An extraordinary group of World War II veterans will be honored Sunday as the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) opens "Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys" in Farmington Hills.
Fourteen of the German-speaking U.S. soldiers who were trained as an intelligence unit are expected to attend the exhibit's opening Sunday at the HMC.
The Ritchie Boys, mostly Jewish soldiers who fled to the U.S. from Nazi Germany, trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. Dr. Guy Stern, now a West Bloomfield resident, was a member of the group.
As Stern walked through the exhibit Wednesday, the stories and memories flowed freely.
"This was one of the moments that was very emotional for many of us," he said, stopping in front a photo of a soldier standing near a sign that marked the border of Germany. "After going across the Rhine River ... you were entering your home country as a victorious American soldier."
Stern and HMC Executive Director Stephen Goldman created the exhibit, which will remain in place until Feb. 5.
"I learned about Dr. Stern and his exploits and thought that's an interesting story," Goldman said. The group was profiled in a 2004 documentary, The Ritchie Boys, by filmmaker Christian Bauer, so Goldman knew photographs would be available. But the researchers soon found that much more information existed.
"Many of them had been pack-rat savers," Stern said of his comrades. He also pored through several boxes of documents in the National Archives.
"Guy provided reams of information," Goldman said. "Our problem has been winnowing it down to a reasonable size."
One thing that doesn't exist anywhere is a roster of all the Ritchie Boys. After training, they were all assigned to different Army units, but because their work was top secret, none of them was listed in his unit's roster.
"The boys, themselves, had been sworn to secrecy," Goldman said.
Stern said he was drafted in 1943, at age 21, while a student at St. Louis University. He and the others were transferred to Camp Ritchie because they spoke German and knew the culture and the land so well.
"We came from diverse backgrounds, but all of us became united with our cause, to take back our country from a dictatorship," he said.
During their eight weeks of training, the soldiers had to absorb huge volumes of information about everything from the specific decorations on German military uniforms to Morse code and close-combat fighting.
"I've never been confronted by anything that intense, even when I was getting my Ph.D.," Stern said of the training.
The Ritchie Boys' mission in Germany included interrogating prisoners of war. Stern said they used three techniques — getting "buddy-buddy" with the prisoners, offering them extra rations and playing into their fears and anxieties.
To accomplish the latter, he and Fred Howard, who became a lifelong friend, devised a "good cop/bad cop routine" in which Stern dressed up as a Russian officer, Commissar Krukov. Howard would tell the prisoner that if he didn't cooperate, he would be sent into Russian captivity. Although Stern had the uniform, he didn't speak a word of Russian — but he was able to fake the accent.
One of the biggest surprises to emerge during the two years of research on the exhibit was a cache of information discovered by a park ranger at Fort Hunt, near Washington, DC. The information revealed that a small group of Ritchie Boys had been secretly assigned to interrogate German scientists, including rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and Reinhard Gehlen, a top-ranking intelligence officer.
That's also part of the HMC exhibit.
Stern laughed as he shared many of his memories, particularly of the night he and his buddies went to see the wildly popular entertainer Marlene Dietrich. Howard's mother knew the singer, and that got them an "in" to talk with her. Howard persuaded Dietrich to come back to camp, where their commanding officer immediately ordered them to take her back.
Other memories bore a more somber tone. Stern lost his entire family in the Holocaust. A photograph of them all together is part of the exhibit. And there is one terrible day he will never forget.
Stern toured Buchenwald, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps, with another tough, battle-hardened sergeant. "He and I were bawling like kids when we went through that camp," Stern said.
After the war, members of the Ritchie Boys went on to achieve great personal success. Richard Schifter was appointed U.N. ambassador and deputy U.S. representative on the U.N. Security Council. Si Lewen became a sought-after artist. And Howard, the man with the Dietrich connection, became a highly successful businessman. He's credited with developing the L'eggs pantyhose egg-shaped packaging in the 1970s.
Stern, who was awarded the Bronze Star for his work, became a distinguished professor and senior vice president at Wayne State University and is currently a director at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
You can meet some of the Ritchie Boys at Sunday's opening, which starts with a ceremony at 3 p.m. The exhibit can be seen during the museum's regular hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Thursday (last admission at 3:30 p.m.); and 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday (last admission at 1:30 p.m.). The museum is closed on Saturdays and public holidays. For information and admission fees, visit holocaustcenter.org.