True Spies Episode 68: The Ritchie Boys
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 68: The Ritchie Boys.
GUY STERN: We were going into an unknown country, unknown conditions, unknown enemies.
NARRATOR: It’s the 9th of June, 1944.
GUY STERN: As is known by everyone who reads a history book, we invaded Normandy on a day that was not fixed long in advance, but depended on the weather. My orders came that I was to go on a PT Boat on D+3.
NARRATOR: It’s three days after D-Day - the invasion of occupied Normandy by Allied forces. But D-day doesn’t happen all at once. For around a week afterward, landing craft and the churn of boots batter the dark-green sea to foam. Needless to say, the air is thick with bullets.
GUY STERN: Every soldier was in the same boat. We had no foothold yet on our territory in the coast to be invaded.
NARRATOR: It’s here that we find this week’s True Spy. He’s one of an exclusive body of passengers making land in one of the US Navy’s lightweight PT torpedo boats. He’s 22 years old with dark hair and expressive eyes. Right now, they’re expressing that he’s scared out of his mind. Well, wouldn’t you be? Still, no time to think about that. There’s work to do.
GUY STERN: And the moment I landed, one of my fellow soldiers, a comrade in arms who had already landed before me, shouted at me to get over to his stand because they were flooded with prisoners - if that's the right metaphor - and he needed some relief.
NARRATOR: He’s part of a secret unit of US Army interrogators charged with extracting tactical and strategic information from prisoners of war. History remembers them as 'the Ritchie Boys' - so named for Camp Ritchie, the secretive military intelligence base where they were trained. Guy Stern is one of the last. He’s a year shy of 100 years old.
GUY STERN: My name is Guy Stern and in my present occupation I am employed by our Holocaust Museum here in Greater Detroit. It's the oldest in the country.
NARRATOR: Guy was born in 1922, in Hildesheim, Northern Germany, to a Jewish family. The community was a tolerant one.
GUY STERN: Hildesheim had, at that time, about 65,000 inhabitants. And we got along very well. The Catholic and Protestant majority rubbed along well with the city’s small Jewish population. It wouldn’t last. Shortly after Guy’s 11th birthday, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
GUY STERN: So, the difference of intolerance that all of a sudden came upon us was a surprise because of the antecedent. And so, I must say, it went by stages. And what it meant to me is alienation from my fellow students. They ignored me. That was the mildest form.
NARRATOR: Slowly but surely, Guy watched his classmates turn against him. And, eventually, the persistent trickle of hatred began to flow full force.
GUY STERN: And then I went to my father and I said: “My classes are becoming a torture chamber.” And my father said: "I understand and we'll take you out of high school and I'll hire a tutor for you because it is possible that you'll have luck and get to an English-speaking country." The US was very much on the minds of my parents. And that was the beginning of the end in Germany.
NARRATOR: And yes, the USA was a viable option for the Stern family.
GUY STERN: My mother had a brother living in the United States in the city of St. Louis.
NARRATOR: Guy’s uncle was a potential lifeline.
GUY STERN: My mother wrote to her brother… Can he do anything to get the whole family over?
NARRATOR: But there was only so much he could do for his family back in the Old Country.
GUY STERN: He had lost his job toward the tail end of the Depression. Nothing unusual if you read the economic history of that time. And so, no, but he said he probably could help by getting one of us over there.
NARRATOR: At that time, refugees to the United States had to prove that they were able to support themselves financially. However, moving money out of Germany was made deliberately difficult. The Nazis imposed a harsh levy on any Jewish wealth leaving the country, a form of official theft. They also tightly capped the amount that could be wired internationally. Guy’s uncle was able to call in some favors, raising the funds necessary to settle one of the Hildesheim Sterns in America.
GUY STERN: And the choice that my parents made was to point to me, as a 15-year-old, saying: "If you get over there, you possibly can make some contacts to enlarge our circle of benefactors."
