Copyright © Sidney Dombroff. All Rights Reserved
Chapter X - Camp Ritchie, Maryland You’re in The Army, Wise Guy
Having finished my coffee, I paid for our breakfast in the dining car of the train taking us from Texas to Maryland, with a government meal ticket which had been issued to me as non-com in charge. It indicated the number of men in my group, and after I signed it the railroad would be reimbursed by the government.
"Men," I said, "in 45 minutes we'll be in Baltimore where we'll have a 4-hour layover. You can stretch your legs. We'll meet at the information booth in the station at 1:30 and then board the train to Camp Ritchie together." During the wait, I visited the campus of world-famous Johns Hopkins University, which wasn't too far from the station.
The westbound train choo-chooed and tooted through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is one of the loveliest regions on the east coast. The northern extension of the Appalachians, and east of the Shenandoah Mountains, the Blue Ridge is densely forested hill country which could silently swallow up entire armies. At that time, it concealed a relatively insulated population whose speech still had traces of Elizabethan English.
Its relative isolation, varied terrain and proximity to Washington made the area an ideal location for the Military Intelligence Training Center. Camp Ritchie was very small, surrounding a little lake. It had only one PX, one theater, and one mess hall for all its personnel, including officers. The classrooms were one-story wooden barracks like buildings. Its commandant was Colonel Walters.
To keep us occupied for several days until the start of the next session, we were assigned to various work details. I was sent, together with a peer group of sergeants, to the quartermaster section. The lower-ranked permanent party corporal in charge made it clear who was boss: "You college guys - don't think you're gonna get off easy. You're gonna work your asses off for me here."
This was more bluster than fact. We were soldiers who've all had experience with his type. He got his frustrations off his chest and we kept our cool; but his demeanor and attitude reinforced our awareness that sometimes a real enemy was in our very midst. Incidentally, only a few of the men in our group were college graduates.
Classes included German, Japanese and Russian sections. They each learned basically the same things, but with emphases pertaining to their language specialties. I was in the Russian group, most of whom had learned the language at home in the United States, or who were of Slavic origin, such as Czechs, Poles and Lithuanians and who were relatively recent arrivals to our shores. I was in a minority group which had learned the language in school.
Several of the foreign-born tried to give the impression that they knew all the "angles," and were constantly looking for new "angles," some real and some imagined. It had to do with a certain paranoia from their European heritage of bureaucracy and corruption. They were always trying to get the latest information, or to be first in all things. They played their cards "close to the vest," but I was not aware that their secretiveness ever gave them any real advantage in the American army.
We were schooled in the uniforms and military components of our allies as well as those of our enemies. We learned to make hand-drawn maps of a battlefield by observation, noting the positions and makeup of the enemy units. To stress the need for secrecy of movement, we saw, in the blackness of the night, a single match being struck in the woods three miles away.
The entire area for miles around had been mapped in detail topographically in German and Japanese, as well as in English. A frequent exercise was to go to about fifteen or twenty different tent stations in the forest, within a radius of several miles. These were indicated on a map each of us was given, together with a compass. We went on foot, of course, and each soldier had to sign in at each of these check points. We had to orient ourselves by studying the natural topography as well as man-made features such as dwellings, churches, cemeteries, schools, stores and roads.
Three or four times we were taken in a sealed truck at night and let off, individually, with a compass, a map of the area in a foreign language, a canteen of water, a raincoat and a flashlight. The raincoat was to shield our flashlights from hypothetical enemy observation when we consulted the maps.
We had to locate where we were on the map and then try to arrive at a predetermined coordinate on the map by 2400 hours (midnight.) This coordinate was the checkpoint where the truck waited, which was sometimes at a crossroads and sometimes by a lone roadside tavern. To miss it meant getting back to camp as best we could, which for some, took a couple of days (deliberate, perhaps?).
I prided myself in being able to always complete the problem. By hiking cross country according to my calculated compass azimuth (direction), tearing through plowed fields, rushing by quiet cows which stood like sentinels in their moonlit pastures, through forest and dense brush, across streams, over fences, up steep hills and down treacherous gullies and slippery rock ravines, and sometimes even along a road, I managed to arrive at the rendezvous before 2400 hours.
The closest big towns were Hagerstown, Md., where I played my first game of golf, and Waynesboro, Pa. A fantastic scenic view was at Pen-Mar, on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where a broad and extensive open plain on the Pennsylvania side is suddenly interrupted by the Blue Ridge. From far away on the plain, one could see the train, which was halfway up the side of the mountain. It looked like a toy, and one could continue to watch the puffing engine passing through open spaces in the forest for about a quarter of an hour, until it disappeared from view in the distance.
Toward the end of the course, double tragedy struck. A pretty 19-year-old cousin of mine had died from appendicitis. I felt badly about it but was relieved to be far from the grief-stricken scene. I could not, however, avoid the national grief, in which I joined, at the death of our commander-in-chief, whose presence for over twelve years as president had imbued him with the aura of a father figure for us all. Although it left a shocking void in the free world, it made us all aware that no man in indispensable. This Harry Truman proved, as he did justice to the office which he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt.
Our course was completed right after V-E Day, and I again joined a peer group of sergeants, this time doing KP. The kitchen was huge, because it had to service the entire camp. I was particularly impressed by the seven or eight large double-jacketed permanently-installed soup kettles lined up in a row. These were each about five feet in diameter and heated by high pressure steam between the inner and outer stainless-steel shells.
One day they served mushrooms sautéed in butter, which had been cooked in a couple of these kettles. Not only was it a gourmet's delight for me, whose job it was to clean the kettles, but it led to a no-holds-barred gourmand's orgy by highly appreciative, gluttonous me. I am grateful to his day that no health-inspired guilt feelings had yet to be attached to this type of feasting. I must have consumed about five bowls of that rare (army) delicacy.
On several occasions we saw films classified "secret" at the post theater. One, in particular, I shall never forget. It showed the first American soldiers entering a concentration camp, freeing the pathetic-looking, grateful prisoners. It also showed the gruesome ovens with the remains of incinerated innocents.
Why was it classified "secret"? Certainly not from the German army. It was to keep it from the American people, at least until the enormity of the crime could be comprehended bit by bit, by an as-yet unaware populace. These films were shown universally at the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war.
In true military intelligence fashion, our Russian group was given very short notice to pack up for temporary detached service from Camp Ritchie, for further schooling someplace in the Midwest. The war was not over; the other enemy had yet to be defeated.
Copyright © Sidney Dombroff. All Rights Reserved