Cascade may be a small community nestled in the mountains, but what happened there 75 years ago helped changed the world.
Guy Stern fled Nazi Germany in 1937 as a young man of 15. He left behind his parents and two siblings.
“I made efforts to get the papers for my family to emigrate and I almost succeeded, but in the end it did not work,” said Stern in an interview with the Waynesboro Record Herald. Stern’s family eventually perished in the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, Stern attended St. Louis University and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. Only a few months after his basic training in Texas, he received secret orders to transfer to Camp Ritchie in 1943.
Because of his German heritage, he had been selected as part of a military intelligence training program. Using the knowledge of the German language and culture that men like Stern had, they were trained in interrogation, psychological warfare, and counter-intelligence. About 9,000 mostly Jewish soldiers went through the training and became known as The Ritchie Boys.
Stern was trained in interrogation techniques, the evaluation of enemy documents, psychological warfare, German propaganda and ancillary skills that every soldier needs. The training could also be physically demanding with long, nighttime marches.
“I earned by Ph.D. at college, but nothing I had done at college was as difficult or intense as training at Camp Ritchie,” Stern told the Catoctin Banner.
However, Stern was also able to appreciate the beautiful mountain setting. He enjoyed swimming and canoeing in the lake.
The training at Camp Ritchie lasted for three months. His group was then sent to Louisiana for maneuvers that tested whether they had learned the skills they would need in Europe. Stern and other Ritche Boys were then shipped across the Atlantic. They initially landed in Birmingham, England.
While in England, the Ritchie Boys participated marginally in the D-Day invasion planning. Stern said that they were in charge of how prisoners captured in the invasion would be handled. Once the invasion began, the Ritchie Boys landed three days later to begin their prisoner interrogations.
“Within the first half-hour of being on the beach we began interrogating people and tinkering with psychological warfare,” Stern told the Record Herald.
One of their tactics was to play on the fears of German prisoners. When the Ritchie Boys discovered that German soldiers feared being turned over to Russians, Stern began dressing up in the uniform of a Russian officer. Another Ritchie Boy would lead the prisoner into a tent decorated with Russian posters and mementos. Stern would then interrogate the prison in character as a German.
One of Stern’s coups was when an Austrian deserter gave him a diary that the deserter had kept from the Battle of the Bulge to his capture at the Rhine River. Stern said that between his interrogations and the diary, he believed that the information was correct and useful. It contained information on German morale, plans for troop retreats and hints to the dispersion of other units.
“We could use the information to form the basis of how we directed our propaganda,” Stern told the Catoctin Banner.
Stern returned to Camp Ritchie on Sept. 21, 2013, and found it very different at least until sunset. At that time, Lakeside Hall returned to look very much the way it had when it had been an officer’s club during World War II.
As part of the Sunset on the Mountain event, the hall was given a period makeover. USO Canteen style food was served and 1940’s music played. Sunset on the Mountain also featured an auction with Fort Ritchie and World War II experiences including a ride in an open-cockpit PT-19 trainer aircraft courtesy of the Hagerstown Aviation Museum, a catered dinner at Fort Ritchie’s famed Castle, and autographed memorabilia.
The proceeds from the event benefitted the Fort Ritchie Community Center, which is seeking to get a permanent exhibit in the center that features the Ritchie Boys and Camp Ritchie’s history.