Sunday, May 12, 2024

Fort Ritchie

A few years ago, while on a random drive, Mom and I discovered Fort Ritchie. We've been back many times since, including just yesterday. Fort Ritchie is a former mountaintop military base in Cascade, Maryland. During the Second World War, it was used as a POW camp and training site for interrogators and psychological warfare experts, known as the Ritchie Boys. The Ritchie Boys have only recently begun receiving recognition for their exploits and heroism, since most of what they did remained classified until relatively recently.  

Historic Fort Ritchie celebrates decades of military history.

In 1889, Buena Vista Ice Company of Philadelphia purchased 400 acres of the land on which Fort Ritchie now stands. The company planned to cut natural ice from manmade lakes and ship it via the Western Maryland Railroad to its customers. The first lake was created around 1901 and named Lake Royer (lower lake). 

When natural cut ice lost its appeal, Buena Vista went out of business. In 1926, the Maryland National Guard purchased the land to make a training site. Camp Ritchie was named after the popular and then-sitting Maryland governor Albert Ritchie. Robert Barrick, a WWI officer with no formal training, was tasked with designing the buildings. Local stones were used to keep costs down.

Lake Royer, the manmade lake at Fort Ritchie was initially used to produce ice.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and America's entry into the Second World War, Camp Ritchie was acquired by the US Army. It was leased for $1 per year and renamed Fort Ritchie. What went on at Fort Ritchie during WWII was kept secret. According to a classified war report, more than 60 percent of credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys, who were trained to interrogate prisoners of war who were brought to the site, translate and intercept messages, and engage in psychological warfare against the Nazis. 

Many Ritchie Boys participated in the Normandy invasion in 1944. Some served as translators and interrogators at the Nuremburg trials. Following the war, Fort Ritchie was involved in another top-secret effort, known as the "Hill Project." I'm not sure what that project entailed, since I can't find much information about it. 

Jimmy Carter worshipped at the Fort Ritchie church when at Camp David.

There were approximately 20,000 Ritchie Boys. They weren't originally known as the Ritchie Boys. This moniker came much later when a documentary was made about them. Forty percent of the Ritchie Boys were immigrants. About 2,200 were refugees from the Holocaust. Some were Japanese Americans recruited directly from American detention camps. Also serving at Fort Ritchie were about 200 Women Army Corp (WAC) and Nisei (children of Japanese) women. Almost everyone possessed language skills: German, French, Italian, Polish, or other languages deemed important to the war effort.

The castle is one of Fort Ritchie's most iconic buildings.

Some of the Ritchie Boys had famous relatives, like Rockefeller, Roosevelt, and Czar Nicholas. Many went on to live prominent lives and make significant contributions to government and commerce. My mom's favorite Ritchie Boy is William Warfield (1920-2002), a singer-actor known for his opera-like voice. He sang "Old Man River" in the musical Showboat. There is a QR code (link) to Warfield's performance on the sign in front of the church at Fort Ritchie. Because Wallace was black, his language skills were never put to use. Instead he was in charge of stage shows at Fort Ritchie. In fact, only about 45 Ritchie Boys were black. Racism was still rampant in the military (and America).

In 1946, control of Fort/Camp Ritchie was returned to the state. From 1946 to 1950, Camp Ritchie served as a chronic disease center for the state of Maryland. The camp was repurchased by the US Army in 1948, after which, it was used as a communications center by the military. For years, Fort Richie provided support to the Raven Rock Mountain Complex (Site R; "alternative Pentagon"). Fort Ritchie continued to train soldiers that served from Korea to the Gulf War.

The "finger" buildings had many uses over the years.

In 1998, Fort Ritchie was closed, along with other military bases, as part of the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. This devastated the surrounding community of Cascade. Home values plummeted. At the time of its closing, Fort Ritchie was the area's top employer. Gradually, Fort Ritchie fell in disrepair due to neglect and vandalism. Between 1998 and 2020, Fort Ritchie was bought and sold by a number of development companies. The county government considered it a financial loss.

The museum at Fort Ritchie opened in 2023.

Ritchie Revival
But, there is hope. The current owner of Fort Ritchie plans to revive Fort Ritchie and the surrounding community. Already several business have opened. A museum dedicated to the Ritchie Boys (and the Korean War) was opened in 2023. We have already visited twice. I'd like to volunteer at the museum when I have more time. 

There are finally plans to restore the many "finger buildings" at Fort Ritchie. It's been dubbed the Barrick Project. Plans are to occupy these almost century-old stone buildings with businesses, residences, and overnight lodging. There are building permits on the windows, so it must be happening soon! I can't wait to stay overnight in one of the finger buildings.

Recently, Fort Ritchie was featured in the Paramount miniseries Special Ops: Lioness. Ten different locations within Fort Ritchie were utilized in the filming. In the series, Fort Ritchie is a stand-in for Fort Bragg (in North Carolina).

In August 2021, the United States Senate passed a bipartisan resolution honoring the service of the Ritchie Boys. In 2022, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum named the Ritchie Boys as the recipient of the Museum’s highest honor, the Elie Wiesel Award, for “their remarkable actions and heroism in helping to end the war and the Holocaust.”

It is estimated that only about 20 Ritchie Boys are still living today.


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