Camp Ritchie – Linda Kass

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Despite the January chill, Henry White and his roommates gathered on their cabin’s bare porch. The Camp Ritchie grounds—six hundred acres hidden inside the woods of west-central Maryland, ringed by the soft peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains—felt like a resort to Henry. After all, he came from Queens.

The four—Henry, Bobby Saltman, Max Schultz, and Eli Stoff—were recent arrivals. They were about the same age—twenty, give or take. Drafted from college. But Henry was the only one born in the States. At first, all the foreign accents, especially German, made him feel peculiar, as if he’d landed in the wrong army. Yet, he found it comfortable to be among several thousand servicemen. He was used to crowds.

That morning, Henry was in line to register and get his barracks assignment when he found himself standing next to three guys wearing identical fatigues, their olive duffle bags strung across their shoulders. He thought they could be brothers—each about six feet tall, solidly built, with dark hair and deep-set eyes. Eli introduced himself first, smiling with his entire face. Henry detected a German tinge in the way Eli pronounced Coolumbus, Ohio. Max and Bobby held out their hands in greeting—Max lived in Detroit and Bobby nearby in Washington, D.C. They had accents, too, but theirs were barely discernible. The four reached the front of the line as a unit and that’s how they wound up in the cabin together.

Most everyone at Camp Ritchie possessed some knowledge of the German language and culture. Henry considered it a pre-requisite of sorts—this ability to speak, or comprehend as he did, the language of the enemy. When it was discovered, recruits got routed to Camp Ritchie on secret orders. The officers at the Military Intelligence Training Center drilled the men until they emerged as interrogators of prisoners on the front line and counter-intelligence soldiers. 

After dropping off their belongings at their new living quarters, the four had headed to the mess hall. Henry felt an immediate ease and familiarity with his three cabin mates. Maybe it was that they were Jewish, as he was. He learned that at dinner, along with some details about their families and earlier lives. Henry was eager to hear more of their personal stories, sensing from their initial exchange a varying degree of persecution that brought each of them to America.

That night, as he took in the quiet beauty of their surroundings, Henry offered a cigarette to Eli, then lit his own. He drew in the smoke, then leaned against the wood railing and looked up at a dark sky blanketed with shimmering stars, something he never saw in the city. When he lowered his eyes, he realized that Max was holding a trumpet. 

“You played long?” Henry glanced at the instrument.

“Music runs in my family. My dad was first violin with the Detroit Symphony. Well, until two years ago. The orchestra’s been in a muddle since their national radio broadcasts on the Ford Symphony Hour were discontinued.” Max closed his lips on the mouthpiece, pulling out his tuning slide to get a pitch, then seamlessly began playing a jazz piece Henry couldn’t place. He watched Max’s dexterity as he fingered the valves, how the pitch went up and down when Max pushed and pulled the tuning slide. The tune was edgy and vibrant, the notes colliding in tension. Sort of how Henry had been feeling earlier.

But, now, he loosened up as the sound drew him in. They all listened, heads moving, feet tapping with the bebop rhythm. Max lowered his trumpet to a chorus of “Bravo!”

“Dizzy Gillepsie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ right?” Bobby pulled out an old harmonica from his shirt pocket. “I can improvise with you.”

Eli squinted to read the engraved script on the mouth organ’s silver plating. “That’s an Olympia. From Germany. You get it there?”

Bobby looked surprised at the question. “Yeah. In Hamburg. My father gave it to me just before he died, when I was ten. My mother and I emigrated to the States shortly after that. In ‘34. How’d you know about the make?”

Eli snuffed his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe, then dropped the butt in an empty paper cup. “I lived in Vienna until I was fifteen. So, music’s always been in my life, too. Classical, of course. But a guy I grew up with only listened to jazz. Taught me everything about it.” Eli nodded toward the harmonica. “I’ve had a fascination with instruments, though I don’t play anything.”

“I don’t play an instrument either, but I know talent when I hear it.” Henry sensed a deepening camaraderie among the group. “Can the two of you play together?”

“How about some Duke Ellington?” Eli motioned Henry for another cigarette.

