TODAY | August 18, 2011
NATALIE MORALES, anchor: This morning on TODAY'S AMERICAN STORY WITH BOB DOTSON , a group of GIs whose mission was so secret they've never held a reunion. What they did during World War II saved thousands of American soldiers , but few knew until now.
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, it's so nice to see you.
Mr. GUY STERN: Oh, my God.
BOB DOTSON reporting: They were front-line soldiers ...
Unidentified Man #2: You look like you came out of Florida .
DOTSON: ...who fought mostly with words.
Unidentified Man #3:
Unidentified Man #4:
DOTSON: Many were German-born Jews who escaped the Nazis but eagerly returned to fight for America .
DOTSON: The Army trained them as interrogators at a secret base in Fort Ritchie , Maryland . They were assigned to dozens of front-line units. These refugees saved thousands of American soldiers because of their intimate knowledge of Germany and its people.
Mr. SI LEWEN ("Ritchie Boy" World War II Veteran): We knew what makes them tick. We knew their mentality.
DOTSON: Si Lewen drove from battle to battle in a truck with loud speakers. He persuaded so many enemy soldiers to surrender, the French awarded him their Legion of Honor . Many like him became easy targets and died.
Mr. LEWEN: All they had to do was aim towards the -- towards the loud speaker and they'd take out the whole thing there.
DOTSON: Si moved the loud speakers and survived. At 92, he's still turning the horror he saw into art. Si Lewen has been doing that since he landed at Normandy and sketched one of the first casualties.
Mr. LEWEN: It was a shock. No, he wasn't sleeping. He's dead, he's dead. Yeah.
DOTSON: The Ritchie Boys fought their way back to Germany . Guy Stern rolled into his childhood hometown.
Mr. GUY STERN: That was an eerie feeling. It brought back so many childhood memories of course. I knew that town.
DOTSON: Did you drive by your house?
Mr. STERN: Yes, I was on that street, I saw it. The house was no longer standing.
DOTSON: His parents had disappeared. Richard Schifter 's folks died in a Nazi death camp after they sent him to freedom. You were one of the most fortunate men of your generation. You escaped the Holocaust . Why then did you enlist, turn around and go right back?
Mr. RICHARD SCHIFTER ("Ritchie Boy" World War II Veteran): It was a matter of recognizing the United States had saved our lives and that we had a debt.
Man #2: What happened to your hair?
DOTSON: Their payment went practically unnoticed...
Unidentified Man #5: Here he is.
DOTSON: ...for nearly seven decades. Michigan 's holocaust museum coaxed them into history's spotlight...
Unidentified Woman: One more, guys.
DOTSON: ...for the opening of a new exhibit honoring their service. The Ritchie Boys volunteered knowing full well what might happen to them if they were taken prisoner. But their accents confused even their fellow U.S. soldiers . A front-line sentry confronted one of the Ritchie Boys as he came back from the latrine at night.
Mr. SCHIFTER: He gave him the password but with an accent, so he shot him. The sentry shot him, killed him.
DOTSON: Si Lewen was one of the first American soldiers to enter Buchenwald , one of those Nazi death camps . When he marched inside...
Mr. LEWEN: Color literally disappeared. It literally disappeared.
DOTSON: Did you think that you might bump into an old friend in there?
Mr. LEWEN: The people that I met, they hardly looked human. In order to heal, I had to paint.
DOTSON: Attacking that canvas, Si Lewen finally figured out why his wartime efforts had been so successful.
Mr. LEWEN: For 46 years I couldn't tell any what happened.
DOTSON: Before Si enlisted, he was robbed in New York City 's Central Park by a cop who cursed him because he was Jewish .
Mr. LEWEN: And he kept hitting me and I start screaming, you know, 'Help!' So it was Sunday, it was a lovely day and people in their boats, and they made a quick retreat.
DOTSON: And yet you still found it in your soul to fight for America .
Mr. LEWEN: It is still a beautiful country and full of possibilities.
DOTSON: That's why he fought so hard for us. For TODAY , Bob Dotson , NBC News , with an American story in Farmington Hills , Michigan .
MORALES: What a great story.
AL ROKER reporting: And beautiful artwork. Wow.
MORALES: Wow, beautiful.