An untold D-Day story

6/5/2014

By Michael Strand

By Michael Strand

The Salina Journal, Kan.

ABILENE (MCT) — Decades after World War II, new stories are still emerging — such as the story told in the recent movie "Monuments Men," about a special unit created to recover and protect priceless art stolen by the Nazis.

So if you've never heard the story of the "Ritchie Boys," don't feel bad.

It wasn't that many years ago that Karl Weissenbach hadn't heard of them, either.

Weissenbach, director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, recalled that he was living in Maryland about 10 years ago when he was in the post office and heard some men speaking German.

"I asked what they were doing — I speak German also — and they said they were making a film about the Ritchie Boys," he said. "I'd never heard of them before."

The filmmakers told him the short version of the story of thousands of mostly German Jews who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and were recruited by the U.S. military for their knowledge of German language and culture.

Working in small groups, often deep behind enemy lines, they fed information back to Allied commanders, interrogated German prisoners and engaged in psychological warfare intended to break German morale.

They were in danger of being shot as spies by the Germans — and possibly by Allied troops as well, because of their German accents.

They got the name "Ritchie Boys" because they were trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, just a few miles from where Weissenbach lived when he first heard of them.

When he moved to Abilene to work at the Eisenhower Library, "I kept that story in the back of my mind, thinking we should have one come here."

At 4 p.m. June 6, former Ritchie Boy Guy Stern will talk about his experiences as part of the "D-Day + 70 Years" event, which runs Friday and Saturday.

Solving problems

Stern was born in Germany in 1922 and came to the United States in 1937, with his parents and a brother and sister staying behind.

He was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and sent to Camp Ritchie to learn interrogation techniques. He came ashore at Normandy two days after the D-Day invasion.

In an interview by email, Stern said there were occasional issues between the Ritchie Boys and other soldiers, but ways were found to smooth those over.

"We had some trouble with communications on maneuvers in Louisiana, and our ranking noncombat Ritchie Boy, Kurt Jasen, solved the problem brilliantly," Stern said. "He bought bottles of Southern Comfort for each of the noncombat members of the MP company. After that, communications worked perfectly."

Once facing the German military, Stern said, any differences vanished.

"Seriously, in the field, total cooperation was with all troops," he said.

He said that he worked closely with the ranger battalion that had taken the cliffs at Omaha Beach and that the rangers spent some time guarding the prisoners the Ritchie Boys were questioning.

During the German counteroffensive in late 1944, Stern said, he and another Ritchie Boy accidentally ended up attracting the attention of higher-ups in Washington, D.C.

"Sgt. Hecht of New York and I were asked to write a humorous story to restore our spirits after the murderous German counterattack in the winter of '44," Stern said. "The story we thought up was complete fiction: That we had captured Hitler's latrine orderly and that Hitler had given orders to infiltrate our lines to capture him."

"One of our officers didn't recognize that it was a made-up funny story and repeated it to Washington," Stern said. "We almost had the unwanted visit of a high-ranking Pentagon officer, who wanted to do an expert interrogation of the prisoner."

Asked his thoughts on returning to his native country as part of an invading army, Stern replied: "Actually, in warfare, borders disappear — but when we realized we were on German soil, we felt we were reacquiring our hold on our own homeland. Now we could finish the job of restoring our country to its democratic tradition."

Stern earned a Bronze Star for his work in World War II; after the war, he searched for his family and found they'd been deported to the Warsaw ghetto in Poland and died there.

Always new stories

"I think there's an incredible amount of material that can lead to movies and books, and researchers are still uncovering new stories here," Weissenbach said. "You never know what they're going to come up with."

Events such as those scheduled for Friday and Saturday have multiple purposes, Weissenbach said.

"With every year that passes, we lose veterans from the era," he said. "It's incumbent on us to create a program that demonstrates we care and remember.

"We also use this as a means of reminding the general public of the sacrifices that were made many years ago. Many today have very little knowledge of the second world war and its aftermath. I think that's what Gen. Eisenhower would have wanted us to do."

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