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World War II - 40th Engineering Combat Regiment

Angela and Julian were both in the country illegally. Angela boasted of her German nationality and her sympathies for Germany. She failed to register as an alien as required by the recently passed Smith Act. She regularly entertained officials from the German Consulate in Los Angeles. One night. the FBI arrested here, throwing a coat over her nightgown. She was charged as an "unregistered alien who blatantly consorts with our enemies…" There was a concern that she might pass off information she learned at the Beverly Hills Hotel to consular officials. Angela was sent to a detention camp in Seagoville, TX as an "enemy alien" where she remained throughout the war. Her spirit was broken and she was disillusioned - unable to understand how America could treat her so poorly.

Julian, meanwhile, had complied with the Smith Act and registered as an alien, making his first effort to resolve his illegal alien status and to receive a green card. Though his documentation was a bit sketchy, he did receive his green card on October 21, 1942 which would allow him to serve in the military. Unknown to Julian, his illegal alien status could have been easily resolved years before since he was married to Francesca Chesley, a US citizen, which provided him an easy path to his citizenship.

At the US entrance into the war, Ritter wanted to enlist in the Navy due to his love of the sea, his sense of adventure and his loyalty to his adopted country. However, since Ritter was not a US citizen, the Navy would not let him enlist. Julian tried to find a way to join the Navy, petitioning the Office of the Secretary of the War Department and even President Roosevelt,  explaining why he would be an asset in a naval unit. Unfortunately for Julian, rules were rules and no waiver was granted. A member of his local draft board, George Webb, even encouraged him to consider serving his country in a different capacity - especially since he would not be able to serve in the Navy - but Julian would have no part of a "desk job".

Local draft board member, George Webb, encourages Julian to serve as an artist

But to be rational rather than impetuous it might be best for you to weigh your ability as an illustrator and decide whether or not you could be of better service in the capacity for which you are best fitted, rather than as a soldier or sailor. Pictures play no small part in times like these and qualified illustrators surely must have a definite role to fill. New York or Washington would be the best place to find out about that though.

There are two brothers from my home town in New York that have done quite well as illustrators and they may have some information that could help you. Matt and Benton Clark. I haven't seen either one for five years, at least. But when I was in New York last, Matt had a studio near Washington Square on Eighth Street, I believe. You might look him up and exchange ideas.

Ritter went back to painting while he awaited his draft notice which arrived in November, 1942. Julian boarded a bus headed to Fresno, CA on November 12, 1942 at the Trailways Bus Terminal in Hollywood, knowing that this was his path to US citizenship. He was assigned to the 40th Engineering Combat Regiment which was organized in Camp Pickett, VA under the command of Col. Mason and was attached to the 45th Infantry Division which was part of General George Patton's 7th Army. Ritter was initially a member of the 3rd Battalion which received basic training at Fort Lewis, WA. Upon completing basic training, the 3rd Battalion was sent to Fort Pierce, FL to receive amphibious assault training. After this, the 3rd Battalion was sent to Camp Pickett, VA - the base for the 40th Engineering Combat Engineers who were to be deployed to the Gulf of Oran, Algeria to train for the Allied invasion of Sicily.

Predictably enough, Julian's eagerness to serve his country began to fade about fifteen minutes after his induction, when he got his first military order. And it diminished steadily over the next four or five months, right through basic training.

Julian Ritter talks about the Army and regimentation

I'd been an independent painter all my life and I wasn't used to regimentation. A painter, or any kind of artist, has his own sense of discipline – stronger, I think, than most people have - that makes them rebel against regimentation. It's the worst thing that can happen to an artist.

Less predictably, Julian's rebelliousness, for once, didn't become overt; not so overt, anyway, that it landed him in the guardhouse. Although his sloppy uniforms and out-of-step parading earned him more than his share of KP duty, he accepted the ridicule, indignity and humiliation of boot camp with barely a whisper of protest, Julian had a big stick hanging over him - he'd never become a citizen, they had warned him at induction, if he refused to serve his country. There was a carrot too: Julian was eager to get on with the great adventure of war.