The night air warmed with the rapid pulse of the up-tempo sounds of “Cotton Tail,” the mellow “Sophisticated Lady” and easygoing “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Henry looked at his new friends—Max and Bobby jamming, Eli swaying to the beat, grinning widely—and he couldn’t imagine anything as wonderful as this sound and this moment.

 

After a month at Camp Ritchie, they could anticipate the bugle call of Reveille. Every sunrise, the abrupt sound began their daily routine: they donned their basic uniforms, straightened their cabins, and headed for the mess hall. This February morning, the sky was clear, the air cold as Henry, Bobby, Max and Eli followed the rows of barracks and classroom buildings lining the long street, a few officers and fellow recruits up ahead. The recent snowfall still covered the road’s edges. Morning sunlight spilled through the trees, casting long shadows across their path. Henry’s eyes took in the scoops of snow caught in the arms of bare trees and the frozen bushes lining the approach to their main classroom. The tall, rock turrets flanking its entrance were now as familiar as the camp’s history.

They’d learned that it had opened less than two years earlier, not long after U.S. forces landed in North Africa and helped drive the German army off the continent. That the government decided to centralize its intelligence operations here, near Hagerstown, Maryland, where thousands whose records indicated foreign language fluency would receive highly specialized training: courses covering close intelligence gathering, combat instruction, map reading, identification of enemy personnel and their armored vehicles, identification of German and other foreign aircraft. These selected recruits would become conversant in French and German and proficient in sending and receiving Morse code transmissions.

Henry found the classes at Camp Ritchie far more challenging than his three years at Queens College in Flushing even though he’d been an accelerated student, entering in ’40 at the age of sixteen, just three months after the fall of France. Along with engineering, he began studying German as part of the Army Specialized Training Program in his sophomore year. Coupled with his parents’ sporadic use of German at home—they’d left Berlin after World War I—Henry gained a working grasp of the language. That and his German heritage fingered him for MI training.

In this short time, Henry and his fellow classmates had mastered the German table of organization and the Order of Battle, which covered the structure of the German army starting with the smallest unit—the squad—and moving up through the platoon and company level of battalion, regiment, division, corps and, finally, army. For all the divisions they might encounter in Europe, they were tested on unit designations, terms and abbreviations, the arsenal of weapons and their chain of command. Much of the information in the courses had to be memorized because the materials, even the classroom notes, couldn’t be taken with them in case they were captured. Henry still couldn’t keep the dozens of variations in the specialized foreign armies straight, but he was working hard at it.

Last week they’d learned how to read foreign maps, and spent hours comparing those German, French and British versions with the U.S. ones. They learned how to make a map with a pencil, a piece of string, a clipboard and a sheet of paper. Henry wasn’t sure why this exercise was even necessary. What if they didn’t have string or a clipboard out in the field? After their map-reading instruction, they had a detailed demonstration of German infantry weapons. They learned how to take apart a German machine gun and put it together again. Eli told Henry later that he found the many details about German weaponry, and the fact that German rifles were inferior to the American models, encouraging. “We have a deep understanding of our enemy.” He’d nodded at Henry with a thoughtful authority. “I think our intelligence will win the war for us.”

This Monday morning, instructor Walter Stern wrote in large bold letters on the chalkboard, IPW-Ge, short for the name of their course for the week, Interrogation of Prisoners of War-German. “How we handle prisoners of war is paramount. We’re going to focus today on getting crucial information from POWs.” Stern stood by the window, glancing outside. From where Henry sat, he viewed the man’s profile: thick brows perpetually furrowed in lingering contemplation or inquiry, a schnoz unflattering if on a woman but considered strong or sharp on a man of his build and stature. He’d heard Stern was a career Army man. That it was his tribe and he’d joined the military right out of high school.

“There are techniques you must use to sniff out the German imposters.” Stern now squarely faced the thirty trainees in the classroom. “You might find Germans who speak English so well, with no accent, that you need to trip them up. They might have forged papers and know the day’s passwords. Or you might come across someone like many of you—an American who came from Germany and speaks English with a German accent, easy to mistake as an infiltrator.” At that, Stern walked up the center aisle of desks and paused in front of Henry. “Ask them to recite the latest Frank Sinatra hit. Or name the team that won the World Series. Anything to finger an imposter so you don’t put your life and that of your comrades in danger.” He eyed the silent room of recruits. “Verstehe?”

