During World War II, this special unit of German-born Jews became the ‘precursors to CIA agents’

During 60 Minutes on Sunday, journalist Jon Wertheim examined the little-known U.S. special military unit known as the Ritchie Boys. Based out of Camp Ritchie, Md., the Ritchie Boys were trained in combat intelligence. The group was heavily composed of German-born Jews who fled the anti-Semitic government.

According David Frey, a professor of history and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Ritchie Boys used their knowledge of the culture and language to change the outcome of the war.

“​​Their work saved lives?” asked Werthiem.

“Absolutely,” Frey said. “They certainly saved lives. I think that's quantifiable. Part of what the Ritchie Boys did was to convince German units to surrender without fighting.”

The special unit interrogated Nazi POWs, negotiated surrenders, and located war criminals after the war. When asked how effective they were at gathering intelligence, Frey said, “They were incredibly effective. Sixty percent-plus of the actionable intelligence gathered on the battlefield was gathered by Ritchie Boys.”

Frey also credited the group with being the ‘precursors to CIA agents.’ The CIA was founded after the war, in 1947.

For many of the Ritchie Boys the job was personal. 99-year-old Guy Stern fled Germany as a boy because of religious persecution. He decided to enlist after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“I had an immediate, visceral response to that, and that was, this is my war for many reasons,” Stern said. “Personal, of course, but also this country — I was really treated well.”

60 Minutes airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on CBS.

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