Despite Julian's poor impression as a soldier, he did gain some notoriety for the drawings he made in basic training. This notoriety would lead him to an unexpected turn in just a few weeks.

Artist Julian Ritter painting Lt. General Ben Lear, commanding officer of the US 2nd Army
After his training at Ft Pierce, FL, Julian arrived at Camp Pickett, Virginia. While stationed at Camp Pickett, the 40th ECR engaged in what were called the "Tennessee Maneuvers". While in Tennessee, Ritter was selected to paint a portrait of Lt. General Ben "Yoo-Hoo" Lear who was the commanding officer of the 2nd Army based in Tennessee. Julian's assignment to paint General Lear was fortuitous – he and Hilde had been writing back and forth since he'd been in the army, and they had decided that they wanted to get married before Julian deployed, if possible. With an assignment that would keep him in one place for four or five weeks, billeted in a Memphis hotel, he had the perfect opportunity. So he cabled Hilde that very afternoon, "Come here and marry me."

Julian Ritter on marrying Hilde Meyer-Radon

We wanted to get married for the emotional security. Many boys got married just before they went overseas, just to have something to hang on to. It's a natural instinct. Hilde wanted it as much as I did. She wanted me to come back to her after the war.

Julian learned that there was no waiting period for a marriage license in Mississippi. On his first day off from his painting assignment, he and Hilde took a bus to Hernando, Mississippi where they got a license and were married in a small chapel on April 9, 1943 and were back in Memphis that afternoon. There were no guests; the preacher's wife was the witness. It made his first wedding to Francesca look like a big celebration by comparison

There was just one problem: Julian was still married to Francesca Chesley. Francesca filed for her divorce in April, 1942 and Julian understood that the divorce would be final one year later.

Julian Ritter on his divorce from Francesca

When Francesca filed for divorce, she told me that it would be final in a year. Since she'd filed in April of '42, I thought it would automatically be final in April of '43. That was the assumption Hilde and I had made in discussing our marriage so, when the time came, we acted upon it.

Julian had no clue that the final divorce decree might lag a bit. Even had he known his divorce was not final, who knows if he would have let that deter him since he wanted to marry Hilde before deploying overseas. And, so, Julian was for a few months, a bigamist.

Julian and Hilde had a six-week honeymoon in a Memphis hotel room while Julian completed the painting of General Lear. After the portrait was complete, Ritter returned to Camp Pickett where he was reassigned to the 1st Battalion which was later re-designated as the 2829th Battalion. The 40th ECR was transferred to Roanoke, Virginia in May of 1942, awaiting transit to the Gulf of Oran, Algeria. When they arrived in Algeria, they trained further for their assault on Sicily.

While training in the vicinity of Oran, Julian's pre-occupation was getting into Oran itself so that he might get drunk. This lead to a particularly funny incident.

Julian Ritter tells of his last adventure in Oran

I'd go into Oran with my friend, Sweeney, every chance I got, and we'd get as drunk as we could. The last night we were there, we got so drunk that we missed the last bus back to the camp. We were already overdue, miles away with no transportation. If we didn't get back by morning, when we were supposed to break camp, we knew we'd be in deep trouble. So we flagged down a shit wago - a horse-drawn wagon with a big tank on the back that they used to haul human shit for fertilizer. We gave the driver some money and told him to hurry up and get us back to the camp. He snapped the whip and that horse ran. But he didn't have the lid on the tank real tight and the shit was flying all over. We smelled like a couple of shithouses when we got back to camp.