NARRATOR: It was a colossal responsibility for anyone, let alone a teenager. Not only did Guy have to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic but the pressure was on to secure guarantors for the rest of his family back in Germany. But, like so many other families at the time, the Sterns had to make heartbreaking sacrifices in the name of survival. Nonetheless, Guy quickly acclimated to life in the USA. He enrolled in a local high school in St. Louis and naturally gravitated toward the school paper. His talent for language - and his ear for a scoop - would serve him well in the days to come. In June 1939, he graduated from high school and attended St. Louis University.
GUY STERN: Why did I select St. Louis University? Because it was opposite a restaurant where I - by the influence of one of my high school teachers - had secured a job, a high-standing job as a busboy. So I chose the university where I could run from my duties at the restaurant right to my university classes.
NARRATOR: It was in the halls of St. Louis University that Guy was exposed to the recruitment posters that plastered walls and message boards in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Barely out of his teens, he was keen to join the fight against the Axis. He contacted a recruiter for Naval Intelligence.
GUY STERN: So, the result of my trying to get into the US Navy intelligence, which I tried on the basis of these posters, I was turned down at the last minute. I had given my credentials for naval intelligence but was turned down because the Navy at that time only took in American-born natives so I didn't qualify.
NARRATOR: Guy’s German nationality had worked against him - this time - but, as it turned out, he wouldn’t have long to wait before the military came to him.
GUY STERN: But half a year later came the general draft and I got to the Army, was sent to basic training [so] you could handle a rifle fairly decently and all that.
NARRATOR: Toward the end of his basic training, Guy was summoned to headquarters. He was shipping out. But the funny thing was, the officer in charge wouldn’t tell him where to.
GUY STERN: He said: "It's a military secret." And I thought: "My God, what have I done now?"
GUY STERN: After a good train ride for one day, I ended up at Camp Ritchie, which was labeled with the abbreviation MITC, which we quickly nicknamed from its legitimate interpretation - Military Intelligence Training Camp - we changed to Military Institution of Total Confusion. So that was my entry.
NARRATOR: Guy and his cohort of fellow recruits wouldn’t be confused for long. Their purpose at Camp Ritchie quickly became clear.
GUY STERN: I must say the training at Camp Ritchie was completely devoted from early morning to night both to physical training, of endurance and all that, to intellectual training.
NARRATOR: That intellectual training was meant to prepare the Ritchie Boys for their primary purpose in the field - the interrogation of prisoners of war. You see, the Ritchie Boys had been selected on the basis of their language abilities. Many of them had much in common with Guy. They had been forced to flee Europe in the wake of Hitler’s rise. As native speakers, they would be able to interrogate the prisoners in their mother tongues, picking up on the tiny details that a foreign speaker, however skilled, might miss. Hitler had stripped German Jews of their citizenship. Now, Guy and his comrades would use their very German-ness to undermine the Nazi war machine.
GUY STERN: And, as a realistic background, they also built a German village there to acquaint us with what we were going to face.
NARRATOR: After weeks of rigorous training, the Ritchie Boys deployed to Europe. Before taking part in the Normandy landings, Guy’s unit was stationed in Bristol, southwest England. Their new hosts weren’t always especially welcoming.
GUY STERN: Hey, our relationship with the British was not always cordial. And they pegged us with a rather unfriendly definition. There were three things wrong with the Americans. One of them was, they were overfed. Secondly, they were oversexed. And thirdly, they were over here.
NARRATOR: Regardless, the British and American troops were united behind a common cause.
GUY STERN: … beginning my first assignment when we got to Bristol, which incidentally, was one of the main points where the invasion was being planned in huge rooms where all the high-ranking officers assembled.
NARRATOR: In the UK, the Ritchie Boys became a cog in the vast machine that was the preparations for D-Day.
GUY STERN: We had one specific task at first, to map out the succession of Bivouac Areas for us as we would hit out of the Normandy beachhead and head toward France, toward interior France. And that's where we did our job. And it was the Clifton High School where we had taken over in Bristol.
GUY STERN: We learned all about the latest methods in intelligence work, ranging from interpreting maps to interpreting printed sources where, let's say, a seemingly innocent little revelation came to our eyes and we saw exactly the significance and the extension that we could make out of a small bit of information.
