Fort Ritchie, Maryland and the Remnants of an Indispensable Allied Weapon

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.

Fort Ritchie 3      Fort Ritchie 1

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.

Fort Ritchie 2      Fort Ritchie 5

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 7      Fort Ritchie 6

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.

 Fort Ritchie 4

Fort Ritchie

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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28 Responses to Fort Ritchie, Maryland and the Remnants of an Indispensable Allied Weapon

  1. Jack Cureton says:

    In 1961, I was stationed at the Fort Ritchie receiver site near Sharpsburg, MD. What happened to that site and what was its exact highway [road] location? I would love to find it on google maps. Thank you, Jack

    • Stacey says:

      Jack, I’d google map Sharpsburg Pike and look for any government owned or national park area. That’s where you’d find it:)

  2. Stacey says:

    Its not though which is sad to those of us who live on the mountain with it. PenMar does an amazing job at keeping up on it but unfortunately our system allowed someone who only has a residence on the mountain as a “vacation home” stop entire development. Where once our beautiful town was going to give us shops, resturants, schools, family fun and new homes because of this “law suit” the development corp that Pen Mar was working with has lost their contract. The entire 600+ acres of Ritchie is now for sale for 10 Million dollars. The government made no attempt to make sure this beautiful community that hosts one of the major factors of our historical victory in WW2 is preserved, but gave our town back all of the economy it lost as our population dropped by 3/4 of who called this home. I’m sorry to say the answer to that last question is, No. The historical value and beauty are not being honored properly for Camp Ritchie. I wish it were.

  3. Michael says:

    I live adjacent to Fort Ritchie. Over the last few years, I’ve seen the deterioration of the historic buildings that once housed one of our greatest generations of warriors. While I do NOT support large development (aka over-development) in this region, I would like to see some form of revitalization of the old fort. The houses and buildings are in total disrepair. They are NOT being maintained, repaired or secured in any way. As a matter of fact, many of the historic properties are physically falling apart. I see kids going in and out of the vacant houses. There are broken windows on the old houses and buildings, graffiti, overgrown vegetation, eroded roads and a general lack of oversight by the corporate property owners. The rental housing at the back of the base has drawn a few “less than favorable” residents. It’s time that the state (or dare I say even the feds) step in and turn the old base around … to take care of it … as part of our American history and local culture.

    • Gloria Larravide says:

      You need to contact the local Historical Society, then they can register it as a Historic Site, when that happens then it will be secured and cared for –
      I sure hope you do it, as this sounds like it should be cared for.

      I used to play in an old antebellum mansion in proper DC and the city sold it to German govt. who tore it down to build their modern embassy : \
      It was from before the Civil War : ( and was TORN down because it was sold to ‘developers’ – a country govt. who did not share in the concept that it was a piece of US history. : (

      Please do what you can to save this before something similar happens to it. It is such a shame when this happens because I for one will never be able to visit that play site from my youth again and the city lost a Antebellum monument. (pre-civil war architecture/ site)

    • Gabrielle says:

      Hi Michael,
      I am a photography student in college at University of Maryland looking for a place like this to capture for an upcoming project. I know you last posted in 2015 but I was wondering if there was a way I could get more up to date information on the place. You mentioned that kids were going in; are there ways to get into these abandoned buildings? Are they still there today? My goal is to capture the aesthetic of an abandoned location that has been undervalued. Your mention of this location being part of our American history and local culture makes me feel drawn to capture the message that is conveying. I hope to hear back knowing that this is a long shot.
      Thanks so much!

  4. Frank Ball says:

    I was assigned to Ft Ritchie in September 1964 from Augsburg, Germany, I had a number of assignments, Family Housing Assignment NCO, Military Personnel and last job before departing for Viet Nam, assigned as the Administrative NCO for the Deputy Commander, Every duty day the Colonel and I would tour the Post. He didn’t miss a thing in regards to insuring Fort Ritchie was the best maintained military post in the Army. I had the pleasure to be assigned to Germany, 3 tours and a number of CONUS duty assignments, but Fort Ritchie was the best. Just a great place to be living and working while serving. Many, many fond memories. My wife and I have visited the Post a couple of times in the last two years, 2014 and 2015. Sad to see how it looks today in comparison to the PRIME years of the past. I will be visiting again and recalling old memories of what Fort Ritchie once was. Why did they do away with golf course? Could have been a money-maker. The Deputy Post Commander I worked for was Colonel Otto Koch. Moved up to Post Commander and then retired. An officer and gentleman.

  5. Cliff Allen says:

    I was an MP at Fort Ritchie from 1973 to 1974. Great memories!!

    • Jack Cureton says:

      I WAS STATIONED AT FT. RITCHIE RECEIVER SITE FOR SEVERAL MONTHS IN 1961 – I REALLY MISSED OUT BY NOT HAVING A CAR – IT WOULD BE NICE TO VISIT THERE AGAIN – REGARDS, JACK CURETON

  6. Jim Newsom says:

    I was stationed at Frt Ritchie in 1968 as a cook. I have a few pictures from that time that might be of interest./Users/Jim/Desktop/img821.jpg/Users/Jim/Desktop/img087.jpg/Users/Jim/Desktop/img086.jpg/Users/Jim/Desktop/img281.jpg

  7. Paul Haber says:

    I was stationed at Ft Ritchie in 1956 &57. I was an MP/security guard pulling duty at various sites in the area..
    I recently went there and was saddened by it’s condition.

    • Jack Cureton says:

      I WAS STATIONED AT THE RECEIVER SITE IN EARLY 1961 – AS I DID NOT HAVE A CAR, I MADE ONLY TWO VISITS TO THE MAIN SITE AND THERE AGAIN, I NEVER SAW OR WAS IN THE COMMUNICATIONS CENTER THERE – JACK C.

