By Landon Grove, Director and Curator, Ritchie History Museum
It is sometimes easy to forget the absolute influence of media. Last month, I received a phone call from an unknown number while working in my yard just a few minutes from Cascade, Maryland. This has become routine for me as the new director and curator of the Ritchie History Museum. It turned out to be a producer from the well established television program 60 Minutes who had some questions regarding the Ritchie Boys of World War II and Camp Ritchie. The top-secret military intelligence training center is nestled quietly in an almost resort like setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains among the Mason-Dixon Line and the Appalachian Trail. After about a twenty minute conversation, it was apparent to me a solid program was in the works. They had already spoken with several Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans that trained in Camp Ritchie, Maryland; these oral testimonies are some of the last of their generation, and certainly some of the last of Camp Ritchie. And if you were fortunate enough to see the Ritchie Boys program on the CBS newsmagazine, (it can now be watched in its entirety online) you will know that the remaining Ritchie Boys, almost all in their late 90’s and early 100’s, have quite the story to tell. Now more than ever, their amazing tale need to be shared with the world and preserved for many years to come.
The timing of the 60 Minutes Program could not have been better. Fort Ritchie, which had its status permanently upgraded from a Camp to a Fort after World War II, was sold in April to a local developer who is enthusiastic about reviving the former Army Post and has vowed to protect its historic integrity. Since the airing of the show, dozens of family members have reached out with stories, photos, and donations for the benefit of the museum. I’ve gotten calls and emails from the children of Ritchie Boys who are simply elated to know that their father’s photo or items from the war could be on display in a museum.
Two buildings at Fort Ritchie are in the process of being designated specifically for the History of Camp Ritchie and Fort Ritchie. One of these buildings will act as the Ritchie History Museum and the other is to be operated as an educational center to teach those who visit Ritchie its rich military history. The Ritchie Boys will be at the forefront of this story. On top of this, family housing and an active plan of converting the nearly century old barracks and other buildings into shops and places for visitors to get excited about, is in the works too. Ritchie’s revival will take some time, but the energy surrounding the efforts to restore this historic gem have been remarkable.
How did the Ritchie Boys, a group comprised mainly of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe, end up in the Mountains of Maryland to being with? A brief history will tell the tale. In 1926, the Maryland National Guard required a training ground for its cadets and settled on the grounds of the former Buena Vista Ice Company which had gone out of business following a drop in demand for naturally cut ice. The telegraph and railroad lines previously established near Cascade made it an ideal place for secluded training practices. For sixteen years, the National Guard used this mountainous location to organize its domestic protectors. Meanwhile, German Jews were rapidly losing their rights both as citizens and humans. Soon, Europe was being utterly assaulted by a very well-polished, very well oiled machine intention permanently ridding the world of Judaism.
As Europe fell deeper into turmoil, the threatening writing on the wall became evident; Jewish families began sending their children, often their eldest sons, to the United States to live with relatives or sponsors however possible. While the situation in their home countries worsened, these new immigrants, grew up in the proverbial land of dreams, adapting to their new country, seeking out ways to maintain their religion, language, and culture. As they grew older, a good number of these Jewish Immigrants, not yet American citizens, enlisted in various branches of the military.
The December 7, 1941 attack of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese effectively ended Roosevelt’s 1940 campaign promise of staying out of foreign wars. Thus, Camp Ritchie was born in 1942 and it would soon play a pivotal role, not only in top secret military intelligence training, but also the lives of approximately thousands Jewish refugees whose linguistic and geographic knowledge would be the lynchpin allowing them to best serve their country and obtain US citizenship.
The United States Army rapidly recognized they had thousands of special assets on their hands in the form of soldiers who understood the language of the enemy as well as an intimate understanding of the geography, people, and culture of Europe. Many of these privates were transferred without knowledge of where their destination. They arrived at the gates of Camp Ritchie in Cascade, Maryland to find they were assigned to the Military Intelligence Training Center and were in for some of the most intense training of their lives. These men trained at Ritchie’s Military Intelligence Training Center training from learning Morse code, analyzing aerial photography, psychological warfare, and close combat training. Perhaps more than anything, language was at the forefront of their training. If you were known to speak a multiple language, and especially a European language, you were almost certainly passed through Camp Ritchie. These men fought in every major battle in Europe during the Second World War and it is estimated that more than 60% of all intelligence gathered during the war was secured by a Ritchie Boy; a feat which no doubt ended the war rapidly and saved an uncounted number of lives. Following the war, many went on to do incredible things and often found themselves at the top of their field. For some, their expertise in spying was instrumental in forming the CIA, for others they went on to be professors, open businesses, and held important jobs in the government.
The Ritchie Boys were subject of a 2004 documentary which detailed their adventures and as their assignments became declassified, several remaining Ritchie Boys continue to do their part to ensure that the world will not soon forget their comrades. While the story has been well known to some, others, including the children of some Ritchie Boys are just now learning of the heroism and wit their fathers demonstrated in the Western Theatre. When the CBS story aired on Mother’s Day 2021, in a matter of less than 60 Minutes, it turned a relatively unknown story into one that is now being publicized highly. It is my hope that this will snowball into an opportunity to commemorate the legacy of these soldiers with more depth and detail than ever we could ever think possible.
Now more than ever, the Ritchie History Museum asks for help in searching out donations to help keep the story of the Ritchie Boys alive. Please email Landon Grove, Director & Curator at the Ritchie History Museum at [email protected] or call 301-693-8325. Visit the Ritchie Museum website at https://www.ritchiemuseum.org/.
Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.