When he was in his late teens and early 20s, Paul Fairbrook unknowingly made history while working at two military camps in rural Virginia. It was during the middle of World War II, and Fairbrook was helping decode German war documents and transmissions.
"I don't fully understand what all the fuss is about. We never thought we were heroes until you guys told us we were," he said.
The 88-year-old told his story to the Sons in Retirement Branch No. 145 meeting at the Moose Lodge in Woodbridge on Tuesday afternoon.
Fairbrook is a Jewish-German immigrant who was drafted into the U.S. Army and served at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. The fort was mostly Jewish-German and Austrian soldiers who escaped from their countries, immigrated to the U.S. and could speak German. They would translate documents, interrogate prisoners of war and help decode German messages.
He also served at P.O. Box 1142, a secret camp where a small research team drafted a book detailing the make-up of the German army.
For decades, Fairbrook never told his story because often the documents the men were decoding were top-secret. But he has recently started to speak about his experience.
At the talk Tuesday, Fairbrook showed scenes from "The Ritchie Boys," a 2004 documentary produced by a German filmmaker. After the film came out, it raised awareness of the contributions of Jewish-German soldiers during the war.
Last year, he was also one of 12 Ritchie Boys to go to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Mich. for the unveiling of an exhibit on the Ritchie Boys.
"Apparently, there is great interest in something that for me was just a job," Fairbrook said.
It opened the door for him to begin speaking about his part in history, starting with his childhood growing up in Berlin.
Fairbrook was born in 1923, and when he was 10 years old his dad, who was a banker, became concerned when Fairbrook and his twin brother were kicked out of a group similar to the Boy Scouts. The two boys were also not allowed to attend a school because they were Jewish.
"(My father knew) that we couldn't stay in Germany. ... He said, 'If they took my sons out of Boy Scouts and they can't go to school, then this is no place for me,'" Fairbrook said.
The family moved to Palestine, and then decided to immigrate to the U.S. several years later. But the family had to make one more trip to Germany.
Fairbrook's mother was living in Slovenia for six months with the four kids while Fairbrook's dad tried to get visas in Holland to come to America. The family went to go meet him in 1937, traveling by train.
When they got to the German border, a Nazi pulled Fairbrook's mother and the children off the train. He said their German passports were not valid.
"He said, 'If you are not out of this country by tonight, you are going to go to a concentration camp.' It scared the hell out of my mother," Fairbrook said.
Because of the delay, they worried about missing their second train out of the country. But his mom sent a telegram, and luckily, a station near Holland held the train for them.
"It gives you an idea as to why I think this country is so great, and why I'm so grateful to be in the United States," he said.
The family arrived in 1938, and when Fairbrook turned 19, he tried to join the Marines, the Navy and the Army but was not allowed because he was an "enemy alien."
He was drafted in January 1943, and after basic training he ended up at Camp Ritchie at the Military Intelligence Training Center.
"All of us were fluent in German, most of us were German Jews, and as the film tells you, you can teach a guy to shoot a rifle in six months but you can't teach him to talk fluent German in six months, and that's what they needed," he said.
Because of their background, the soldiers all felt like their fight was personal.
"You have to understand that people like me — German Jews who came to the United States and had a chance to fight for their country — we did it with a kind of enthusiasm you can only imagine," he said.
They had about 30 classes at Camp Richie, and Westbrook was in the fourth class before the barracks were even built. He said it was important to remember that he was a young kid, and read excerpts from his letters about going dancing, dating his sweetheart and even writing to his sister in Morse code.
At the camp, they learned everything about the German army's organization and a variety of skills, including Morse code, aerial intelligence, topographical maps, field exercises and the interrogation of prisoners of war.
He was then transferred to a secret camp called P.O. Box 1142, between Alexandria and Mount Vernon, Va. His unit included 18 enlisted men and three officers.
When he arrived, they immediately started transcribing stacks of documents. He worked on a book titled "The German Army Order of Battle 1942," writing the first chapter describing the various German army units.
They also decoded messages. He still has copies of telegrams from Hitler with orders relating to Crete, Norway and Russia.
"It was really a very exciting place to be," he said.
On June 30, 1944, almost a month after D-Day, Fairbrook flew to London where he continued his work with documents coming in even more quickly from the field.
He stayed in the Army until May 1946, and spent his last year organizing all the documents for future researchers.
He analyzed and interpreted tables of different organizations of the German military. He also prepared a study called "Political Introduction and Morale-Building in the German Army." It discussed how after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944, Nazi officers were assigned to each major military unit to evaluate the members' loyalty.
Fairbrook was honorably discharged in April 1946 and remained in the reserves until January 1955. He went on to graduate from Brown University and got his master's from Michigan State University.
He served as dean of the Culinary Institute of America. He also spent 20 years as the Director of Auxiliary Services at University of the Pacific, overseeing housing and food services.
After coming to the U.S. as an immigrant who didn't speak much English, entering the service and having a successful career, Fairbrook said he is grateful.
"Ever since I came to America, I had no reason to be anything other than happy," he said.