The evolution of Fort Ritchie


Because of an editing error, an article on the June 28 Other Voices page gave the wrong number of Military Intelligence Training Center classes held during World War II at Fort Ritchie.

A total of 24 classes were trained, one per month.

The Evening Sun regrets the error.

FORT RITCHIE: now you see it, now you . . . well, it was out there. Maryland's official road map shows it, on the north end of South Mountain. But then the military emits another mist, and -- Ritchie, what's become of you?

What we're looking for is some 600 acres of treed rocks, improved by two artificial lakes, a bumpy parade ground, 150 or so buildings and, on a weekday, several thousand people, most of them in uniform. National Guard soldiers populated the original Camp Ritchie, starting in the 1920s. (Albert C. Ritchie was never a soldier, sailor or marine; he was governor of Maryland from 1920-1935.)

Early in World War II, with the guard on active duty elsewhere, G-2 liked the looks of an abandoned camp, 70 miles from the Pentagon. To explain: the U.S. military model has four General Staff sections: "1," personnel and training; "2," intelligence; "3," operations; "4," supply. G-2 is the smallest. Its specialists read aerial photos, size up unoccupied terrain, master enemy tables of organization, grill prisoners of war, thwart the hostiles operating behind our lines and debrief the local friendlies.

During wartime, G-2 is shielded from public view. The press averted its eyes and ears from a slew of interesting places in Maryland, e.g., Shangri-La (later, Camp David), the half-dozen Office of Strategic Services training sites, Camp Detrick's microbes, the Applied Physics Laboratory, EdgewoodArsenal's labs and factories and, up there alongside the Western Maryland Railroad tracks, hard by Pen Mar, Highfield and Cascade and leased from Maryland for $1 a year, the Military Intelligence Training Center.

On June 19, 1942, after a brief activating ceremony, Ritchie first showed Brigadoon how. Quietly, $5 million worth of construction was sluiced into the local economy. The National Guard inheritance included a firing range, a stone headquarters and a thin line of stone mess buildings, convertible into classrooms. Water, sewer, power lines were laid; barracks went up, two big mess halls, chapel, hospital, theater, Women's Army Corps barracks, post exchange -- all built of boards. A small Camp Ritchie air force was based at the Waynesboro, Pa., airport. (Post headquarters stayed put, then and since, in the so-called castle building.) In sum, an unlisted, 3,000-person community.

What MITC and its instructors did then was put classes of 300 to 500 soldiers and Marines (already fluent in at least one modern foreign language) through eight strenuous indoor/outdoor weeks, as prelude to the real thing overseas. The ratio of officers to GIs was about 1-6; officers were quartered separately. Otherwise, in class and afield, rank had no privileges: a rarity during the war. Twenty-four classes went through in a month. Early on, Ritchie's compass problem for full-darkness patrols led to a mountain-stream drowning.

A brigadier general was in charge, not the usual colonel. Charles Y. Banfill, a tall and burly Floridian who was called up in World War I as an enlisted man, became a flier and stayed in (and first met Maryland during five peacetime years at old Logan Airport as instructor of National Guard air units). Banfill left a 1942-45 mark on Western Maryland speechways that's still heard today. He put MITC on an eight-day cycle (the first week, everyone's day off was Sunday; the second week, Monday, etc.). On 36-hour pass, carloads of Ritchie Wonders would rocket through Emmitsburg and Taneytown, heading for Baltimore and a train to New York; their word for it was "Banday."

General Banfill, his aides Col. Joseph Hoffman and Shipley Thomas -- the names of World War II figures are visible on street signs at today's much-improved but same-size post (a golf course, yet). Banfill eventually left Ritchie to be "G-2" of the 8th Air Force in Europe. He was en route to a new assignment in the Pacific Theater on VJ Day. He died, aged 68, in 1966.

With peace, MITC was broken up and transferred; Ritchie was declassified, given back to Maryland for use as a hospital, reclaimed by the Army, promoted in the 1960s from camp to fort. Along the way, another episode of invisibility occurred when, across the Mason-Dixon Line, a mountain was being hollowed out to serve as the so-called Alternate Pentagon, and Ritchie was its support base. In 1995, Ritchie again warrants as commandant not a CO but a CG -- Brig. Gen. Frederick H. Essig.

On the adjoining Appalachian Trail, civilians keep marching by. Meanwhile, for all their high IQs, somehow none of Ritchie's graduates interrupted their peacetime careers to produce a book about Ritchie.

The oddest touch of all is that Ritchie looms as the one place where the Axis Powers outlasted the Allies. Part of the World War II post's permanent party consisted of actors -- U.S. soldiers (the Composite School Unit) who put on captured enemy uniforms and became foot or mechanized units under long-range surveillance, or surly prisoners of war and balky natives to be interviewed, in their own tongue. Since then, Ritchie's graduates have melted away, never holding an organized reunion. But every even-numbered year, the CSU alumni, down to 75 or so including wives, come to life again.

On Friday, Fort Ritchie learned its fate from the Base Closure and Realignment Commission: it is to be closed. Of course, President Clinton could reject the commission's recommendations.

Shutting down the installation is a three-to-five-year process, notes Steve Blizard, post public affairs officer. What then, for Fort Ritchie -- oblivion? Cannily, the post consolidated its World War II-plus-50 commemorations on May 7, not Aug. 14. Will the state now want to reclaim those acres, one more time?

Through the clouds and fog between here and 2000, you can count on one thing: the CSU will still be there, intermittently, at Ritchie.

James H. Bready is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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