  8. Kevin Abott says:

    I was station at fort Ritchie from. 1973 thru 1975 at the. Avn section we were location at Hagerstown airport , we were located at the Fairchild plant, I lived in waysboro pa. It was a great duty……

  9. Rich Bua says:

    I was stationed at Fort Ritchie from 1965-67 great duty worked in communications at the underground site does anyone know how to find the site on the internet would love to see it again.

    • Kevin abbott says:

      To find. Raven rock. Put in. Goggle. Site. R. And it will come. Up
      Good day ,m. Kevin Abbott.

      • Jack Cureton says:

        Is it possible that a tour of this communications center be taken – I was stationed at the receiver site in 1960 – 61.

        Jack Cureton

        • William D. McDunn says:

          I was stationed at the receiver site, Detachment B, in 1959-1960. Someone might remember me by the car I drove, a copper colored 1953 Studebaker sport coupe. I was the only microwave radio tech. on site. I have many fond memories of my days at Det. B, it was more like a family than a military unit. I visited the site with my son in 1997 while on vacation. The facility, at that time, had been taken over by the MD Dept. of Agriculture. I was able to enter the building that had been the troop billets, orderly room and mess hall and sign the guest book. Someone asked directions to the site, I used to make several trips a week to Boonsboro, and stop at the Red Bird Diner along the way. There is a highway that runs between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg, MD and somewhere along that road on the right when headed to Sharpsburg is a turnoff that takes you over the Burnside Bridge and that little country road winds around and leads right to Det. B.
          Regards, Bill McDunn

  10. Alan Horst says:

    I worked on Ft. Ritchie in 1987 remodeling the family housing units before joining the Marines. I drove through the old Fort 5 years ago, eery to see it abandoned.

  11. John D says:

    I was an MP from 1986 to 1988. I have great memories of Ft Ritchie. It’s incredibly sad to hear about it’s condition. I hope those I was close to are doing well.

  12. Norman Moses says:

    I was stationed at Fort Ritchie Maryland from July 63 through October 64. Was there when JFK was sadly assassinated. I was first in personnel. I remember taking the polygraph test before remaining there and my assignment there. Later I did pro-pay testing as well as all other test when personnel requested for OCS, MOS change, Rotor-Wing helicopter test etc. Really loved the place. On weekends I played on our flag football team also. Remember fondly the little restaurant on the post and the great hamburgers at the off-campus Amer Legion down the road from the exist. We called the area Chocolate Park and I never knew why.

  13. Bear the Service Officer says:

    I was told that the Fort Ritchie was well-known to have been contaminated with Agent Orange herbicide. Does anyone know that as a fact? Not trying to spread fear and bull-stuff, but just trying to get a handle on facts to possibly assist a veteran with a claim.

  14. William D. McDunn says:

    This is for Bear the Service Officer: Buddy, I can’t imagine any reason for Agent Orange to be used or stored anywhere near Fort Ritchie.

    On a different topic, I am in touch by email, (on a daily basis) with a retired Command SGM who I first met in 1958 when we both got assigned to Ft. Ritchie. We both had the same MOS and for the next 20 plus years we followed each other around the world until I retired with 21 years in 1978,, My friend stayed on and retired somewhere around 1990. He managed to get Ft. Ritchie as his final assignment and then became a civil servant at the Fort . During his years as a DAC he had a home built in Pen Mar where he still lives today. I was thinking about the receiver site last night after a phone call from my buddy in Pen Mar. I was recalling some of the guys I knew and worked with at Det. B way back then, such as 1sgt Bill Miller, Westly Quick (our cook), Bob Kronz radio operator, SFC Faircloth, and a dog handler SP4 Stroud. When I last visited Det.B in 1997 My son and I stopped in at the Red Bird Diner along the road to Sharpsburg. It was under new management but I had missed the original owners by just a few months. They had sold the place and moved to Florida. Well, enough of my ramblings, I hope at least one of the people I’ve mentioned here read this and are surprised that someone remembers them after all these years.

  15. Ray Anderson says:

    Agent Orange was used at Ft. Ritchie twice and, for those who drank the water, the EPA has reported ground water contamination. Although folks are no longer drinking the water from the Ritchie treatment plant those who were stationed there over the decades did consume the water and all the stuff it had to offer. Just search Fort Ritchie and EPA or Agent Orange.

    • Stacey says:

      Hey Ray, thanks for that info. Where was the treatment plant? Beside the fort onnthe other side of the tracks/lakes? If so, that is the plant that is currently used for the town.

      • Francis L. Storer (Frank) says:

        Storer, I was stationed at the “Rock” from 1968 to 1976 at the Air Force Emergency Operations Center as an Illustrator went from A1C to MSgt. I also was the cook at the NCO Club and Officer’s Club for seven years. The whole NCO Club was staffed by Air Force personnel except the Club Steward. Got my BA in Art Ed at Sheppard College While there and my wife and I had 3 children there. Sure would like to see The “Rock” again and the Bue Ridge Summit Diner and Old Gray Stone Inn.

  16. John Socha says:

    I got to spend a week or so inside the mountain at Ft. Richie for Operation High Heels 67, working as a courier for The Joint Chiefs Of Staff. We simulated WWIII. What is left of it now?

    • Kevin Abbott says:

      Hi John, Site R is still working but Fort Ritchie is closed it is a mess they are not during any thing. Right with a old base . I wa station there from. Aug 73 thru Dec 75.
      It was one of my best duty stations
      Kevin Abbott

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