Anyone witnessing a recent reunion in Cascade, Md., might have seen 40 elderly men, most white-haired and some quite frail. But for those taking part, the occasion was a reawakening of memories of a time, 70 years ago, when they did something extraordinary for their country.
On June 19, members of the famous “Ritchie Boys” gathered at Fort Ritchie — or Camp Ritchie as it was known during World War II — where they were trained by United States Army Intelligence before being sent to Europe to deal with the enemy. Mostly German-speaking and disproportionately Jewish, the Ritchie Boys risked their lives to put their knowledge and language skills at the service of the U.S. Army.
Among them was Ernest Wachtel of Hillside, an Austrian immigrant whose Jewish parents fled Europe on the eve of the war.
“There was little reason to be sad,” he said of the reunion, “except to see how few us are still around and able to travel.”
In addition to Wachtel, there were three men from the Greater MetroWest area: Harry Ebert of Madison, Otto Frank of Morristown, and George Kahn of Summit.
Their visit was hosted by the U.S. Parks Department Conservation Association. It followed a symposium the day before in Washington, DC, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Camp Ritchie intelligence training center. The men were honored for their contribution to the Allied victory, and those attending were invited to take part in panel discussions and to talk about their experiences.
Some of the 19,000 Ritchie Boys were not even U.S. citizens when they joined up. They volunteered to go back to Europe, some not knowing if the parents or siblings left behind there were alive or dead.
Their duties included interrogating German prisoners of war, creating anti-Nazi propaganda, and, later on, serving as translators when Nazi leaders were brought to trial.
“What we remembered best was the intense training we underwent in a short time,” said Wachtel. “We were taught how to identify German soldiers, to recognize their rank, insignia, and formation, as well as their battle techniques, their most effective weapons, and their operations, etc.”
One of the people they all remembered was a guy they called “Man Mountain Dean.” “He was a giant of a man, an ex-wrestler who had joined the army and was a physical trainer in the camp,” Wachtel said.
Wachtel grew up in Vienna. His family fled to Paris in March 1938, and he managed to get into the United States on an Austrian visa that August, on his own, at the age of 14. His parents had to wait to get Polish visas, but a year later they made it too.
At 20, as a corporal in the U.S. Army, he was about to be deployed to Europe when he came down with a near-fatal bout of trichinosis. He recovered just in time to board the ship that landed him in Europe just three days after D-Day. It was his task to announce “fall in” over a loudspeaker to summon the prisoners. As a “screener,” Wachtel had to assess, from their uniforms and insignia, whether prisoners were senior enough to merit interrogation.
Wachtel was offered a permanent post, but he chose to be discharged from the army on Dec. 24, 1945. He’d had enough, he said. It was to time to get married, and settle down to civilian life in his adopted country.
According to Cascade resident Bill Carter, the secretary/treasurer of the Mountain Heritage Society, there are plans afoot to preserve the story of the Ritchie Boys, including a possible museum situated where Fort Ritchie stood. The project is currently held up by legal problems concerning the conversion of the former fort, but they hope to go ahead within the next couple of years. A documentary movie, The Ritchie Boys, was released in 2004.
Some attending last month’s reunion hadn’t seen their buddies since the war. It wasn’t always easy to recognize each other, but the connection was still there. During the two days together, they kidded about the mess hall and the food served there. Wachtel recalled how they would constantly keep an eye out for cigarette butts, even when they weren’t allowed to smoke.
Wachtel said some of the men met up last year in Michigan. “We spoke about further meetings, but this reunion was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “It was close by and accessible by train, so we were saved the hassle of boarding a plane.”