America’s Secret Weapon During WWII
By James Rada Jr. and photos by Turner Photography Studio
The success of Fort Ritchie’s mission as a military installation helped the Allies win World War II, but the camp itself remained relatively unknown, except to locals in that area where Washington, Frederick, Adams, and Franklin counties meet.
The Buena Vista Ice Company of Philadelphia purchased 400 acres near Pen-Mar on South Mountain in 1889. The company developed the land and built lakes where it planned to cut ice from to ship to the surrounding cities for use as the refrigeration source in ice boxes.
The company built the two lakes it used for ice in 1901. Buena Vista shipped out the ice on the Western Maryland Railroad, which ran through the area.
“The area exists in a high valley, and you get very thick ice on Lake Royer,” said Landon Grove with the new Fort Ritchie Museum.
The ice was cut from the lake and stored in 11 ice houses until it was shipped to customers. The Buena Vista Ice Company had a transportation advantage over its competitors for shipping ice to the southern states. It was the southernmost ice company in the U.S., so it could ship ice quicker than companies farther north.
Also, when the lakes weren’t being used for ice in the summers, they became another attraction that visitors to the Pen-Mar resort area enjoyed.
Business continued until the demand for ice dropped off because of the development of electric refrigeration, and the Buena Vista Ice Company eventually closed. Pen-Mar began fading as railroads did. More and more people preferred using cars to travel, and this opened up new destinations for them to visit that weren’t near a railroad depot.
A Military Camp
During this time of decline, the area caught the attention of the Maryland National Guard. In 1926, the Maryland National Guard purchased the Buena Vista Ice Company property for $60,000 to use as a summer training camp, and that first year saw soldiers staying in tents in Cascade. Not only was the location isolated enough for the National Guard’s training needs, it was along the railroad, so it could be easily accessed and communications could be maintained using the telegraph line that already ran through the area.
The camp received $5 million from the Maryland State Legislature to start construction of the permanent buildings. Using local stone, the castle was the first building built in 1927. It was named Camp Ritchie in honor of the Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie.
Robert Barrick designed the buildings in the camp, and Barrick Avenue is named in his honor. “People often say that they spelled barrack wrong because they think the finger buildings are barracks and that is why the road is named Barrick, but it is named for Robert Barrick,” said Grove. He added, “Barrick only had a 7th grade education, but he created buildings that have stood for nearly a century.”
The Maryland National Guard used the camp until World War II. On June 19, 1942, the U.S. Army took over the camp, leasing it for $1 a year. The Military Intelligence Training Center was established in the camp, and over the course of the war, 19,600 intelligence troops would be trained at Camp Ritchie.
The Ritchie Boys
The first training class at the Military Intelligence Training Center had 32 soldiers in it, many of whom spoke little English because they were Jewish refugees from Europe. They spent eight weeks learning terrain analysis, close-combat training, codes, analyzing aerial photography, psychological warfare, counter intelligence, and interrogation. They became known as the Ritchie Boys.
“For their final test, they were put in a truck with the sides down, driven somewhere and dropped off in the dark,” Grove said. “They had to make their way back to the camp by morning.”
Guy Stern fled Nazi Germany in 1937 as a young man of 15. He left behind his parents and two siblings. He tried to bring his family over to the United States, but they eventually were killed in the Holocaust.
The U.S. Army drafted Stern in 1942 and he was transferred to Camp Ritchie the following year. Stern was trained in interrogation techniques, the evaluation of enemy documents, psychological warfare, German propaganda, and ancillary skills that every soldier needs. The training could also be physically demanding with long nighttime marches.
“I earned my Ph.D. at college, but nothing I had done at college was as difficult or intense as training at Camp Ritchie,” Stern said in a 2013 interview.
Once Stern’s training finished, his group was then sent to Louisiana for maneuvers that tested whether they had learned the skills they would need in Europe. Stern and other Ritchie Boys were then shipped across the Atlantic. They landed in Birm-ingham, England.
While in England, the Ritchie Boys took part marginally in the D-Day invasion planning. Stern said that they were in charge of how prisoners captured in the invasion were handled. Once the invasion began, the Ritchie Boys landed three days later to begin their prisoner interrogations.
One of their tactics was to play on the fears of German prisoners. When the Ritchie Boys discovered German soldiers feared being turned over to Russians, Stern began dressing up in the uniform of a Russian officer. Another Ritchie Boy would lead the prisoner into a tent decorated with Russian posters and mementos. Stern would then interro-gate the prisoner in character as a Russian.
One of Stern’s coups was when an Austrian deserter gave him a diary that the deserter had kept from the Battle of the Bulge to his capture at the Rhine River. Stern said that between his interrogations and the diary, he believed the information was correct and useful. It contained details on German morale, plans for troop retreats, and hints to the dispersion of other units.
“We could use the information to form the basis of how we directed our propaganda,” Stern said in 2013.
German Jews weren’t the only specialized soldiers trained at the camp. The Ritchie Boys also included several hundred Japanese-American soldiers.
They were known as Nisei or second-generation Japanese-Americans who had been born in the United States.
Among them was a young soldier named Kazuo Yumane. He had been a member of the Hawaii National Guard on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Soon after the attacks began, calls went out for all military per-sonnel to report to their posts.
“Yamane donned his uniform and rushed to Schofield Barracks. During the drive, he witnessed aircraft attacking Pearl Harbor and saw several ships burning and sinking,” according to the National Museum of the United States Army website.
In 1944, while Yamane was at Camp Ritchie, 15 crates of captured Japanese documents arrived at the camp to be translated.
“They were marked ‘No Military Significance,’ but Yamane found a battered notebook that listed all the locations of the Japanese munitions and armories,” Grove said.
The translation was delivered directly to the Pentagon, and the information was used as targeting data for B-29 bombing raid against Japan.
“It also allowed U.S. occupation forces to locate and secure caches of Japanese weapons and munitions after the end of World War II,” according to the National Museum of the United States Army.
Camp Ritchie trained many notable soldiers who had distinguished careers:
Archibald Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt; David Rockefeller, executive director of Chase and son of John D. Rockefeller; J. D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye; John Chafee, former Governor of Rhode Island; John Kluge, the wealthiest man in the United States in 1990; Ralph H. Baer, credited with inventing home video game consoles; Richard Schifter, assistant U.S. secretary of state under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; among others.
After the War
After WWII ended, the army conducted the Hill Project at the camp using 1,200 German POWs. They were interviewed extensively to understand why the German military had failed and the U.S. military had been successful.
“They also wanted to determine the threat that Russia posed to the U.S.,” Grove said.
The U.S. Army purchased the camp from Maryland in 1951, and it became Fort Ritchie. In the following years, personnel at the fort took part in helping build Site R, which has also been called “the Underground Pentagon.”
Fort Ritchie closed in 1998 under the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Sadly, even at this point, much of the work the fort had done to help the Allies win WWII was still classified and would remain so for years.
Reclaiming its Glory
The Army sold the property to Corporate Office Property Trust (COPT), and then the PenMar Development Corp. took over the property. When redevelopment there stalled, Washington County Government eventually took over the property. John Krumpotich purchased it last year.
“The timing could not have been better,” Grove said. The news show, 60 Minutes, ran a segment on the Ritchie Boys, which ignited interest in learning more about them and Fort Ritchie.
Since then, new businesses have opened on the property, and the NCO housing has been revitalized and is being rented to families. The Fort Ritchie Museum is also planned to open later this year. When it does, the legacy of Fort Ritchie will be on display for the world to see.