After acknowledging the nodding heads, Stern added, “The detailed information you have can be used to impress prisoners. To unnerve them. Casually dropping the name of someone’s commanding officer could have a profound psychological effect on a prisoner under interrogation.”

He told the trainees to pair up, to reposition their desks so they faced a partner. “During this entire week, we’re going to role-play to hone your skills as interrogators. One of you will be a German, the other an MI officer. I will pose scenarios and you will act these out as if in the field. Questions before we begin?”

Max raised his hand.

“Yes, Schultz.”

Max stood and saluted. “Captain Stern, I’m wondering if there’s a general formula of how to begin the interrogation. So to keep the POW more willing to give us information, sir. And whether we would have weapons with us for these kinds of investigations.” He sat down.

“Good questions, Schultz.” Stern began to pace the room’s perimeter, the sound of his clipped steps as even as a metronome. “You do not bring any weapons to an interrogation. That will shut down the informant before you begin.” Stern looked up and made eye contact with several recruits before he continued. “Generally, you want to keep your comments circumscribed. Avoid leading questions. Most importantly, do not come off as threatening or you’ll close them down.

“Of course, before a word is spoken, you should do a quick visual assessment.” Stern retraced his steps, finally stopping next to the desks of Bobby and Max. “Take a prisoner’s branch and rank. You can figure this out from surveying his uniform. The many insignia—the medals, ribbons, patches. Look at their boots, the piping on a cap. The uniform style. And, notably, those in the SS have the SS tattoo under their arms.” The German Army Organization course taught them all of this.

            Henry glanced across the desk at Eli, his sparring partner for the day. “I won’t have a problem playing the evil Nazi,” Eli whispered. “I’m sure my old schoolmates have joined the Third Reich by now.”

Henry had been shocked when he first heard Eli’s stories from his Vienna days. How he was ridiculed by the time he was twelve; how his father lost his small uniform store in ’37 because he was Jewish. Henry realized Eli and others who grew up in Germany or Austria knew the culture and psyche of Germans better than anyone else. This innate understanding of the enemy was something less ingrained in Henry, who’d only observed the habits of his German-born parents.

            As Henry began his interrogation, Eli was standing. “Grab a chair. Do you want water, or a cigarette?” He knew some instructors sought more aggressive approaches from recruits during their interrogations, but Captain Stern was not one of them. Henry felt empathy and patience was the way to face his pretend enemy.

Eli shook his head as he slid into the wooden chair, appearing a bit self-conscious in his Nazi prisoner role despite his initial bravado.

After a series of harmless questions—name, rank, serial number—Henry worked to keep his tone steady as he steered toward more sensitive tactical information. “What military unit do you belong to? Where is it located?”

Eli mumbled some kind of made-up name and setting, already acting tired of the charade.

“If you can tell me where we can find American prisoners or your bunker locations, you can be assured of our continued considerate treatment.”

“I know nothing about where American POWs are held but I can lead you to several bunkers.” Then Eli began fabricating some story about a key map and his unit’s next planned attack.

Before Henry could provoke Eli by suggesting his account was a lie, Stern’s resounding voice announced it was time to switch places. Eli moved to the other side of the desk and Henry assumed the part of the prisoner, standing solemnly to the side. Henry watched Eli’s face transform from vulnerable POW to commanding interrogator, although Eli’s style was never intimidating. Henry found this exercise psychologically exhausting and energizing at the same time. Being at Camp Ritchie changed everything for him and he knew it was the same for the others. Sure, they were far from the reaches of their parents and the scrutiny of their college friends. But here they could practice being someone else, until they became someone else.

