Bruce Henderson, author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series. Check back throughout the week to read more from him.
How we get ideas for a book is the one question most asked of authors. Given that I am a nonfiction writer, my subjects generally don’t come from a daydream or bolt out of the blue. Often, I find the nuggets I’m looking for in a documentary or an article or book. I’ll tell you this secret: a number of my ideas for books have come from obituaries, my favorite section of the newspaper because they introduce me to interesting people I never had the chance to meet. (The New York Times obits are the best.)
In early 2014, I was in the midst of writing a book about World War II in the Pacific when I read an obituary in my local paper about a German-born nonagenarian who had escaped the Nazis as a young boy in the 1930s with the help of a Jewish Relief Organization, was drafted into the U.S. Army during the war, and trained to be an interrogator of German POWs at a top-secret Military Intelligence center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Only a decade removed from his boyhood escape, he returned to Nazi-occupied Europe as a member of a special band of U.S. soldiers-most of them German Jews-known as The Ritchie Boys. My first thought was that his life story had an astonishing dramatic arc from nearly victim to liberator. As a voracious reader of military histories and the author of several books about World War II, I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of the Ritchie Boys. Who were they? How many were they? What had it been like for them to go back and fight the Nazi evil from which they had only a few years earlier escaped? I ripped the article from the paper, looked at my wife, and said, “I think I’ve found my next book.”
Six months later, I was ready to start answering those questions. First, I searched online for book titles on the subject, and found none. I did find and watch the documentary, “The Ritchie Boys,” which was very moving. I was soon on the trail of retired Wayne State University professor Guy Stern, himself a former Ritchie Boy, who had curated a 2011 special exhibit called, “Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys,” at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I telephoned Guy, and learned that the traveling exhibit had been up for a year but was now in storage. He told me that it was all digitized, however, and I could have access to it if I came to Michigan. I quickly packed my bag. I spent a week in Farmington Hills, going over oral histories, letters, official documents and wartime photos, and interviewing Guy, a warm, intelligent man blessed with a photographic memory. I returned home convinced that the story of the Ritchie Boys was one of the last great sagas of World War II that had not yet been the subject of a major book. An estimated 300 Ritchie Boys-all in their nineties-were alive when I began my research, and I went around the country interviewing dozens of them. When I was ready to start writing, I selected six German-born Ritchie Boys to follow in “Sons and Soldiers,” beginning with their harrowing escapes from the Nazis, reaching their new homes in America, and their experiences in the war when they went back to their homeland in the fight against fascism.
Although there were many more who could have been included, I didn’t want the book to read like the Manhattan white pages; I decided on a infinite number of characters who were doing different things at different times and gave us complete coverage of a big theater of war. Also, I wanted the readers to remember the characters whenever we came back to them, and feel a bond with them. That would have been more difficult with a larger cast. The Ritchie Boys returned to the United States after the war, and many went on to stellar careers in a variety of fields, including science, politics, business, the law, the arts, and academia. Even more than half a century later, their surviving members vividly recalled fighting two different wars: the world’s and their own.I am honored to tell the epic story of these little-known heroes.
Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, as well as Sons and Soldiers. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader’s Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.
Bruce Henderson is the author of more than twenty nonfiction books, including Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazi and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, and True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole. He is the co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell (with Vincent Bugliosi). An award-winning journalist who has taught reporting and writing at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University, Henderson lives in northern California.