Camp Ritchie, Maryland June 19, 1942

On this date in 1942 the U.S. Army activated the Mili­tary Intel­li­gence Training Center (MITC) at Camp Ritchie. Former pro­perty of a failed ice com­pany, the rural site was con­verted into a sum­mer training camp for the Mary­land National Guard in 1926. Six­teen years later the U.S. Army replaced canvas tents with per­ma­nent buildings. Camp Ritchie’s secluded loca­tion 70 miles north of the nation’s capital seemed ideal for the new task at hand: the first-of-its-kind training center for centralized military intelligence and psychological warfare.

The Ritchie Boys, as camp graduates were soon called, were U.S. special mili­tary intel­li­gence offi­cers and enlisted men who were embedded in regular army units. The sol­diers were tasked with collecting mili­tary intel­li­gence in the field and pro­viding clear and speedy reports up the chain of com­mand. Between 15,200 and 19,000 service­men (sources vary) were trained at the top-secret facility, re-christened Fort Ritchie after the war. The students were rigorously trained in methods of intel­li­gence, counter­intel­li­gence, inter­ro­ga­tion of prisoners of war, inves­ti­ga­tion, aerial photo­graphy anal­y­sis, terrain intel­li­gence, and psycho­logical war­fare. Most students were direct descen­dants of immi­grants from Central and Eastern Europe. Roughly 14 per­cent of them were German and Austrian Jews who had fled Nazi tyranny and perse­cu­tion. Settling in the United States as “non­citizen resi­dents” (after Decem­ber 11, 1941, many were reclas­si­fied as “enemy aliens”), these exiles volun­teered or were drafted into the U.S. Army. When their fluency in foreign lan­guages, espe­cially German, French, and Italian, was discovered by their com­man­ders or in Army person­nel files—and equally impor­tant when their innate famil­iar­ity with the cul­ture, psyche, and behav­ior of America’s enemies was rec­og­nized as a valu­a­ble tac­ti­cal asset to use in the war effort—these sol­diers were whisked to Camp Ritchie.

For eight intense weeks, a period often prolonged by highly spe­cialized courses, MITC students prac­ticed mock inter­views, inter­ro­ga­tions, and intel­li­gence gathering. In all, there were 31 eight-week ses­sions, the first ending in Septem­ber 1942. Captured German and Italian sol­diers from the failed Axis North African Cam­paign pro­vided students at Camp Ritchie with guinea pigs to try out their new or enhanced skill­ sets.

Starting with the June 1944 D-Day landings in North­west France, Camp Ritchie grad­u­ates saw com­bat attached to fabled units such as the U.S. 82nd and 101st Air­borne Divi­sions and other front­line armored and infan­try divi­sions and regi­ments. Imme­di­ately teams of German-language POW inter­ro­ga­tors and French-speaking mili­tary intel­li­gence inter­pre­ters began grilling captured com­bat­ants, mem­bers of the French Resis­tance, and local resi­dents to glean action­able, tac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion about the enemy’s fighting capa­bil­i­ties, morale, troop size, loca­tion and move­ments, local defenses, mine­fields, booby traps, machine gun nests, and com­mand posts that con­trib­uted to the Allies’ early battle­field successes. As U.S. forces cut across France and into Germany, Ritchie Boys mostly stayed with their assigned units and focused on col­lecting stra­tegic-level intel­li­gence concerning German rail­road, mili­tary-indus­trial, scien­tific, chemi­cal, weapons, and petro­leum com­plexes, to name a few tar­gets of interest to senior Allied commanders and war planners.

Ritchie Boys took part in every major North African and Euro­pean engage­ment and cam­paign. A few saw service in the Pacific. Reportedly 60 per­cent of the cred­i­ble U.S. intel­li­gence gathered in Europe came from Ritchie Boy oper­a­tives. After Euro­pean hos­til­i­ties ended in May 1945 Ritchie Boys con­tin­ued to provide vital intel­li­gence as part of the Army’s de-Nazi­fi­ca­tion efforts. During this period many service­men of Jewish extrac­tion visited their ances­tral homes. Sadly, some fates of missing family members and friends remained for­ever unknown, whereas other missing per­sons were reported to have died in Allied aerial or artil­lery bom­bard­ments or by star­va­tion, physi­cal abuse, torture, exhaus­tion from slave labor or forced marches, disease, execution, or gassing in death chambers.