As their lunch break neared, Officer Stern’s booming voice again cut through the cacophony of low-pitched repartees and wrangles, and Henry’s growling stomach. “When you graduate from Camp Ritchie, you will be assigned to intelligence and interrogation units attached to different outfits all over Europe. And while your value is in translation and ad hoc frontline interrogation, when needed you will fight just like any other soldier in this war.” He strutted to the front of the room and turned to face them.

Henry felt the kind of drop in his gut that a sharp dip of a roller coaster used to produce. They’d be on the front lines. They’d be like any other soldier. He glanced over at Eli, trying to gauge if he caught the magnitude of this pronouncement.

 

By late April, recruits in Henry’s class completed their three months of classroom instruction and began special intelligence field activities. The combat exercises and field maneuvers created quite a stir for the farmers of west-central Maryland as, it seemed to them, German military spilled out of the woods. Henry heard the stories about complaints—the sightings of “Nazis and Japanese” and their fake Panzers “parading down” winding back roads. U.S. Army vehicles were outfitted as decoys in a reconstructed European village. If the farmers were close enough, they would have seen that the uniforms didn’t fit quite right. And that the enemy soldiers in their steel helmets spoke perfect American English. Or that their dummy tanks were made of cardboard. At first, locals had no idea that their remote Maryland woodlands provided the most suitable site for top-secret training. Once they learned these odd activities weren’t real, Henry heard they’d tell one another, “Oh, it’s just the Ritchie boys.”

            After sunset on a moonless night in early May, Henry and two dozen trainees were shuttled into the woods in GI trucks, a canvas cover dropped over the flatbed so they couldn’t see where the drivers were taking them. The truck left them at the edge of the forest with just a foreign map and a compass. The men’s assignment was to find the trucks before daybreak. Before Henry could open his mouth to ask a question, the trucks drove off to another obscure location.

 “Get a load of this map they left us.” Eli kneeled on the ground, unfolded the doctored document but covered himself with a cloth so he could turn on his flashlight without it being spotted by support troops who would “shoot” him in an exercise meant to mimic actual field combat. The blanks were as loud as live ammunition. The map was always missing important details, or words—a tactic that instructors employed to make their field task more difficult. Eli strained to make out the map’s distinctive markers as points of reference. He sighed. “At least it’s in German.”

Henry recalled last week’s map written in Russian, how they couldn’t hit all their checkpoints to get their envelope with tasks to complete and didn’t get back to camp in the allotted time. The very reason they had to repeat the exercise tonight. “It’s hard enough to get oriented using only a map and a compass out here. But then we can’t even translate it.” He stifled a yawn. “They’re being easy on us tonight.”

“I’m good at speaking German and can help with any structural document but can’t do much with this.” Max had quickly forgotten how to read German after immigrating from Frankfort at thirteen.  Army instructors were easy on him because of his understanding of architecture, his major at Wayne University. They gave him plenty of fake foreign documents of buildings and bunkers to decipher and emphasized that reading the German words wasn’t crucial.

“Eli’s our best bet to find our way out of here so we can maybe get some sleep tonight.” Bobby tugged at his ill-fitting army pants. “He can read German better than the rest of us put together.” Left unsaid was that Eli came to Camp Ritchie after serving a year in the Mountain Division in Colorado. They knew that of all of them, Eli Stoff was the most capable.

As Henry suspected, the evening’s mission proved fairly easy. Nothing like the time a recruit on one of their field missions broke down after four hours of trekking in circles. Their MI training took its physical and emotional toll, with sleep being the antidote they desperately needed. Thanks to Eli, they got it that night at least.

 

It took them nearly an hour by rail to get to Hagerstown from Camp Ritchie even though it was only eighteen miles away. They waited in the lobby of city hall for their names to be called so they could be sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens, all but Henry who already was a citizen. When it was Eli’s turn, Henry went in with him. Eli faced an army clerk with a stack of documents who verified his identity and said his papers were in order, handing him a card that he read aloud, declaring under oath that he would support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and take up arms when the nation required it. When he finished reading, the clerk stamped an official paper and handed it to Eli. “Now I’m protected if I ever become a POW,” he whispered to Henry.

