritchie Boy interrogation team responsible for extracting information from high-value Nazi targets.

Like Cramer, Rosenberg lost his entire family in Hitler's death camps, and he was determined to see Nazi war criminals brought to justice.

"At the end of the war, Rosenberg and his team were assigned by General Eisenhower to investigate Buchenwald," says Eddy. "They interviewed prisoners to learn exactly how the camp was organized and who was in charge. Those materials were used at the Nuremberg trials."

Ritchie Boys
The Ritchie Boys created "tanks" out of plywood and cardboard to run simulations and perform mock tank exercises.
Ritchie History Museum

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Other Ritchie Boys (and Girls) Overcame Prejudice at Home

Black soldiers in the U.S. Army faced "Jim Crow-style" segregation in many parts of the military, says Eddy. At Camp Ritchie, Black trainees graduated with impressive credentials but had to navigate a military culture that treated them as second-class soldiers.

Daniel Skinner, a professor at a Black college, came to Camp Ritchie with a Harvard degree and fluency in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

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"At Camp Ritchie, Daniel Skinner was as good or better than any of the other trainees," says Eddy, "but when he was posted abroad, he couldn't serve over white soldiers. What they did was make him the driver of the interrogation team, so he could still participate as a translator and interrogator."

David Akira Itami was born in America, but he was imprisoned along with his Japanese American family in a "relocation camp" after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. A year later, Itami volunteered for the Army. As Itami's daughter wrote, "[The U.S. government] would not recognize your citizenship rights, but they would let you volunteer to serve the same country who had deprived you of those rights." Itami trained at Camp Ritchie and later served as the lead interpreter at the Japanese war crimes trials in Tokyo.

Around 200 "Ritchie Girls" trained or worked at Camp Ritchie, including 22 female instructors. The Women's Auxiliary Corps (WAC) was an active-duty branch of the Army for women, but "WACs" often struggled to earn the respect of the male-dominated military.

Two high-profile Ritchie Girls were Sally Davis, who trained in the "Order of Battle" and served with General MacArthur in Australia, and Lillian Tombacher in Europe, who served as General Eisenhower's personal Polish interpreter and received the Bronze Star.

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Long-overdue Recognition Comes to the Ritchie Boys

Of the nearly 20,000 Ritchie Boys who served in WWII, around 140 were killed in action, including at the costly landings at Normandy and Iwo Jima. Ritchie Boys earned more than 65 Silver Star Medals and countless Bronze Star Medals for their heroic service.

In 2022, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum presented the Ritchie Boys with its highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award. And legislation has been submitted in Congress to award the Ritchie Boys the Congressional Gold Medal. Eddy and Grove estimate that between 100 and 200 Ritchie Boys are still alive.

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