The farmers of west-central Maryland panicked when the German military spilled out of the woods. The invasion had begun. World War II was entering a new phase, or so they thought. But there was something different about these Nazis. Their uniforms didn’t fit right–too big or too small. The enemy soldiers spoke perfect American English. Their tanks were made of cardboard.
Maryland’s farmers were no doubt relieved to discover that, in fact, these Germans weren’t German. They were U.S. soldiers in disguise. And the Panzers that paraded down winding back roads weren’t there to wreak havoc on the countryside. They were U.S. Army vehicles outfitted as decoys. All this was part of elaborate military training just over the hill.
Washington County, Maryland seems far removed from the ring of military installations around the nation’s capital. But there, in the soft peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains was Camp Ritchie, where the U.S. Army trained interrogators and interpreters to bridge the language divide that stood between the United States and victory over the Axis Powers. This was sensitive, top secret training. Camp Ritchie in the remote Maryland mountains provided a suitable site.
Many of the soldiers who trained at Camp Ritchie were foreign-born immigrants to the U.S. who possessed the critical skill of fluency in more than one language. As veteran Hans Spear, a Camp Ritchie trainee, pointed out in the 2004 documentary The Ritchie Boys by Christian Bauer, the military could train a raw recruit to march or shoot a gun in six months, but gaining a good handle on a foreign language took much longer.
Many of the young men came from parts of Europe where fighting raged. The recruits jumped right into interrogation techniques and psychological warfare without having to first undertake the formidable task of learning the local tongue. At Camp Ritchie, these soldiers practiced mock interviews and intelligence gathering. There was a reconstructed European village and, yes, cardboard tanks and American soldiers in ill-fitting German and Japanese uniforms. The army trained some 20,000 operatives there during the war.
Ritchie Boys served with distinction on the battlefields of Europe. Their work gleaned information that saved lives. Their pleas to enemy soldiers over loudspeakers, on leaflets, imploring them to surrender, helped demoralize soldiers fighting for a lost cause. The Ritchie Boys orchestrated the interrogation of every single person in Aachen, the first German town that Americans liberated. The information they gathered was the basis for a questionnaire given to Germans after the fall of Berlin.
Veterans who trained at Camp Ritchie are understandably proud of their service. They met last year in Washington D.C. for the training facility’s 70th anniversary. While their memories and pride of service remain strong, Camp Ritchie itself has since passed on.
Today those rooms where the Ritchie Boys learned how to get an enemy soldier to talk stand vacant. Rows of empty barracks and classrooms line streets where few pedestrians walk. When the need for enemy interrogators flagged after World War II, Camp Ritchie, which became Fort Ritchie, served the army’s communications needs during the Cold War. But in 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission pegged Fort Ritchie as an expendable property and in 1998, it was decommissioned.
Fort Ritchie will never serve the military again, but there is the promise that the property will repurposed around many of the original features of the military base. PenMar Development Corporation hopes to transform the handsome property into a mixed-use community with homes and a corporate conference and training center. Fort Ritchie’s castle, once the centerpiece of the post, is now PenMar’s headquarters. The lakeside Fort Ritchie Community Center was once the officers’ club.
As the property makes this next transition, let’s hope that the contributions of all the men who helped conquer the 20th century’s greatest crisis, and the training they received here, are well remembered.