From Antietam to Gettysburg

Richard D. L. Fulton

(Adopted from ‘Nazis’ in Gettysburg:  World War II Comes to a Civil War Battlefield by Richard D. L. Fulton, pending publication)

In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to create an intelligence agency to operate outside of the auspices of other existing intelligence operations, due to the apparent disarray of cooperation amongst those agencies.

This new, independent agency would establish a training camp at Camp Ritchie, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Cascade, Maryland, within Washington County, just south of the Mason-Dixon Line between Edgemont, Maryland and Blue Ridge Summit in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

The purpose of the newly established camp was to provide training in intelligence gathering, psychological warfare, interrogation techniques, and other covert or special operations (special ops)— skills the inductees would be called upon to employ in the not-so-distant future when they would find themselves deployed in front of and behind enemy lines in Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944. 

The intelligence trainees became known as the Ritchie Boys, and their numbers included Jewish immigrants who had fled Germany (and other threatened areas) to escape the rising tide of fascism under the leadership of Adolph Hitler. But in addition to Jewish refugees, a “mixed bag” of other foreign nationals and selected American civilians were also assigned to the service of the Ritchie Boys at the camp.

John E. Dolibois, in Pattern of Circles: An Ambassador’s Story, described some of the array of Camp Ritchie as having been “an odd assortment of mixed talent from all over the USA.”  He further noted, “There was a prince of Bourdon-Parma; an Italian count; there were former local hotel managers; government officials; chefs; corporation executives; and prominent journalists.  The inmates of Camp Ritchie were said to speak fifty languages – all, in fact, except good English.”

When it came to field training exercises, the instructors were well-equipped and held back nothing to achieve near actual circumstances the trainees might have encountered during actual combat operations, and this included spontaneous responses to “reported’ German incursions to engaging in patrols during even the most extreme weather that the skies could offer.

Mandler noted that when it came to exercises, “Training was as realistic as the experts, both in military and civilian subjects, could make it.”  As the war in Europe and in the Pacific progressed, the author stated that even captured equipment from the enemy armies made their way to Camp Ritchie for educational purposes and for being incorporated into the training exercises.

The training was so intensive that the Ritchie Boys suffered their first recorded fatality in November 1943, when around 11 p.m. in “late November,” an undisclosed number of Ritchie Boys were dispatched in pairs into the woods in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, site of some of the most ferocious fighting during the American Civil War. 

Leon Edel described the incident in his book The Visitable Past: A Wartime Memoir, writing that as he and his comrades were being transported to the scene of the maneuvers, a storm began to descend upon the battlefield.  “We huddled in the truck, which bumped its way through the storm…we all agreed that it was the kind of night we would have liked to spend in our bunks.”

As the result of a raging storm, the command desperately tried to cancel the operations.  Loudspeakers announced the cancellation, and then Edel’s surroundings were suddenly lit-up by numerous military floodlights, “I could see the terrain we had covered and beyond it. The entire lower woodland was now filled with water.”

But it would not be learned until the following day that one of the Ritchie Boys would not see Europe.  “The Hagerstown newspaper next morning had a full account of the entrapment of Camp Ritchie troops in the flashflood and reported that the body of one soldier was recovered near the creek.  The death of a fellow soldier sent a shudder through us,” he wrote.

But on January 2, 1944, he and the rest of the approximately 800-man  2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Mobile Radio Broadcasting companies would be on their way to the Gettysburg Battlefield with orders to refurbish the no-longer used Civilian Conservation Corps camp that had been located in McMillan Woods to serve as the “top secret” headquarters for their further training – the compound which they renamed Camp Sharpe (named for George H. Sharpe – who had been appointed as the intelligence chief for the Union Army of the Potomac in 1863).

The first camp commander was identified as having been Captain Hugh Speed, Jr.  Subsequently, Major John T. Jarecki assumed command, and remained in that capacity until the camp was abandoned. During its existence, the local residents were never told what the purpose of the military encampment had been.  That would not be discovered until post-WW II.

The trainees had little forewarning that their final training on that field was intended to be preemptive to the then-approaching D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, and the battles yet-to-be-fought which lay beyond. 

Edle wrote – as the trucks in which the broadcasting companies pulled into the future home in a former CCC camp, “We were at Camp Sharpe, a mere fifty miles from Ritchie, parked in a muddy hollow at the bottom of a slanting road, just outside the national park of Gettysburg.

Arthur H. Jaffe, captain of the Second Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company, described Camp Sharpe in his book History, Second Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company, December 1943-May 1945, as being “rugged and barren,” noting that “The company was quartered in former CCC barracks that were surrounded by a sea of mud.  The wind whistled through gaps in the walls while four stoves tried in vain to keep up the room temperature.”

Edel further described the units’ future home, noting that the old CCC barracks appeared as though they had been built in 1918 (construction of the McMillan Woods CCC camp had actually begun in 1933), and “were filled with dust and cobwebs.  The windows looked as if mud had been smeared across them.  Mice and rats had left their deposits.”

As their unit designation of Mobile Radio Broadcasting companies suggests, they would, among many other tasks, be charged with setting up the allied, counter-propaganda radio stations in Europe, primarily aimed at keeping citizens in German-occupied areas informed as to the actual state of the war, as well as to inform German soldiers and their commanders, in an effort to realize the real or hypothetical “hopelessness” of their further resistance to the advances of Allied troops. 

They would also come to man on-site radio broadcasting equipment in the line of fire, instructing the enemy on the fruitlessness of continued fighting, and how to surrender.

Because of the primary thrust of their particular contribution to the American propaganda effort, these Ritchie Boys also came to be known as the “radio soldiers.”  The companies also became adept at packing artillery shells with flyers instructing German troops how to surrender.  These would be fired over enemy positions, dropping thousands of said documents upon the troops below, resulting in these Ritchie Boys also earning yet another moniker – “confetti soldiers.”

Camp Sharpe would be turning out soldiers trained specifically to pound the enemy with words, rather than shot and shell.  The overall success of the Mobile Radio Broadcasting companies, and the Army’s psychological warfare program in general, has proven, then and now, difficult to assess. 

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, wrote of the success of the psychological warfare units et al, “The exact contribution of psychological warfare cannot, of course, be measured in terms of towns destroyed or barriers passed.  However, I am convinced that the expenditure of men and money in wielding the spoken and written word was an important contributing factor in undermining the enemies’ will to resist and support the fighting morale of our potential allies in the occupied countries.”

Without doubt,” he stated, “psychological warfare has proved its right to a place of dignity in our military arsenal.”

Ritchie Boy (Martin Selling) interrogating German prisoners.

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army Signal Corps

Soldier sketch map of camp.

Courtesy of NPS (Gettysburg)

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