SAN FRANCISCO — Ed Holton was 21 years old when he found himself face-to-face with Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's second-in-command. It went nothing like what he'd expected.
Holton was a U.S. Army intelligence officer interrogating the imprisoned Nazi in preparation for the postwar Nuremberg trials, but Goering wasn't cracking loose about his slave labor programs or how many Jews he'd ordered gassed.
Goering, speaking only in German, just wanted to complain.
Little did he know he was whining to a Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria — a refugee who was now a Ritchie Boy, one of the most valuable interrogation units in the Allied forces.
That unit is largely forgotten today, and all save 300 of the 3,500 members have died. But their adventures live on in the memories of survivors such as Holton, 90, who according to the sketchy available records is the only one living in the Bay Area.
And when it comes to memories, he's got whoppers few can match — like interrogating Goering in a military prison in 1946.
"Goering was very upset that day and said, 'I don't want to talk,' and I said, 'Why, Herr Goering, what is wrong?' " Holton recalled. "He said soldiers had plundered his villa in Germany. I translated it to the other officers as 'looted,' and he understood that little bit of what I said.
"The next thing I know, he jumps up and shouts, 'Nein! I said plundered, not looted!' " Holton recalled, chuckling. "And I suppose he was right, since looting is a civilian action and plundering is military.
"So I said, 'Herr Goering, since you are the known expert in both of those fields, I will defer to you.'
"Afterward, one of the other officers said, 'Do you think he knew you are Jewish?' and I said, 'I certainly hope so.' "
Even seven decades later, as he sat in his retirement home in Mill Valley, Holton got a kick out of being able to get stroppy with the high-ranking Nazi. Not many soldiers had that opportunity.
But the Ritchie Boys did.
The interrogation unit was composed of young German and Austrian Jewish men who fled to America as World War II broke out, got drafted as foreigners and were trained to be intelligence officers. Army brass reckoned they would be good interrogators because they not only hated the Nazis with a personalized fury, but they knew how to wheedle German prisoners of war in their own tongue.
The nickname came from the base where they received their eight weeks of intelligence training, Camp Ritchie in Maryland.
After graduating, the Ritchie Boys fanned out across the European war theater, and their biggest push came right after D-Day. They were embedded with the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy so they could not only interrogate freshly captured Nazi prisoners, but also use loudspeakers to shout at the enemy that all hope was lost.
Holton was a second lieutenant when he came ashore several days after D-Day, and his first assignment was raiding the vacated Gestapo headquarters. His training for spotting improvised explosives paid off right away.
"The only thing the Gestapo left behind as they fled was booby-trapped toilet seats, and I could tell by the elevation of the seat," he said. "We had to do our business on the floor of their headquarters. Interesting way to start out."
He soon found himself at the Battle of the Bulge, interrogating prisoners, civilians and defectors to discern troop movements and other tactical nuggets. The gentler approach worked best.
"We'd ask the newly captured prisoners what they had for dinner," Holton said. "Then we'd say, 'Gee, only sauerkraut for five days? We've got eggs, tuna and Hershey's chocolate — come on in the tent and eat!'
"It almost always worked. We treated them with respect — they were draftees, like us. After they got that chocolate, soon they'd be telling you everything."
By the end of the war, he had made captain, earned a Bronze Star — and was made a U.S. citizen, like the other Ritchie Boys, for his service. Then came Nuremberg.
His next assignment after Goering was SS Brigadefuhrer Walter Schellenberg, who told Holton his main regret in the war was that the portable-trailer gas chambers he ordered up to kill Jews had a design flaw.
"He said the company put the loading door on the right rear, so when gas was pumped in the people rushed to that side and the chamber fell over," Holton recalled. "He was very angry about that. When he made designers redo it, he did not pay them."
That chamber also earned Schellenberg a special medal from Hitler, "and he was very proud of that," Holton added. "I asked him how many people he gassed, and he said 345,245 was his weekly total at one point.
"He was very happy to tell how he did such a wonderful job using his initiative to solve a problem. He was a terrible man."
Holton's interrogation helped send Schellenberg to prison for two years after the war — he was released shortly before dying of cancer in 1952. Goering cheated the hangman by swallowing cyanide.
After the war, the Army ordered up an assessment of the Ritchie Boys by Col. Robert Schow, who concluded in a lengthy report that the unit was "extremely valuable to all commands to which they were attached."
Holton takes great pride in that.
"When you do a job like we did, you determine what your strengths are," he said. "After you learn how to handle Nazis, other people are no problem for the rest of your life."
A German-made documentary in 2005 traced the history of the Ritchie Boys, but other than that there's been little mention of the unit. Among Holton's comrades were writer Klaus Mann, son of Nobel-winning novelist Thomas Mann, and Fred Howard, who invented L'eggs pantyhose.
Holton became an accountant, raised a family, and after retirement did travel consulting in San Francisco until he finally gave that a rest a few years ago.
He spends a lot of time now studying World War II and has 300 books on the subject. But as for the Ritchie Boys? There is no legacy organization, no annual gathering, no steady correspondence.
Holton finds that a little sad.
"Once the war was over, we all just wanted to go home to America and take advantage of the GI Bill," he said. "We didn't contact each other until about a dozen of us had a reunion in Detroit 10 years ago. But nobody keeps in touch.
"It's all dwindled away. It was an amazing thing we did, but in 10 years we will all be gone. We will truly be just history."