U.S. Army Intelligence Operative (Ritchie Boy)
Ernest Wachtel, an only child, was born in 1924 in Vienna, Austria to Sigmund (Shaye) and Sofie (Zusa), nee Liss. His father was born in Galicia, Poland and loved Austria and Vienna and the life there and decided to settle in Vienna where he served as an officer in the German army during World War I. He purchased an apartment house in the third district and opened a retail store handling silk and lace in the second district. The family moved to a large rented apartment on Karmeliterplatz overlooking a produce, fish, and meat market.
Ernest went to school at the Sperlgasse Gymnasium. His family attended a little shtiebel and he had a modern Jewish education and a bar mitzvah. When he was 13, his father bought him a light blue bicycle and he became buddies with a bunch of schoolmates, riding their bicycles together. In 1938, Vienna was occupied by the Germans and Hitler marched in. That very same day his buddies became his enemies. They showed their true color of displaying their hatred of the Jews. They pointed out the Wachtel apartment to the SS and SA to go get the Jew. The mob grabbed men walking from several nearby synagogues and wearing their prayer shawls and forced them to scrub off the anti-Semitic slogans that they had painted on the clock tower. Ernest and other Jews had to use a toothbrush to remove all the graffiti while the mob stood there watching, taunting, and jeering. His parents were very much afraid and had to hang a sign on their store indicating that it was Jewish and any gentile who came in was forced to wear a sign around his neck stating that “This swine patronizes a Jewish store.” Every passing day conditions worsened, and Jews became desperate to emigrate.
Ernest’s father closed the business. He was forced to turn over the apartment building to a Nazi appointed Kommissar for management and decided to pack up their bags and leave. Some of his friends said “It will never happen to us—we’re Austrians—we’ll be safe” and some were taken to concentration camps for the most minor infractions. He had an affidavit from an uncle who lived in the U.S. but the State Department had a quota on Eastern Europeans. He went to the French Consul and was fortunate to purchase a temporary visitor’s visa to go to France. The Austrian Nazi government prohibited any émigré to take any money funds out of Austria. His father consequently purchased first class tickets on the French ship Normandie. At first they were ordered to settle in an efficiency hotel at Bellefontaine #8 in Paris and then in a small farmhouse in the small town of Vineuil near Chantilly. His father had to register with the police daily.
In July 1938, at age 14, Ernest’s visa for America came through and he left alone for New York, where he was put up by his uncle, a dentist, and his wife who lived on 34th Street between Lexington and Second Avenues. He was fed Franco-American spaghetti—boiled, fried, or cooked—augmented with eggs and herring offered by a local barkeeper whom Ernest befriended. He worked for his uncle to repay his kindness, cleaning his dental chairs and instruments. With the $1-$2 he earned, he was on his own and went to the movies on 42nd Street for five cents to learn the English language. Later, his uncle enrolled him in Stuyvesant High School in a special course for foreigners to learn English.
Later he learned that his father was interned as an enemy alien by “the beautiful French people” and put in a camp where he was barely able to communicate with his wife. They finally received a visa to the U.S. in 1939 and his uncle arranged for Baron Rothschild to lend them the money to buy a chicken farm on a little piece of land in Stelton, outside New Brunswick, N.J. The family lived in a small two-story farmhouse, surrounded by chicken coops, working long and tedious hours tending the chickens and candling and cleaning the eggs. But “the Almighty looked down on us and gave us a helping hand.” War had broken out and the Army established Camp Kilmer surrounding the farm and bought up their daily production of eggs and fresh chickens to supply the officers’ dining facilities.
Ernest was fascinated and thrilled by the soldiers and wanted to join the army. Although his father refused and, as the only son and as the son of a farmer, he was able to be deferred, he forged his father’s signature and volunteered to join the U.S. Army because “I was enamored by the soldiers and I was grateful that this country opened its doors to me and I could enjoy the freedom it offered.”
He went to the Fort Dix Induction Center and then to Fort Leonard Wood as a combat engineer because he was very good at mechanical drafting thanks to a little job in New Brunswick with a company that developed washing machines for airplane motors. The Army sent him to the University of Kentucky to learn topography, creating maps for the artillery. An officer met him, heard his German accent, and within days he was on a train to Fort Ritchie, MD, where he found American soldiers dressed in German uniforms with German weapons and learned about German tactical maneuvers. Although he missed half of the training course due to a near-fatal illness, he was shipped out with the rest of his unit to Edinburgh Scotland and then to England in April 1944. Since he was a corporal, he was excused from the dirty work aboard ship, but found himself a job as a movie operator to entertain the troops.