When we arrived, our outfit was already assembled on the parade ground. Our tents were the only two left standing. Sweeney was a big guy, over six feet, so he broke his down quickly. Being short and being drunk, I was slower. So I was the last one to step into the ranks, with everybody looking at me and laughing at me. When we were standing inspection arms, the captain came by, stopped, and gave me a look: "Shall I shoot this son of a bitch or what?" Everyone was laughing; I couldn't understand. There I was , with my coat on, my boots on, my pack, my tent, my rifle, hand grenades and all kinds of things…but no pants on. On top of it, smelling like a shithouse, drunk as a lord. Trying to make the best of it, I took a bottle of wine out of my pocket and offered it to him, saying, "I love everybody, Captain. Even you." He gave me a dirty look and said he'd talk to me later. But he never got around to it. We were too busy for the next few days. He gave me hell plenty of times thereafter, and was always trying to catch me out of line.

After the successful landing in Sicily, the 40th ECR was commanded by Col. O.B. Beasley and completed the Sicily invasion and prepared for the Allied invasion of Italy. While bivouacked some place between Port Empedocli and Messina in August, Julian got a break, using his charm to get an assignment as a combat photographer.

Julian Ritter gets the assignment of combat photographer

I saw a notice on the bulletin board outside the headquarters tent, advertising for an experienced photographer to become the battalion photographer. I knew the officer in charge, so I went right over and told him I was his man. He asked me if I knew how to develop photos and print them and so forth. I said I'd been doing it for years, so he was satisfied. As a matter of fact, I'd never developed or printed a photo in my life; I'd taken a couple of dozen snapshots with a box camera, that was my whole experience. As soon as I left his office, I ran right over to the office of my friend, Lieutenant Symmes, and asked him to tach me about photography. He gave me a quick lesson, enough so I could fake it from there on.

The army had bumbled its way into a wise personnel decision, for this turned out to be the ideal assignment for Julian. The job gave him tremendous freedom and creative license within the context of a combat engineering battalion. It was a job Julian liked doing, and he could be counted on to do to the best of his abilities.

Julian's official duties, as a photographer of an engineering battalion, required him to photograph damage to bridges, highways, piers and other vital installations, for use in planning repairs. Julian would find out soon enough that this was not the only damage he would be required to document. In terms of his official duties, he was a "combat photographer" only because he was attached to a combat engineering battalion. But Julian did make good use of the perquisites of his position to broaden his field of action in several directions, including some genuine, under-fire combat photography. Since the 40th ECR followed the front lines, any combat situation he encountered was most often the result of Julian being someplace he wasn't supposed to be.

Patton was no longer commanding the 7th Army and had been dispatched to England. The 40th ECR eventually became part of the Peninsula Base Station in Naples. This was a dull period for Julian, confined to the city, while repairs were made to the port over a six-month period. The highlight for Julian, while stationed in Naples, was Julian becoming a US citizen based on his military service in October 30, 1943.

The 40th ECR eventually participated in the invasion of Southern France, landing near St. Tropez. Due to units like the 40th Engineer Beach Control Group, the Americans were able to mount landings even on steep beaches and quickly land men and equipment to quickly expand their toehold, and they were able to supply their troops across these beachheads better than the Germans could supply their troops overland. The Germans were overwhelmed and the Allied force was pressing ahead quickly.

The rapidity of the Allied advance outstripped the 40th ECR: within two weeks of the invasion, they were maintaining supply lines as long as they's anticipated after six weeks. So far, they had risen to the occasion, but, for such a rapid advance to continue, they realized they needed intelligence faster than Julian could provide by trailing the front-line troops in a jeep. They needed photographic intelligence from behind German lines - detailed, up-to-date photos of the damage they would have to anticipate fixing, including low-level side-view shots that ordinary aerial photography couldn't supply. Their makeshift solution was to requisition a Piper Cub and a pilot from the reconnaissance unit and send Julian aloft to snap what he could with his hand-held Speed Graphic camera.

Julian Ritter tells of his aerial reconnaissance in World War II

I enjoyed flying. I'd never flown before, so flying so low in a small plane was an adventure. Leaning out the window with my camera added to the  excitement, but it was a problem for me. All my life I've had this obsession: when I took to high places, I have the urge to jump that I have to struggle against. So every moment hanging out that window was a struggle for me. Flying so low, we didn't attract anti-aircraft fire, but sometimes we'd come under rifle fire or machine-gun fire. One day, while I was hanging out [the window], we suddenly came under heavy ground fire. "Hang on!" yelled the pilot, and we went into a steep dive to gain speed. I was able to get back in, but it felt like the whole damned ship came up my throat. I couldn't puke - I couldn't do anything - a miserable feeling that lasted until I was back on the ground.

Julian managed to get himself into a number of other situations where he exercised real "combat photography," sometimes the result of official orders but oftentimes the result of Julian being curious and taking detours. The Allied efforts had pushed them into Germany in the spring of 1945. Julian's ability to speak German came in handy but he was wary of fraternizing, and the Germans didn't have much to give. On the other hand, there were a lot of bomb-damaged, abandoned buildings to snoop around, like a Hohner Accordion factory. As is typical of any conquering army, they help themselves to the spoils of war.

Julian Ritter tells of scavenging a Hohner Accordion factory said

I got a half-dozen accordions there, which I traded for smaller objects that other fellas had picked up. You could send a smaller object home or carry it home in your bag.

But the occasion that Julian remembers best during this swing across southern Germany was the visit he paid in the last week of the war to the newly liberated concentration camp at Dachau. The 2829th Battalion was charged with burying the many bodies at Dachau and Julian was sent there to document the carnage.

Julian Ritter recalls his visits to Dachau

I actually paid two visits there.

The first time was when my malaria acted up; the driver was looking for the hospital and turned in there accidentally. They turned us away at the gate and we didn't see anything.

The second time, though,I went there with my commanding officer and he ordered me to take pictures. It was an unpleasant sight: piles of bodies stacked up like cordwood, in varying degrees of decomposition. I didn't keep any prints of those photos, but I didn't need to - I can still recall them. It still gives me a shiver to remember.

Julian had engaged in artistic endeavor whenever he had the chance. Aside from painting a portrait of Lt. Philip Krueger (who had requisitioned art supplies for Julian), Julian made many drawings throughout the war. He submitted some of the early ones he did in Sicily - realistic renderings of everyday scenes behind the lines - to the War Department Art Project, and was commended for them. And he did another batch of them while waiting at Camp Twenty Grand in Normandy for transit back to the United States: drawings to illustrate his pamphlet advocating a United States of Europe and drawings to illustrate his plans for new, improved amphibious vessels among other.

Camp Twenty Grand was mostly a miserable experience for GIs - sitting and waiting to be sent home with no purpose other than to wait. All was not misery, Julian admits: thanks to their captured German cooks, they had good food and he travelled to Paris two or three times that summer.

Julian Ritter visits Paris while waiting to be sent back to the United States saidless= 1" said

I went up there the first time by truck, then another time or two by train, staying free there in a hotel assigned to GIs. The enthusiasm of Paris for GIs had cooled somewhat in the year since its liberation, but they still liked them because they spent money. There was a thriving black market, where soldiers could get rid of any souvenirs they didn't want.

I went to the Louvre a couple of times and spent all day there both times. I was really impressed. I'd seen grand museums in Chicago and New York, but this was the grandest of all. Their collection of impressionists impressed me most. I was never impressionistic myself – my work is objective, conventional - but I've always liked to look at impressionists.

Julian also did a great deal of cartooning in Europe. He drew a cartoon a day for the regimental newsletter since shortly after the Sicily landings. He sent Hilde dozens of postcards and letters full of cartoons - letters such as the one he sent here in 1944 beginning "Dear Hilda" and ending "Love, Julian" with eleven wordless pages of cartoons in between.

Ritter attained the rank of Technician Fourth Grade (T4) and is shown in the roster as having served at both Regimental headquarters and the headquarters of the 1st/2829th Battalion. He first served as an interrogator and later as a battalion photographer as described above.

