Home JUNE 2024 The Ritchie Boys

The Ritchie Boys

Staff Sargent Kestler with his unit, front row, next to the man holding his helmet.

Many think their dads are heroes. Few have medals to prove it.

Growing up, Tony Kestler had no idea that his dad ever did anything that would earn him an award.  He and his brother, Jeff, lived in Manhattan. His mom was a legal secretary. His dad, a successful businessman, had followed his step-father’s lead into the textile trade.
    Tony proudly says, “My dad was the one who introduced velour to the US.” While that fabric has made lots of people very comfortable, it did not exactly qualify Tony’s dad for any medals. But then, Tony was winning his own.
    Having skipped two grades, thanks to the NY Public School system, he entered Columbia University at 16. Already a talented fencer who had been the Junior Olympic Fencing Champion in New York State six times, he quickly established himself as a star on Columbia’s award-winning team. He was a two time All American. And he won the NCAA Foil Championship in 1969, when he was just 18, still the youngest to attain that title. When he graduated from dental school in 1974, he was the youngest dentist in the United States.
    Sadly, Joseph died when Tony was 21, not living long enough to see his son build a thriving dental practice, from which he is now retired, or knowing that Tony and his wife, Barbara, successfully blended their families, giving them four children and five grandchildren. Or helping them navigate the sorrow and turbulence surrounding the death of their grandson, Jake, who died of a brain tumor at 14.
    Joseph Kestler knew none of that, and his family knew nothing about what he did during the Second World War (WWII). Because he was part of a project that was one of the US government’s most closely guarded secrets of WWII, he died never mentioning to his family that he’d been part of something extraordinary: he’d been a Ritchie Boy.
    Joseph was born into an affluent family in pre-War Vienna. As was common among families of means at that time, Joseph was sent to live with an aunt in Brooklyn for a year when he was 10, so he would become fluent in English, and learn how to be comfortable in a different environment, all in preparation for his future in business.

Staff Sargent Joseph Kestler in uniform.

    Fortunately, Joseph was able to return to the United States as a refugee in December, 1938, just after the Anschluss, thanks to that same aunt, who sponsored his emigration. Courtesy of the year in Brooklyn, he spoke English with no accent. That enabled him to get a job at the 1938-40 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Initially promoted as the “World of Tomorrow,” its theme was changed to “Peace and Freedom” when WWII began.
    While working there, he met and eventually fell in love with Ann Ascherman, a beautiful legal secretary. They married in April of 1943. Joseph joined the Army, and was eventually tapped to go to Camp Ritchie.
    Named after a former governor of the state, Camp Albert C. Ritchie was a 632-acre property near Cascade, Maryland. The War Department shortened its name to Camp Ritchie and made it the Army’s Military Intelligence Training Center. Its graduates became known as Ritchie Boys.
    According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), of the program’s 11,637 graduates, all spoke at least two languages besides English. Dozens of languages important to the US military were spoken at Camp Ritchie, including Russian, Greek, Norwegian, Polish, and Arabic.

Letter of commendation to Staff Sargent Kestler from Gen. George Patton.

    More than 2,000 Ritchie Boys were German Jewish refugees who reported to Camp Ritchie while still designated as “enemy aliens.” In exchange for their knowledge of German language, culture, and topography, which proved critical in extracting information vital to the war effort, the Army offered them something invaluable—US citizenship.
    As native speakers, they proved to be extraordinarily successful at gathering intelligence. Their familiarity with European customs and geography helped them catch nuances others might miss. Their rigorous training at involved practicing their skills with US soldiers acting as Nazi soldiers and German civilians within life-sized replicas of German villages.

Some of Staff Sargent Kestler’s medals and commendations.

    Being completely fluent in Italian as well as German and French, Joseph could interrogate, type, and write in all three. This made him an especially valuable asset. A specialist in what is known as Order of Battle, Joseph had to memorize the enemy’s units, weapons, uniforms, chains of command, and other details. Everything had to be committed to memory so that it could not be captured or uncovered. Foreshadowing his son’s experiences in school, Joseph graduated from the special four-week advanced training program in 14 days.

Tony and Barbara Kestler.

  Once all training was completed, the graduates were divided into teams, dispersed into different army units, and sent to areas of battle, including North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. Joseph Kestler landed on the beaches of Normandy in August, 1944, a few months after D-Day.
    According to Dr. David Frey, Professor of History and Founding Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS) at the United States Military Academy at West Point, once on the ground in Europe, Ritchie Boys were involved in every major battle, gathering intelligence as the Allied forces moved across the continent.

Tony with his dad

  Dr. Frey attributes more than 60% of the actionable intelligence gathered in the Western Front to the Richie Boys. He also said divisions that liberated concentration camps included hundreds of Ritchie Boys, who were particularly sensitive when interviewing survivors.
    However, the soldiers, many of whom—including Joseph Kestler—were highly decorated for their extraordinary service, returned home at the end of the war unable to tell anyone about their experiences, because news about the program was embargoed until long after Joseph had died. Tony only learned of it because a nephew did a search about the family on Ancestry.com.
    The one thing Tony knew for certain growing up was that his dad was a proud American, thrilled to be married to an American-born woman. Now he knows his dad was a hero. And he has the medals and letters of commendation to prove it.   

Joann Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.


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