It was nearly seventy miles from Hagerstown to D.C., where Bobby had lived for the past ten years with his mother, Lena, and where the Cabin One crew decided to go for their three-day furlough. During the trip, Henry learned that after Bobby’s father died, his mother was able to arrange exit visas because she was an American citizen by birth. Bobby’d come from a prominent German family, his father a sought-after surgeon whose practice focused on facial restoration. The Salter home had servants. At six, Bobby attended a boarding school outside Hamburg. He told them his family was secular, although his paternal grandparents, who originally came from Romania, were observant.

            “After Hitler became German Chancellor, even we felt hostility.” Bobby’s slick black hair and dark, mysterious eyes gave him a Mediterranean look. He could have easily passed for Italian. “We had neighbors who were German diplomats. Their daughter was in school with me and one day they invited me over. It was then I noticed a poster on their wall. Down with the Jewish Press, it said, and there was a swastika at the bottom. I was barely ten, but I understood what was happening.” 

            “I guess we all had those eye-openers. Mine was six years ago.” Eli gazed out the window. “It was on a train like this. I was the only Jew on a school skiing trip. My classmates were anti-Semitic, some more obvious than others. Only one boy—he was my best friend—stuck by my side. Anyway, on the ride back, Nazi soldiers appeared on station platforms at our stops in Linz and Salzburg. Turned out to be the day of the Anschluss. By the time I got home, my mother was desperately hunting for people to help us get out of there.”

            “My parents changed our name from Weiss to White when they came over from Berlin after the Great War.” Henry always felt self-conscious about admitting this fact. “I was harassed in my Queens neighborhood, so stuff wasn’t always easy here either. I was a pretty scrawny kid so when I was twelve my dad found a man who’d been a professional boxer to teach me how to defend myself. I learned boxing, wrestling and judo—stuff in the book and not in the book. I trained three afternoons a week after school for most of that year. Alternated my bar mitzvah lessons with boxing.”

            He saw that the others were intently listening, so he decided to tell them about the fight. “We lived in a mixed neighborhood. Some rough older kids were always after me. One day I decided I was ready to take them on. I told the largest kid to fight me one on one. As he moved forward, I kicked him as hard as I could in the groin, grabbed him by the hair and punched him hard in the stomach. He landed on his back. The others fled fast. I learned then that if you have the right tools, you can get back at the enemy, right fellas?”

            “We all were persecuted in one way or another,” Max said. “Now it’s time to get even with Hitler.”

            They arrived in Washington in time for dinner. Bobby hadn’t bothered to tell them his mother was a well-known radio host on WWDC—all the more impressive for her as a rare female in broadcasting—or that his father had socked away a bunch of money and they lived much as they had in Hamburg. And that she was a great cook.

            Between bites of Chicken Française and rice pilaf, Lena asked what each boy had studied before getting drafted. Henry realized he’d only known about Max’s expertise in architecture because it came up during document analysis class, as did his aptitude in structural engineering. Eli shared that he was a business major at Ohio State and hoped someday to attend law school.

            “Mom just wants to rub in that she’d wanted me to follow my dad’s footsteps into medicine. I majored in theatre at George Washington—it’s in Foggy Bottom. I’ll take you through there tomorrow.” Bobby passed the basket of rolls to Henry. “Being pre-med would have deferred me from the draft. A sore point with Mom.”

            “Well, then you wouldn’t have met these lovely young men, Bobby. Nor would I.” Lena’s smile made her entire face light up.

            The idea that Bobby had wanted to be an actor both surprised and made perfect sense to Henry. It explained why Bobby was exceptional during the role-playing sessions in their interrogation classes, and that he was the most sensitive of the group, prone to play his harmonica quietly on the cabin porch. And why he seemed to dislike the intelligence field activities.

            “When all this is over, I want to move to New York and perform on Broadway,” Bobby confessed.

            “Hey, maybe we could be roommates again.” As a kid, Henry had always dreamed of building skyscrapers. That was behind his decision to major in engineering. And now he could picture it: finally getting out of Queens to live in Manhattan, working his way up at a major real estate company.  

It was the first glimpse into his future that he’d let himself imagine since they met at Camp Ritchie.

