There’s a 10-second scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan in which an Army private tauntingly brandishes his Star of David medallion at captured German soldiers passing by and identifies himself as Juden — Jewish.
It’s a brief but haunting scene, forcing the viewer to wonder what was it like for Jewish soldiers to fight the Germans.
Bruce Henderson’s amply titled history Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned With the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler (HarperCollins, 448 pp., ***½ out of four stars) provides one answer.
Henderson meticulously crafts a riveting non-fiction account of young Jewish men who were sent to America by their families to escape Nazi persecution. The eldest sons, Henderson tells us, were often sent away to survive and carry on the family name. These sons became U.S. citizens and some volunteered to fight.
Sons and Soldiers opens in Germany in 1938 with the Nazis in power and escalating the brutality and violence directed toward Jews. The book focuses on a group of young German Jews, the terrible hardships they and their families endure, and how the youths finally make their way to America.
Many of the arrivals were mistrusted as enemy aliens after arriving in the U.S. With their German accents, the young refugees who volunteered for military service — including those who wanted to strike back at the Nazis — were often viewed with suspicion and shunted into non-combatant roles.
That was until the U.S. military realized the potential of these young Jewish men as intelligence specialists. Their ability to speak German and their knowledge of Nazi-occupied territory made them invaluable.
The Army recruited about 2,000 of these men. They were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, and were known as the Ritchie Boys.
The Ritchie Boys were trained as information gatherers. They interrogated German prisoners and conducted psychological warfare against German troops in the field. They were credited with extracting vital information on troop strength, movement and other details crucial to the U.S. war effort.
Operations at Camp Ritchie demonstrated the Army’s commitment to intelligence gathering. Soldiers became students,…