WW II's 'Ritchie Boys' Were A Key Intelligence Group
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Today here in Washington, D.C., a group of surviving World War II U.S. intelligence specialists are reuniting. Seventy years ago during the war, they were trained for interrogation and psychological warfare at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. They're informally known as the Ritchie Boys.
Among the Ritchie Boys are some who left Europe before the war and were especially useful for their language skills. One of them is Gerald Geiger. He was born in Vienna and his family moved him back and forth between Vienna and New York City. He was 15 when the Nazis took over Austria. His father opposed that German move and so he used his connections to get the family out.
GERALD GEIGER: My father was insurance executive so we traveled a lot. And wherever you go, you were received by the host and it was expected that to speak the host's language, at least well enough to say hello and thanks, and so forth and so on. And even at an early age, I spoke French and I understood English in addition to German - plus, of course, Latin and Greek which we had in high school.
SIEGEL: Another Ritchie Boy from Vienna is retired Ambassador Richard Schifter who was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. His family was Jewish and it was a lot harder for them to leave the country. Young Schifter was sent ahead, the others never managed to get out. And when he returned during the war, Schifter says he had to control his emotions.
RICHARD SCHIFTER: In October of '44, I believe that my parents had been killed by the Nazis. And it turned out that that was a correct assumption. And I remember saying to myself, now that I'm going into Germany, I'm going to be encountering Germans again. What I should adhere to is the basic principle that guilt is individual, that there is no such thing as collective guilt.
SIEGEL: These two men and the other Ritchie Boys at the reunion are expected to visit the Maryland camp where they were trained. It'll be a chance to relive old memories. Gerald Geiger is likely to think about how his training allowed him to turn the tables on an interrogator after he was captured by German troops north of Nuremberg.
GEIGER: I used the interrogation techniques in reverse. So he said: Where are your tanks? I want to know where are your tanks. And I said have you got a map. And he showed me the map. And so I said, where are we now. See? So I walked backwards. It's amazing what you can do when your life's at stake, you know.
SIEGEL: You mean you actually used the interrogation to figure out where you were at that point.
GEIGER: Yeah, I asked him where are we now. See? And then I said - the next question is where was I captured. It took five...
GEIGER: So, it took five minutes to find out where I was captured at (foreign language spoken), see? Then I started saving us at IS. I said my officer was lost and they didn't tell me where I was going. I'm just a private. I'm dumb. I don't know from nothing. See? And then I said, oh, I said we have these new tanks. We got the new M-24s with the 75 millimeter guns. I said, yeah, that I know. That I know. See?
GEIGER: So, he got mad. Then all of a sudden, we came under fire from what sounded like our tanks. So he picked up this candle and his papers and he left. And that was the end of the interrogation.
SIEGEL: Pretty soon, Geiger escaped and resumed work doing reconnaissance.
Richard Schifter was an interrogator. He recalled one interrogation near the end of the war. He was with the unit that was in the newly occupied German city of Aachen. Schifter was interrogating civilians.
Were there any German spies among them?
SCHIFTER: First question, I was to ask was: What's your occupation? And the man's response was engineer. So I said: Where do you work? And he said, Peenemunde. This is where they manufactured missiles. I then said: Well, what are you doing here? And he said: Well, you know, I had to leave coming and I have relatives in West Germany. And I decided to go see my relatives and you people were coming closer. And I decided under these circumstances I might as well wait for you to come, because I want the war to be over.
And then I said: How are we doing with our bombing of Peenemunde? And the point to keep in mind is photo intelligence wasn't then what it is now. So, his response was: Well, you hit some, you missed some. So I said, you want to sketch this out for me.
So he thought about it for a while and then he said: You know, I want the war to be over. I gave him a piece of paper and pencil, and he started sketching things out. So, the next thing we did was to call Air Force intelligence in London and tell them about what - that we had somebody who had been at Peenemunde and is willing to talk about Peenemunde. The answer we got was make sure he doesn't get away. We are going to have to people there in 12 hours.
SIEGEL: Richard Schifter says that man turned out to be a very valuable source of intelligence. Both Schifter and Gerald Geiger recall a lesson they were taught at Camp Ritchie for interrogating German troops that they say proved effective in the war. The Germans were terrified of how our ally, the Soviet Union, might treat them. So, while they say they never handed a POW over to the Russians, they did mention that possibility in front of the prisoners.
Richard Schifter remembers one prisoner who told him nothing more than he was legally obliged to tell.
SCHIFTER: He gave me his name. And then I asked him what unit he belonged to. That point, he clammed up - didn't say a word. So I asked him a number of times, didn't answer. So I did what we had been told to do, I called somebody else in. And I said for our next shipment to the Soviet Union, we have another candidate and I started dictating his name. At that point, he said (foreign language spoken) - Fourth Parachute Division, what else you want to know.
SIEGEL: That's Richard Schifter. He and Gerald Geiger were both in the World War II intelligence group known as the Ritchie Boys. Today and tomorrow, there is a commemoration of the Military Intelligence Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.