“Call me GG,” he said. “That’s what my friends call me.” GG, a retired army general and a Ritchie Boy, was the executive director of the local United Way in Sierra Vista, Arizona and he had arranged for us to meet in their comfortable conference room. While my daughter, Erin, was setting up her camera equipment, the general and I relaxed in chairs to one side of the long polished table, getting acquainted before starting the taped interview.

Major General Gerd Grombacher had contacted me through the Ritchie Boy web site set up by filmmaker Christian Bauer to promote his documentary. The general and I had been corresponding for the last few months by e-mail, and now he had agreed to talk to me in person.

Erin drove with me to southern Arizona the week after Thanksgiving in 2005 to video tape the meeting. I was glad to have her company. The weather outside was frigid and blustery, a cold northern wind blowing the desert heat into oblivion and catching us unprepared. It was so cold, in fact, that the night before, we had visited the local Target department store to buy long underwear and fleece jackets. Now, we were happy to be in a warm building away from the wind.

Grombacher was not a tall man, though not as short as my uncle Herman. At 82, he was trim, partially bald with a clipped, gray mustache, and a smile that lit up his face, putting us quickly at ease. I already knew much of GG’s story from his e-mails. He was born in Germany in 1923, and because they were Jewish, his parents brought him and his younger sister to Chicago in 1935 to live with relatives. His mother and father, believing that the Nazi regime couldn’t last long, returned to Germany. He never saw them again. He was drafted into the army in 1942, trained at Camp Ritchie, and served during World War II in Patton’s Third Army as an interrogator of prisoners of war.  After the war, Gerd made a career for himself in the army. He served in Korea and Vietnam in the Signal Corps and earned a handful of medals. Before his retirement, he had been commander of US Army Communications at the nearby military base, Fort Huachuca.

When Erin had her camera firmly on the tripod and the lens focused our way, she indicated she was ready. I pushed the record button on the audio recorder waiting on the table, and the green light lit up on the video camera. This was my first real interview with a Ritchie Boy other than my uncle, and I was trying hard to be professional. I had even prepared several pages of interview questions to keep me on track. “What was your first impression of Camp Ritchie?” I began.

“I thought it was a fabulous place. Because everything was different from the army camp I had known during basic training . . . far better. We didn’t have to do KP. We didn’t have to do any of these menial tasks because we were students going through a very concentrated training. They had some Italian and German prisoners who did all those things. They worked in the kitchen and participated to some extent in the training.” I could see right away that GG would be easy to interview. His mind was lucid, and he was willing to share all the little details I longed to hear. Many of the things I heard about first from GG became part of my novel, Immigrant Soldier.

GG was the one who told me that guys who didn’t do well in the classes often had to stay at Ritchie as part of the Composite School outfit and act as mock Germans for the practice of the other students. He was the first of many to explain the “Banfill” eight-day week and the content of the courses of study, especially the memorization needed for Order of Battle class. GG confirmed Herman’s memory of the mock Nazi Rally where, after a harangue delivered by a Brown Shirt, he said, “The audience was laughing and cheering and doing the Heil Hitler stuff.” He told me about Chocolate Park, Man Mountain Dean, Camp Louise full of teenage girls, paybooks, duck boards, the Red-Ball express, and the time during the Battle of the Bulge when he was assigned to be Patton’s interpreter.

GG had a sense of humor and was willing to share many personal memories. He was in no way pompous or distant. Speaking of his early years in the army he said, “I wasn’t a very good soldier—not the way I expected my soldiers to be when I was an officer. I mean, I was a goof up.” One of GG’s stories was so engaging that I made it part of Herman’s experience in the novel. In truth, it was Gerd, the future general, who climbed up into the bus luggage rack for a nap during the long trip back to Camp Ritchie after a night of carousing.

During that afternoon interview, GG praised the training he had received at Camp Ritchie. “It was the best army training I have ever had, even after the war,” he said. “All the time I spent in the army, it was, without question, the best, most concentrated training I have ever witnessed. It was absolutely fantastic.” I was honored to have known General Grombacher. It was a stroke of luck that he answered my messages on the Ritchie Boy discussion board. I only met with him the one time before his passing in May of 2006, but I think of him often as I continue to learn more about the Ritchie Boys. His friendship and contribution to my knowledge was a gift of great value.


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