From Normandy’s beaches in June 1944 to the post­war Nurem­berg trials of major Nazi war crimi­nals and less well­-known mis­cre­ants (1946–1949), a little-known group of U.S. special mili­tary intel­li­gence oper­a­tives nick­named the Ritchie Boys trans­lated, inter­preted, and inter­ro­gated German pri­soners, defectors, and civil­ians and collected infor­ma­tion of tacti­cal and stra­tegic impor­tance; e.g., enemy troop size, loca­tion and move­ments; defen­sive forti­fi­ca­tions; the psycho­logi­cal and physi­cal state of Axis armed forces and civil­ian popu­la­tion; and the inner workings of the Nazi and Fascist regimes. They drafted propa­ganda leaf­lets, pro­duced radio broad­casts, and pub­lished a German-lan­guage news­paper that was air-dropped behind enemy lines. Using truck-mounted loud­speakers on front ­lines, they tried to demor­alize enemy sol­diers and civil­ians and per­suade them to sur­ren­der or at least cease their active resis­tance to the Allied inva­sion of their coun­try. A few Ritchie Boys were in the German-besieged Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge (mid-December 1944 to late January 1945). With Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army they saw first-hand the horrors of the Holo­caust as they helped lib­er­ate German concen­tra­tion and death camps and inter­ro­gate survi­vors, camp guards and prisoner-func­tion­aries who had served at the camps, as well as nearby villagers. As Bruce Hender­son tells us in his riveting national best­seller, Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, the con­tri­butions of the Ritchie Boys resulted in the deaths of many of the deter­mined enemy but also saved numer­ous lives on both sides of the con­flict and arguably helped shorten the war.—Norm Haskett

U.S. Army’s Wartime Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland

Ritchie Boys engaged in a coding exercise at Camp RitchieRitchie Boys demonstrate prisoner of war interrogation at Camp Ritchie

Left: In 1942 the U.S. War Department took possession of Camp Ritchie, named after a Mary­land gover­nor. A sum­mer training base for the state’s National Guard, the War Depart­ment repur­posed the leased site as a U.S. Army training cen­ter for com­bat intel­li­gence. Officially the camp was known as the Mili­tary Intel­li­gence Training Center, or MITC. MITC graduates would become known as the “Ritchie Boys”: the base’s wrought-iron front gate still proudly bore the name “Camp Ritchie.” In this photo, students are seen engaged in a coding exer­cise in MITC’s Signal Intelligence Code Room.

Right: Demonstrations of how to properly capture, handle, and “non-force­fully” inter­ro­gate pri­soners were part of MITC’s inten­sive eight-week intel­li­gence training sessions, 31 all totaled. Demon­stra­tions like the one in the photo­graph allowed sol­diers to see first­hand how their class­room instruc­tion was to be used in combat zones. For the sake of authen­tic­ity the “prisoner” in the middle is an Amer­i­can service­man dressed in a German uni­form playing the part of a German POW. Jewish soldiers found it galling to wear a German uni­form for any reason. Other enemy props included pistols, rifles, mortars, hand grenades, machine guns, and field artillery.

Ritchie Boys learn how to sweep enemy locale at Camp Ritchie 1Ritchie Boys learn how to sweep enemy locale at Camp Ritchie 2

Above: Soldiers sit on hillside bleachers watching actors raid a cut­away farm­house and con­duct maneu­vers in con­fined spaces, searching for both enemy com­bat­ants as well as action­able intel­li­gence like maps, docu­ments, and code­books, radio transmitters and receivers hidden in the nooks, crannies, walls, and beneath floorboards of the house.

2016 American Heroes Channel’s Interview with Guy (Günther) Stern, Former Ritchie Boy