For those who read or viewed the HBO production of Band of Brothers, the volume under review will be a welcome addition to the growing number of World War II books. Sons and Soldiers, however, is different from most accounts of the war in that it tells the little known story of nearly 2,000 German-born Jews who left behind their families in Nazi Germany and came to the United States in the late 1930s. Given the rigidity of the American immigration laws, the hope for many German Jews was to locate a family member in the United States who would become a benefactor for themselves or their offspring.
Henderson, a best-selling author of nonfiction, tells how these recently arrived immigrants, once Hitler declared war on the United States, enlisted in the Army and were selected to train in special interrogation techniques. Because of their knowledge of German, the expectation was that they would be sent overseas where they were to become part of a special unit (IPW) that interrogated German prisoners of war. The training took place at Fort Ritchie in Maryland and subsequently the unit came to be known as the” Ritchie Boys”.
In 1940, when President Roosevelt was attempting to warn the United States about the danger of Nazi Germany, Congress passed the Alien Registration Actin reaction to the presence of approximately one million aliens in the United States many of whom were deemed “dangerous to the public peace,” and subsequently interned in camps within the United States. Subsequently, however, a total of thirty thousand aliens were cleared and would later serve in the U. S. Army during the war, including the Ritchie Boys.
Henderson tells their story from their initial training in Maryland to their experience overseas where they interrogated captured Nazis. Their contributions to the war were invaluable as they gleaned from the prisoners vital information of Nazi strategy and troop movements. But there were also special dangers! Henderson describes how a number of the Ritchie Boys shed their dog tags labelled with an “H” for Hebrew for a “P” which indicated that they were Protestant. Others refused on principle to hide that they were Jews. All of them understood that to be captured meant that they would separated from their units and sent to a concentration camp or worse. Henderson relates how two of the Ritchie Boys were captured by the Germans only to be discovered as Jews and were murdered.
Toward the end of the war, the Ritchie Boys came across Buchenwald and other concentration camps. They were shocked by the skeletal inmates. A number of the Ritchie Boys told Henderson that they feared they would find relatives they left behind among the dead. These interviews are among the most poignant in the book. At the war’s end, the Ritchie Boys served as interrogators of captured Nazi war criminals.
Henderson is a wonderful storyteller who has written a never-before-told chapter of the Second World War. Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U. S. Army to Fight Hitler is a must-read.