NARRATOR: And then, before he knew it, it was all hands on deck. We’re back where we started - D+3 - hurtling toward German machine guns through the dark water of the English Channel. Guy barely has time to acclimatize to the chaos before he’s called over by a colleague. The Allies have taken a prisoner and he needs a serious talking to. And the venue for this conversation? ‘The Cage’, a makeshift interrogation room callously erected in the sand and mud.
GUY STERN: It was primitive, very primitive at first, just marked by barbed wire that surrounded the prisoners in captivity, so to speak. And one was for German officers, one for German enlisted men. And it was primitive and they slept, the prisoners slept - as we did often - in the mud. So I rushed over there and 10 minutes after arrival, rather informally on the coast called Omaha Beach, I was confronted by a seasoned German artillery soldier and I was asked to interrogate him about the situation and placement of his artillery outfit, which was shelling us.
NARRATOR: That’s right. This is happening under heavy shelling. Can you imagine the pressure? But Guy has to keep his head. He listens to his training. He interrogates the prisoner but the German artillery soldier isn’t interested in talking. He knows his rights.
GUY STERN: And he proved to be very recalcitrant in giving information, hiding behind the Geneva Convention.
NARRATOR: According to the Geneva Convention, a prisoner need only provide their name, their rank, and their serial number. It’s a useful thing to know.
GUY STERN: I was almost resigned to failure when suddenly a shell came over.
NARRATOR: A shell exploded meters away from the Cage. Naturally, everyone present dived for cover - prisoner and interrogator alike.
GUY STERN: We hit the ground and I immediately got up after that shell had landed. And that must have turned the tide because he must've reckoned that I was a particularly brave man to get up that early.
NARRATOR: You see, by virtue of his profession, the artillery soldier was aware that one shell was usually followed by another. Why? To mop up the survivors, of course. And to take out any medics who dashed onto the scene. Guy did not know this. Fresh off the landing craft, he was, quite literally, still wet behind the ears. But the German didn’t know that Guy didn’t know. And so, when he took to his feet seconds after the first impact, the young US soldier gave an impression of tremendous bravery. Suitably cowed, the German decided to talk.
GUY STERN: And, after that, I was on the road to interrogate him and - after him - thousands of prisoners, until we met the Russians at Torgau in Germany, and peace was declared.
NARRATOR: But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is 1944, remember, the final and most decisive days of the war are yet to play out. For Guy, they began with a promotion.
GUY STERN: Now, the officer in charge, a captain from Texas, Cpt. Rust, selected me to be in charge of the Survey section, which meant that I consolidated all the information from all the members of bodies that were assigned to the Survey section.
NARRATOR: As head of the newly founded Survey Section, Guy would draw on many of the skills he’d picked up before the war.
GUY STERN: It was like what I had learned in college and high school - how you give a summary of information - you had, like, the term paper or a semester paper.
NARRATOR: Now, the sources were different, human beings, as opposed to textbooks. But Guy took easily to his new role. During his time in Europe, he would go on to interrogate thousands of prisoners, pumping them for critical tactical and strategic information. We’ll let Guy unpick those terms.
GUY STERN: I'll start with tactical, let's return to that first artillery soldier. That was really tactical information. Where was this artillery unit of this German sergeant stationed? How could we take countermeasures against the artillery and mortar firing? It was warfare as intelligent - lower case - information that would immediately lead us to the desired outfit of the Germans that was opposing us. Strategic meant that, in the pursuit of our warfare, our superiors had mapped out our advance. And so, something far away might be on the map that we would know the defenses, the ground defenses, air defenses of a certain city that was on our route of advance. So that was a strategic look at our planned warfare.
NARRATOR: So, in essence, tactical intel is up-to-the-minute, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. Strategic intelligence is more long-term, the ‘big picture’ if you like. Both are crucial in wartime. And the Ritchie Boys got a lot of it.
GUY STERN: As we now know from a military historian, our information exceeded 60 percent of all the useful information that our headquarters and lower echelons required.
NARRATOR: Well, you might think, that’s no surprise. The Ritchie Boys were highly trained. The officers at Camp Ritchie had seen to that. But when you’re out on the battlefield, training isn’t everything.
GUY STERN: You had excellent instructors at Camp Ritchie. They had their routine, which they passed on to us, but we had - at the spur of the moment - we had to expand that.
NARRATOR: The instructors of Camp Ritchie favored an aggressive, formal interrogation technique. But in the field, Guy quickly discovered that there was more than one way to skin a cat. In fact, if you played it right, the cat might not realize it was being skinned at all. Or if it did, it wouldn’t mind. Three-quarters of a century later, Guy can still identify four techniques that consistently delivered results. We’ll call the first one ‘Superior Knowledge’.
GUY STERN: Before we had a prisoner from one unit, we had interrogated - mostly just by chance - another prisoner of equal or similar knowledge. And of course, we displayed that and all the other knowledge we had. So the prisoner would come to the conclusion: “Why should I call attention to myself and have the enmity of the US Army sitting on me?”
NARRATOR: Well, quite. Put yourself in the shoes of a hapless Wehrmacht POW. The Americans seem to know everything anyway. Why not tell them what you know? After all, for you, the war is over. Do you really need the headache?
GUY STERN: So they gave us further information and we, of course, were able to put it together, consolidate all the information, send it to higher headquarters, and thereby fulfill one of our functions.
NARRATOR: Easy as pie. No unpleasantness necessary. The second technique is a simple one: bribery.
GUY STERN: Supposing a prisoner came in and we knew that the supply lines of the Germans had broken down or been interrupted, then I would take out a can of whatever we were being fed - not really gourmet food - and casually eat out of that can.
GUY STERN: The prisoner, having had to endure a famine for a couple of days, asked whether I could leave something in the can for him, and I simply said: “Sure, for a prisoner who cooperates with us, I'll give you a whole can.”
NARRATOR: In that example, Guy took tactical intelligence about broken supply lines and applied it to his prisoner, gathering even more intelligence in the process. This was the beauty of the Survey section - the more it knew, the more it could know. In any case, when a can of Spam starts looking that good, you’ve already lost the mental battle. Let’s move on to our third technique - common Interest. Listen carefully. Would you fall for this one?
GUY STERN: The common interest that still has Europe in its fangs is soccer. And I was, as a youngster, a fanatic follower of my hometown team. And I followed all the games and stuff like that - as far as you could at that time without television. And so I would encourage a discussion of the current soccer situation.
NARRATOR: You can walk into any bar in the world and strike up a conversation about sport. The same rules apply in an interrogation room whether that’s today, or 70 years ago.
GUY STERN: So I would start out. I said: "Hey, I'm glad I see here that you are from the city of Dusseldorf and your team at half-season was on top of the league and now it's near the bottom? What happened there?" And then he would say: "Oh, well, Jansen the international defense star was drafted and X was injured." And so, he got right into the swing. And in the course of the conversation, soccer fans among themselves would become unaware that we were wearing different uniforms. And I could approach what was on my and my headquarters mind - to solicit from somebody from that industrial hub of Dusseldorf.
NARRATOR: Our final technique is less lighthearted - and, possibly, more effective - fear.
GUY STERN: Prisoners who didn't respond to our questions were told that they were going to be turned over to Russian captivity.
NARRATOR: When Hitler’s forces had mounted their invasion of Russia, they had committed war crimes against POWs. That invasion had ultimately failed, but the Russians were out for blood. A Soviet prison would not be a welcoming place for a German soldier.
GUY STERN: So, they feared retribution. And so, that was a threat which we played to the hilt.
NARRATOR: Guy isn’t kidding. He went all-out to put the fear of God - or at the very least Stalin - into his German charges.
GUY STERN: We had to prove that the danger of being shipped to Russian captivity was not an idle threat.
NARRATOR: Enter Fred Howard, one of Guy’s comrades in arms. Born Manfred Ehrlich, he, like Guy, was a German Jew who had found shelter in the USA before the outbreak of war. Fred was a designer by trade and a talented one at that. In New York, he’d studied under the Eames brothers - famous furniture designers whose pieces sell for thousands of dollars today. Now, he lent his considerable talents to Guy’s Survey section. For example, if someone needed to know the path of a German supply route, Fred would draw it. But as it turned out, he also had a gift for drama, an important trait in an interrogator.