           

The next day, after Bobby showed them around his hometown, they stopped at Lena’s radio station on Connecticut Avenue. WWDC broadcast almost around the clock, beginning at eight in the morning, with newscasts five minutes before every hour. Lena hosted a daily talk show that ended at noon. She had just gotten off the air when they made their appearance.

“Well, I’m impressed. You look quite official in your army attire.” Lena led them down the station’s narrow hallway, intent on giving them a tour.

Henry peeked into the first open door. “Wow! Look at all that equipment!”

A man who seemed to be in his thirties looked up at Henry, laying aside his stack of papers. A microphone speaker hung above his desk in front of a metal console filled with knobs and keys. Black padded ear phones casually wrapped around his neck and rested against his crisp white collar. “Who do we have here? Well, hello Lena.”

“Walter, let me introduce you to these army intelligence trainees—Henry White, Eli Stoff, Max Schultz. And my son, Bobby. Boys, this is Walter Karr, WWDC’s top news announcer.”

“Nice to meet you all.” Karr pushed himself away from his desk and motioned the group to come inside his boxy studio. “I have some time before my next broadcast. Happy to answer any of your questions. But only if you share some of your military secrets with me.” He flashed them his winsome smile.

 Henry was most interested in the design and use of the broadcast panel. Max wondered if WWDC broadcast music as well. He shared his father’s prominent role with the Detroit Symphony and that the orchestra’s national radio broadcasts used to be heard on the Ford Symphony Hour. Eli and Bobby remained uncharacteristically quiet until Karr asked them questions about their Camp Ritchie training. While they avoided specifics, each spoke of the general training that would allow them to bring useful enemy information back to the army.

A red light illuminated the glass “On Air” marquee above the door, signaling the upcoming broadcast. The trainees quickly thanked Walter for his time and filed back into the hallway. Lena corralled them into the next studio, almost identical in size and filled with similar equipment but unmanned.

“Let’s listen to Walter’s broadcast in here.” Lena’s words were cut off by Walter’s voice crackling into the studio over the intercom.

Allies land in France and wipe out big air bases! Stay tuned for more news after these words from our sponsors.

 

Patriotic messages filled a full minute of air time. Advertisements for Marboro, Nestle and Coca-Cola dragged on, intensifying the charged anticipation in the cramped room. Henry remained standing as he held his breath and looked at his friends, their expressions taut. This was real time. Real news. And it was coming from the studio right next to them.

After a promotion for GM’s Oldsmobile Division, Fire power is our business, Max groused, “Geez,” under his breath. Finally, Walter’s voice burst back over the airwaves.

This report just in folks. Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval troops supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France. An Associated Press correspondent flying over the French coast in a B-26 Marauder reported seeing the fields inland strewn with hundreds of parachutes and dotted with gliders, while great naval forces fired into the coast fortifications. The landing fleet included several battleships, which the Germans said set the whole Seine Bay area ablaze with their fire.

 

No one spoke at first. But one thing was instantly, indisputably clear: their intense practice these months at Camp Ritchie was over. Henry saw resignation and acceptance as the four friends locked eyes with one another. They were ready to become intelligence experts and interrogators in a real war. To carry out their orders. But there would be the noble cause of their work and the brutal reality of that work. Didn’t their instructors tell them that, in the end, war is about rage and cruelty and killing and death?

As soldiers, they were about to face something immense, something they couldn’t possibly grasp. It occurred to Henry how temporary their experience at Camp Ritchie had been, how fragile and fleeting their sense of belonging. He thought back to the evening on their cabin porch not even six months earlier: the quiet beauty of the night and the pulsating rhythm of music that morphed into a moment of camaraderie and connection.

Who knew what uncertain fates lay ahead of them?

 

After receiving an MA in Journalism, Linda spent her early career as a reporter for regional and national magazines. Her first novel, Tasa’s Song, set in eastern Poland during WWII, garnered widespread praise following its May 2016 publication. She is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books, an independent bookstore in Bexley, Ohio, serves as an assistant editor for the online literary magazine, Narrative, and is on the Editorial Board of Trillium, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press. 

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