CASCADE, Md. (AP) — Gideon Kantor first arrived at what was then Camp Ritchie in Cascade as a teenager in 1943.
An arduous journey from his birthplace — Vienna, Austria — to the U.S. Army camp on South Mountain had taken him to various stops in Europe as his family attempted to flee the spreading Nazi regime. They eventually arrived in the United States, by way of Cuba, in 1941. He finished high school in this country, and started college.
But after a year, he joined the U.S. Army and became one of the 20,000 Ritchie Boys, a special group of soldiers trained at Camp Ritchie (formerly a Maryland National Guard site) to serve in military intelligence during World War II. Many of them — about 14% — were Jewish refugees like Kantor.
“This was my war,” Kantor told The Herald-Mail. “Nobody had to tell me why we were fighting.”
Indeed, some of his family members were murdered by the Nazi regime.
At age 97, Kantor returned recently to the former Fort Ritchie as U.S. Rep. David Trone, D-6th, announced the introduction of legislation to award the Ritchie Boys the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest expression of national appreciation Congress can bestow for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals, institutions or groups.
The Ritchie Boys’ secret history in Cascade
“Ritchie has a remarkable history — over 72 years of military support for the Maryland National Guard and the U.S. Army,” noted Landon Grove, director and curator of the developing Ritchie History Museum.
“But perhaps the most sought-after history from the site is from 1942 to 1946, when the U.S. Army took over the Maryland National Guard site — leased for $1 a year — and brought in over 20,000 soldiers who were trained in military intelligence.”
About 40% of those who passed through Camp Ritchie were immigrants, Grove said, and about 2,200 were refugees of the Holocaust. “They came to the United States to be saved, but it turns out immigrants saved the world,” he said.
The Ritchie Boys were trained to interrogate prisoners of war who were brought to the site, to translate and intercept messages, to engage in psychological warfare against the Nazis. Many would participate in the Normandy invasion in 1944, and they used the skills learned at Camp Ritchie to produce some 60% of the intelligence gathered in the European Theater.
Their ranks included Ralph H. Baer, who later pioneered video games; Gardner Botsford, who would become an editor of the New Yorker magazine, John Chafee, later a governor and senator from Rhode Island; David Chavechavadze, the great-great-grandson of Czar Nicholas I of Russia; Eugene Foder, already a noted travel writer when the war began; science fiction writer Ib Melchior; John Bertram Oakes, later editorial page editor for the New York Times; Laughlin Phillips, who later left the CIA to found Washingtonian magazine and then ran his family’s art museum, the Phillips Collection; David Rockefeller, who became chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank; writer J.D. Salinger, author of “Catcher in the Rye;” Vernon Walters, a future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Archibald Roosevelt Jr., the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt; and singer-actor William Warfield, perhaps best-known for his role in the opera “Porgy and Bess” and the musical “Showboat.”
Two Ritchie Boys were captured and executed after being identified as German-born Jews, according to the Holocaust Museum.
But much of what they did in aiding the Allied war effort was unknown until recently; the information was classified, and their activity continued after the war as some served as interrogators and translators during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
“While their work was valued at the highest levels of the Army, and many Ritchie Boys were recognized for their individual heroism, as a whole the accomplishments of Camp Ritchie and the Ritchie Boys were never officially documented,” said Bernie Lubran, president of the Friends of Camp Ritchie and son of Ritchie Boy Walter Lubran.
“Much of it was classified until just within the past 20 years. This, along with their decision, and their devotion to keeping silent about their training and service in World War II, have deservedly earned them the title of ‘secret heroes,‘” he said.
They rarely spoke about their service, Lubran said. In fact, he didn’t know much about about Camp Ritchie and his father’s experience there until after his father had died.
“I spent the past 20 years devoting myself to researching the lessons learned from Camp Ritchie, helping other families discover their Ritchie Boy family histories and educating the general public about the importance of what took place here at historic Camp Ritchie.”
The Ritchie Boys finally get long-deferred recognition
Now that their stories are finally being told, the United States Holocaust Museum has presented the Ritchie Boys with its Elie Wiesel Award and the U.S. Senate honored them with a Senate resolution.
Trone and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., are introducing legislation in their respective chambers to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Ritchie Boys. Trone said that they’re recruiting bipartisan support to get the legislation passed.
But time is short in the current Congress, and Trone predicted the legislation would be reintroduced in the new year.
“Their vital role they played in helping the United States fight the Axis Powers during World War II and ultimately win needs to be recognized: this extraordinary group of men with critical language skills, including Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to join the U.S. Army,” Trone said.
“Their work deserves to be honored, recognized and celebrated. They have been described as the world’s greatest secret weapons for Army intelligence, and for good reason,” he said, noting that Ritchie Boys had been involved in every major battle in Europe after D-Day, gathering intelligence, interpreting enemy documents and liberating concentration camps.
Grove estimated that only about 20 of the Ritchie Boys are still living.
Gideon Kantor, who now lives near Bethesda, Md., was on hand earlier this year to accept the Elie Wiesel Award. He also received the French Legion of Honor, he told The Herald-Mail.
He told the group assembled for the announcement, including Fort Ritchie’s current owner and developer John Krumpotich, that “it was really wonderful that the United States government did accept refugees from Germany and Austria as essentially loyal citizens, and gave them the opportunity to fight the Germans.
“They could have taken a different point of view and say, ‘We don’t care what the background is, they are Austrians and Germans and they should be interned.’ … I thank the U.S. government for having this good sense to use us in a manner that would help the war effort.”