GUY STERN: And so we became a team, Fred and I, and he became - when we interrogated - he became the soft-hearted, good-hearted, running-over-with-the-milk-of-human-kindness kind of American. And I became the hot-headed, nasty Russian with a Russian accent borrowed from an American comedy show that I watched when I was still a civilian with my aunt and uncle.
NARRATOR: Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. Good cop, bad cop. And to play the part of the hot-headed Russian, Guy spared no expense.
GUY STERN: I had a Russian accent in my German. And the realistic outfit, that uniform, the medals, and my accent convinced him that I was really what I pretended to be - Commissar Krukov, a name that was later translated for me because it meant Commissar Hook.
NARRATOR: You did not want to make Commissar Krukov angry.
GUY STERN: Fred would start, and the prisoner would just say: “I don't have to answer that. The Geneva Convention only requires name, rank, and serial number.” And that was that.
GUY STERN: Then, Fred would say: "Oh, I feel so sorry for you. I see you have just started a new family." Or: "You have a very good job in civilian life in Germany." Much of that was taken from documents that the German carried with him. And: "I hate to tell you this. This Russian is horrible. And the prison, where they incarcerate prisoners of war, is frightfully primitive and people die there."
NARRATOR: Nice-guy Fred Howard has laid the groundwork. By now, the prisoner is sweating. Who is this Russian, anyway?
GUY STERN: He called the prisoner over who had been turned over to this horrible Russian - me - and I had a fit of anger for some reason or other at the prisoner, saying to Sergeant Howard: “What kind of a specimen are you giving me? He won't even make it halfway to the salt mines!”
NARRATOR: Confronted with the fury of the ersatz Commissar, most prisoners would shrink away. And why wouldn’t they? Even the Americans seemed shocked by his brutality.
GUY STERN: Fred then said: “Look. I just hate what you are doing. That's not the spirit of the Geneva Convention." And so forth.
NARRATOR: Disgusted with his Soviet colleague, Fred moved to take the prisoner away, back to safety.
GUY STERN: And the prisoner would follow or come closer to Fred and the Russian would have another fit. "This is my prisoner, and this is Russian soil." That kind of thing, in German, of course.
NARRATOR: Now, your prisoner is ready for the killing blow. Killing with kindness, of course.
GUY STERN: And so Fred would say: "Look, give me some information and I can tide us over." And, of course, that would become a very full-fledged interrogation that Freddie then staged.
NARRATOR: Sometimes, of course, the prisoner would be so terrified of Commissar Krukov that he’d simply spill the beans on the spot. After all, German POWs came in all stripes. By no means were they all committed Nazis and, toward the end of the war, many enlisted men became disillusioned.
GUY STERN: I can tell you that, as the war progressed, we had more deserters… The Canadians were at our side and the British troops. And then, all the might of the American industrial powers. Here in Detroit, for example, we were really pitched against them. So fanaticism gives way sometimes to reason.
NARRATOR: Which isn’t to say that American morale was always sky high. In times of unimaginable stress, a little levity went a long way. In 1944, shortly after the Allies had sustained heavy losses in the forests of the Ardennes, Guy was tasked with lightening the mood. No easy feat. Captain Kann, Guy’s then-superior, summoned him and a colleague, one Sergeant Hecht, to an informal meeting. Kann held up a piece of paper. The British, he said, had made and circulated a parody of one of the Ritchie Boys’ intelligence reports. In fairness, those reports did contain some peculiarities.
GUY STERN: For example, we had some people whose command of English was mitigated by them feeling that they could just translate German into English syllable by syllable, and that came out with such wonderful reports. So he, Captain Kann, was laughing and he said: “Look, you two fellows, you can do something funny too.” And we simply said: "Yes Sir." Because that's what you do.
NARRATOR: Guy and Sgt. Hecht were stumped. Feeling at a loss, they walked back toward the interrogation tents. Then, inspiration struck.
GUY STERN: There was a prisoner standing there moving awkwardly, one leg and the other.
NARRATOR: The fidgeting prisoner was waiting to be interrogated but before the ordeal began, he had one request. Could he use the bathroom? If you’d been looking very carefully, you might have seen a tiny lightbulb spark to life over the heads of the Americans.
GUY STERN: And so Hecht said to me: "Hey you know what we could do? We could make this guy's function here to be Hitler's latrine orderly when he visits the front."
NARRATOR: After a pow-wow between Guy, Sgt. Hecht, and our old friend Fred Howard, it was decided that the Ritchie Boys would release a fake interrogation report featuring a series of fantastic revelations from the mouth of their hapless prisoner. After all, Hitler’s ‘latrine orderly’ would have seen things. Sensitive things.
GUY STERN: And that became an obsessive kind of myth making, what we hanged all on him, what he had observed.
NARRATOR: And oh, the things this prisoner had - supposedly - seen. Here’s a sampler. “The prisoner frequently observed that the führer had a shriveled scrotum.” Sophomoric? Maybe. But remember, these are men in their early 20s. And it is a bit funny. The satirical missive was distributed to around 40 separate Allied intelligence agencies. Almost everybody got the joke.
GUY STERN: Everybody laughed up and down the line when they got this appendix to our regular report, except one high-ranking officer who was deceived into thinking they were genuine reports.
NARRATOR: That person was a liaison officer with the OSS - the forerunner to the CIA. He had contacted Washington with a request that a Hitler expert be flown out to speak with Guy’s invaluable source. Once apprised of his mistake, he sheepishly withdrew the request. This was a rare glimmer of sunshine amid a bleak and brutal war. As the Allies pushed toward Germany, both sides sustained heavy losses. In their role as interrogators, the Ritchie Boys were not insulated from the bloodshed. In December of 1944, two Ritchie Boys, Kurt Jacobs, and Murray Zappler, were captured by a German unit. They were identified by a former POW of theirs who had managed to rejoin his comrades. Both men were Jewish. The former POW made this fact known to his battalion commander - a die-hard Nazi named Curt Bruns. Bruns had immediately ordered the execution of both Americans. Eventually, word of this atrocity made its way back to the Allies.
GUY STERN: And so the judge advocate sent us an order - screen any incoming prisoner, whether he is identical with Captain Bruns. And when the Germans came in on the trucks, we sought out someone with the characteristics of Bruns, which is a description that we had from members of his unit.
NARRATOR: Eventually, Bruns was captured. Guy’s unit had orders from the Judge Advocate to immediately separate this high-value target from the other prisoners. Bruns, unlike many of the POWs that Guy encountered, was fully committed to the Nazi ideology. There could be no common ground, no bribery, no fear. He was, in short, a hard and ugly nut to crack. If Bruns was going to admit to his crimes, then a subtler approach was in order.
GUY STERN: And that was one of our trustys by the name of Korn. He said: “I know how to get to him.”
NARRATOR: Anton Korn was the antithesis of Curt Bruns. A German Communist, who had served time in his homeland as a political prisoner, Korn had been drafted into the Wehrmacht as Hitler scraped to replenish his armies. Having deployed, he’d been promptly captured by the Allies at Normandy. It’s hard to imagine that he put up too much of a fight. In fact, Korn had collaborated enthusiastically with Guy and the Ritchie Boys. Now, he offered a new approach to the Bruns situation.
GUY STERN: And he said, put him in solitary, but put me in with him for the whole night.
NARRATOR: Korn cut a stocky, muscular figure. This worked in his favor during his time in solitary with Curt Bruns. He passed himself off as a captured German paratrooper - hard as nails, loyal to the Nazi cause, and eager to swap war stories, the gorier the better. Soon, the unsuspecting Captain Bruns had told him everything, up to and including the murders of Jacobs and Zappler.
GUY STERN: And so in the morning, Korn had every detail of this order of execution... a real violation, of course, of the Geneva Convention. And we had all the witnesses and all that lined up, sent it on to the Judge Advocate office as ordered. And they held a field trial against Bruns. And he was duly executed.
NARRATOR: The lesson for any would-be interrogators? If you can’t crack a hard nut, well, you might be using the wrong nutcracker. There’s always something you can use. Curt Bruns wasn’t afraid of the Ritchie Boys. He couldn’t be bribed or reasoned with but, in the end, it was his arrogance that brought him before the firing squad. Dealing with monsters like Bruns was all in a day’s work for Guy. As 1944 turned into 1945, hundreds of prisoners passed through his tent. As a younger man, he’d been squeamish. He wasn’t any more. But as the Allies began to push the Germans back to Berlin, fresh horrors began to emerge.
GUY STERN: First of all, I have to tell you, our orders were to get tactical and strategic information that was directed at 'what could we do to further the war goals?' Because that was our task. It was not to follow up on war crimes. So that was not our assignment.
NARRATOR: Remember, Guy’s priority was to gather intelligence that would win battles for the Allies - nothing more. But as the war came to a close, the Allies began to liberate the Nazi concentration camps. The Ritchie Boys turned their attention to the camp guards, doctors, and other employees who had facilitated the slaughter of millions, including six million Jews. More than 75 years later, Guy vividly remembers what he saw.
GUY STERN: I walked in and I called my - vis a vis from the military police - a hardened, battle-tested sergeant. And I said: “Hadley,” that was his name, from Steubenville, Ohio - "let's do this together. Let's walk through this camp." And I started walking in step with Hadley, and then fell back as I saw these emaciated people and living skeletons and the horror written on them and the filth and all that. I saw that and I couldn't help it. I had seen war by that time in plenitude. And I started to cry. So I fell back, and then Hadley looked around: 'Where the hell had I been?" So I looked at him and he was as shattered as I was. He was crying as well. He's strong. He was my thermometer for bravery and all that. And both of us having been taken and seeing what horror people can inflict on others.
NARRATOR: Finally, the war in Europe ended in May 1945. Before returning to the States, Guy made one last trip to his hometown, the wreckage of Hildesheim.
GUY STERN: Yes, it was the first time, of course, since my immigration. I got to my hometown and there was - just to prevent making mass judgments, which are frequently, if not always out of place - there was one family or two families that, at great risk to themselves, had assisted my family.
NARRATOR: Tragically, Guy had never been able to find a benefactor to fund the rest of his family’s journey to the USA. He had come close, but ultimately, he had been unlucky. The last letter he had received from his mother had been sent in 1942. It bore a Warsaw postmark. Guy had seen what he had seen. He knew the odds were slim. But he had to know for sure.
GUY STERN: And so I went to the one where the parents were the parents of a schoolmate of mine in Hildesheim, and I asked him. I knew he was a customs official. He had some official contact. And so I asked him: “What do you know of my family?” And he said: “Guy, they were deported. I have no hopes.”
NARRATOR: He never saw his family again. After the war, Guy returned to the USA and built a long and successful career as an academic. He specializes in German literature.
GUY STERN: I'm a professor emeritus from our university here in Detroit, which is called Wayne State University. I was active as a professor there for over 30 years and a teacher and researcher in the field of literature for almost 50 years. They said: “Good Lord, after what you have gone through in Germany, what your family has gone through, how can you involve yourself with German culture and history and stuff?” And I was not in disagreement. And, to this day, if somebody says to me: “I will never go back to that country or never buy a Volkswagen,” I understand that. But I think: “What about the exceptions? The altruists?” ...But, yes. I don't in any way milden my criticism of the horrors that happened. That is very visceral. But, on the other hand, I do not presume to make a judgment on an entire population because there are people who were as valiant as you could hope for in a horrible situation. And so that was, ultimately, in my wisdom of some 99 years, I guess it is in my wisdom of old age, I came to judge each person by his or her merit or demerit.
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Guy Stern, a former distinguished professor emeritus at Michigan’s Wayne State University, was born in Hildesheim, Germany in 1922. He emigrated to the US in 1937 and became a citizen in 1943. As a sergeant in US Military Intelligence, Stern took part in the Normandy invasion interrogating German soldiers as one of the so-called Ritchie Boys, named after Camp Ritchie where they trained. Still active, he now works at the Holocaust Museum in Greater Detroit.