The troops waited in England in the rain for D-Day, and were finally ordered to board a ship and were issued gear including weapons, a gas mask, and waxed underwear for protection against mustard gas. They landed on D+3 Day, June 9, 1944, on Omaha Beach in France. Ernest was ordered to report to IPW (Interrogator of Prisoners of War) Team #62 attached to General George Patton’s 3rd Army—with 5 enlisted men and 2 officers (Capt. Kovach and Lt. Lang). Ernest was given a Jeep with a large loudspeaker mounted on the top. When the captured soldiers from the front came secondary to them, his job was to weed out which companies they belonged to and separate them accordingly. If he saw someone with an insignia of higher rank, he pulled him out and sorted out those who looked intelligent for further interrogation by another team member. He also ordered them to strip themselves of all personal belongings, except family photographs, and collected their medals and wallets.
Ernest’s trip through France was ordinary and uneventful, seeing a lot of action, but not directly at the front. The Americans commandeered houses to sleep in and the French people gave them ample supplies that they had hidden from the Germans. When they arrived at Thionville, a French town on the German border, while sorting out a large group of freshly caught, wise-guy German soldiers, they suddenly saw a huge flame roar overhead from east to west. The U.S. soldiers did not know they were rockets, but the Germans were jubilant, shouting, “This is the revenge weapon”—V1’s [Vergeltungswaffe]--they will win this war! Marching forward, they reached the city of Trier in Germany.
As they went further into Germany, not as many young and enthusiastic soldiers were captured. The soldiers were middle-aged and elderly people conscripted into the German army. One elderly German offered his hidden electric gas-operated generator and, in return for providing their unit with electricity for the rest of the war, Ernest made him an orderly for IPW Team #62. Travelling through Germany, they came close to his farm and stopped for a sumptuous meal of brown bread and sausage cooked by his wife. Out of gratitude, they dismissed him, took his uniform, gave him civilian clothes, and said good-bye. Ernest kept the generator hitched to his jeep and had ample electricity provided up to the end of the war.
During the battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945), the IPW Team was ordered to remain in their quarters for fear that they would be shot by fellow Americans mistaking them for German soldiers dressed in American uniforms as spies.
The war ended on May 7 or 8 and General Patton established his headquarters in the Adolf Hitler Kaserne—an armory in Bad Tölz—close to Munich and the Dachau Concentration Camp. “We didn’t know anything about Dachau or concentration camps.” Since he was able to be more or less on his own, Ernest drove his Jeep to Dachau the third day after it was liberated. He took pictures showing the dead bodies and the German civilians and officers sorting out the dead Jewish corpses. He spoke a little Polish and was able to communicate with the Polish Jews. He personally took out three survivors and found them an apartment in Bad Tölz, throwing out the German residents, giving the Jews “official” papers which were meaningless but potentially intimidating, and procuring supplies of canned foods, blankets, sheets, and underwear from a master sergeant of Jewish descent who was head of the quartermasters. “We made human beings out of three guys who didn’t realize that tomorrow they might be dead.” One was a Polish silversmith who was so grateful that he made two small silver candlesticks that Ernest still cherishes. Through some of the survivors, Ernest and other GI’s helped set up a full Rosh Hashanah service and dinner, supplied by the master sergeant.
After the war, Ernest’s job was to look for hidden Nazis and turn them over to the proper authorities. In December 1945, he returned to Camp Kilmer, where he turned down an offer for a permanent job as a provost marshall officer and was discharged December 24, 1945. “I had had enough. The Army had its turn, now it’s time to settle down, find a wife, and settle down.”
He reconnected with Rabbi Nussbaum, his wife, and four daughters, who had lived on the floor below his family in Vienna and who were able to escape after Kristallnacht, having endured “the naughtiness” that the Austrians invoked on the Jewish families. “Each daughter was nicer than the next; finally I picked the nicest one, Rose, and made her my wife.” They married in 1947 and have three beautiful daughters (“goddesses”), Terry, Cheryl, and Mindy, and six grandchildren, Joshua, Mathew, Jeremy, Jordan, Peri (the junior goddess), and Eric.
The army taught Ernest that regimentation is the order and that if you set yourself a goal, you have to follow through it step-by-step and not procrastinate until tomorrow. Over the years, he was a successful businessman, starting as a coat salesman, then a window dresser for Lerner Shops. Next he started a candy vending machine business and then put washing machines in apartment building basements, expanding to close to 2000 washers, and finally partnered with three lawyers, managing apartment buildings
Although he has been back to Vienna a few times and finds it melodious—easy-going and gentle—“freedom we have here and this is still the best place to be.”
Date of Interview: July 24, 2011
Length of Interview: 1 hour 3 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran