Guy Stern says he almost didn't make it into the intelligence service during World War II, where his work would eventually earn him the Bronze Star.
He was only 19 when he applied to join Naval intelligence in 1941, but he says he was turned down because he was born in Hildesheim, Germany, and had lived there until he was 15.
"They told me they could only take native-born Americans in the intelligence service," he says.
Stern continued busing tables at a hotel across the street from Saint Louis University, where he was studying, until a draft letter arrived 18 months later. After basic training in Texas, he was placed on a train with a letter containing his orders. He was told not to open the letter until he had been on the train for three hours.
"I was sent to Camp Ritchie, Maryland, Military Intelligence Training Center," says Stern, now 92.
Stern was one of what came to be known as the "Ritchie Boys" — German Jews who had fled the Holocaust to America and returned to their homeland with the U.S. military. Their fluency in German and understanding of cultures and customs helped them provide intelligence to U.S. commanders.
At Camp Ritchie, he spent two months of grueling training, learning close combat, aerial maps, interrogation techniques, Morse code, terrain intelligence and other skills.
"It was the toughest bit of physical and intellectual training I ever had in my life," Stern says.
He was sent to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion, and as he crossed the English Channel on June 8, 1944, he thought about what would happen to him, a Germany-born Jew, if he were captured by the Nazis.
"Personally, I was scared," he says. "By nature, I was squeamish."
His assignment was to interrogate German prisoners of war. He began using techniques he had been taught, including displaying superior knowledge, becoming "buddies" with prisoners, providing things like cigarettes to the captives and playing on their fears. Interrogators didn't use violence.
"The first thing we learned at Ritchie was that you never touch a prisoner," Stern says.
That didn't mean he couldn't frighten them. Stern learned quickly that one of the greatest fears of the German soldiers was to be turned over to the Russians, who were known to send prisoners to Siberian work camps. Stern would take on a persona he created, "Commissar Krukow," which he embellished with a makeshift Russian uniform pieced together from items the Army recovered.
"I put a Russian accent in my German," Stern says. "He might break at that point. I'd say that in 80% of the cases, that's where they were broken."
The interrogation policy at the time called for intelligence officers to interview no more than two prisoners at once, so the prisoners couldn't develop solidarity in their resistance. But Stern realized there was value in interrogating large groups at once. He would have them stand together and ask them questions about how many of them had been trained on rifles, machine guns, gas warfare and other fighting skills.
"His detailed statistical analysis of enemy divisions facing First Army were of inestimable value to both the higher and lower headquarters," U.S. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges wrote in Stern's Bronze Star citation.
Stern was the oldest of three children and the only one to make it to America. After the war, he returned to his hometown to learn bitter news. His parents and his two siblings had been deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, where they died.
When he returned to the USA, Stern began studying Romance languages and later earned a doctorate from Columbia University. He taught at several universities, finishing his career as vice president and provost of Wayne State University in Detroit. His first wife, Judith, a high school teacher for 40 years, died in 2003. He is now married to Susanna, a writer.
Stern typically swims laps before dawn each morning at the local Jewish Community Center before heading into work at the Holocaust Memorial Center in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills. He says the key to a long life is "diet, exercise and having a wife who is half your age with double your brains."
Wisely also reports for the Detroit Free Press