The confirmation of Ritter's unit comes from the roster maintained by former members of the 40th ECR in an email exchange with Al French, the historian and website editor for the 40th Engineering Combat Regiment. The email response is included below:
Mar28,11 A "Julian Ritter" is listed in the ROSTER of the 40th Engineer Combat Regiment. He is shown as a T4 Technician(grade)4. The roster in the "History of the 40th Engineer Combat Regiment in WWII lists 2 Ritters. "Francis E." is listed as a corporal with his home possibly in New York with the note "rgt photog." Julian Ritter Technician 4th grade(T4) is shown as having served in Regimental headquarters and also in headquarters 1st Battalion with home town Hollywood, CA. When I compiled this roster for publication in the 1950s I asked the survivors in the national association to review the company rosters from which it was compiled and add details and correct errors. I rechecked most suggested revisions with other surviving members of each company. We believed this resulted in fairly reliable and accurate data, but I certainly realize there is possibility of errors.


Additionally, 40th ECR historian French provided the following with regard to the unit assignments:
I believe I understand what causes the confusion, but it is difficult to explain. The discharge papers are correct for the situation after VE Day in Europe. He was in headquarters for the 1st Battalion, as it was designated for most of WWII. Toward the end of the war in Europe the battalions were redesignated. The first Battalion became the 2829th, 2nd Bn. 2830th and 3rd Bn. 2831st. The 1st Bn (later 2829th) was assigned to clean-up Dachau. If he had basic training at Ft. Lewis, I would guess he was in the 3rd Bn. at that time. The soldiers that went through basic at Ft. Lewis were shipped to Camp Pickett, Virginia (Not Tennessee). Your Ritter was probably transferred to the 1st Bn at Pickett. The men in 1st Bn. did train at the California Desert Training Center. That was during the same period that most of the soldiers in what became 3rd Bn and later 2831st Bn. Were at Ft. Lewis. Reading this over I see that it seems confusing, but it is the best I can do! Al French, 40th Historian

During the American occupation of Germany, Julian arranged a jeep for a trip to Hamburg in the hopes of finding his beloved aunt, Ciocia. Julian was devastated by the destruction he witnessed in his native country and could not understand how the German people had fallen for a madman. He found his former step-father, Walther Fromm, who assisted in an unsuccessful search for Ciocia. He later learned back in the US that Ciocia had been imprisoned at the Magdeburg concentration camp as a "gypsy." She was released at the end of the war, but was in very poor health. A family took her in, trying to nurse her back to health but she died two weeks later.

To hear Julian tell it, he was a very poor soldier, drunk most the time and goldbricking whenever possible.

Julian Ritter tells of his time in the Army

I was a very bad G.I. Anything to get away from the masses. Anything to avoid duty. I was drunk most of the time and, frequently, hung over at crucial moments. I was a fuck-up, and a fuck-up never has difficulties. Somehow, the odds are in his favor.

I was constantly in hot water with my superior officers for something I hadn't done, or something I had done that I wasn't supposed to. Someone was always bawling me out for something. But none of them ever really punished me or busted me in rank. I don't know why. I guess they just got used to me fucking up and came to take it for granted.

Based on some of his stories of the war, there is some truth to what he says. However, he cannot have been as useless or incompetent as he likes to represent himself. Lt. Philip Krueger, his duty officer on Sicily for a couple of months, does not remember him as a particularly poor soldier or even being drunk on duty. And Julian could not have been quite the nemesis of the officer corps as he describes it. Julian was regularly recommend for promotion, rising to the rank of sergeant (T-4)before the end of the war. He was commended several times and even received the good conduct medal.

Julian embarked at Le Havre on September 22, 1945 aboard a ship for return to the United States. The ship finally arrived in Brooklyn on October 15, On October 22, Julian was sent by plane back to California. Two days later at Camp Beale, he was officially separated from the army with an honorable discharge and given his bus ticket back to Hollywood. After two years, ten months and twenty-seven days, Julian was again a free man, this time also freed from the burden of being an illegal alien.