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The Top-Secret WWII Unit That Fooled the Nazis
By: Christopher Klein
Published: March 3, 2022
Its artillery couldn’t fire, its tanks couldn’t move and its members were more adept at wielding paintbrushes than guns. Yet, a top-secret unit of 1,100 American artists, designers and sound engineers unofficially known as the “Ghost Army” helped to win World War II by staging elaborate ruses that fooled the forces of Nazi Germany about the location and size of Allied forces.
Members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and 3133rd Signal Company Special who literally practiced the art of war saved the lives of thousands of American servicemen and earned one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
Employing inflatable decoys, fake radio chatter and loudspeakers that blared sound effects, the Ghost Army could simulate a force 30 times its size as it operated as close as a quarter mile from the front lines. “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign,” declared a U.S. Army report.
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Ghost Army: A 'Traveling Road Show'
Ghost Army member Freddy Fox described his unit as “a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.” From D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge , the Ghost Army performed more than 20 missions throughout the European theater of war in 1944 and 1945.
Inspired by the success of British subterfuge in North Africa earlier in the war, the U.S. Army created the Ghost Army in January 1944 as a self-contained unit designed specifically to carry out visual, sonic and radio deception in time for D-Day. Fashion designer Bill Blass and painter Ellsworth Kelly were among the artists, ad men, radio broadcasters, sound experts, actors, architects and set designers handpicked for the Ghost Army, which reportedly had one of the Army’s highest collective IQs with a 119 average.
Befitting its name, the Ghost Army worked under the cloak of night. Camouflage experts used gasoline-fueled air compressors to inflate rubber tanks, jeeps, trucks, artillery and aircraft that artists painted with details authentic enough to deceive Nazi aerial reconnaissance, according to a December 6, 1945 report in The Meriden Daily Journal . Radio specialists sent misleading communications and even mimicked operators’ unique styles to add authenticity to their fake reports. Sound engineers blared pre-recorded sounds of military drills and movements on enormous speakers that, in some instances, could be heard 15 miles away.
Ghost Army Deploys at D-Day
Most of the Ghost Army arrived in England in May 1944 as D-Day preparations were being finalized. Four members joined the D-Day landing at Normandy, and a 17-man platoon came ashore on Omaha Beach eight days later to create dummy artillery placements that drew fire from the Germans.
The Ghost Army engaged in its first large-scale deceptions in the summer of 1944 as it deployed 50 dummy tanks and positioned sound trucks within a few hundred yards of the front line during the siege of the French port of Brest. As part of Operation Brittany, the Ghost Army deceived the Germans about the location of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, which eluded the enemy and raced eastward across France.
When a yawning gap opened in Patton’s line during his attack of the fortified French city of Metz in September 1944, the Ghost Army again aided the general. Until a division arrived to plug the gap, the illusionists held the precarious line for seven days with their inflatables and loudspeakers that played the sounds of rumbling tanks, shouting troops and even sergeants barking out orders for soldiers to put out their cigarettes. The Ghost Army’s radio deception also drew the Germans away from Patton’s relief of the Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge .
Rick Beyer, co-author of The Ghost Army of World War II and producer and director of a 2013 documentary about the outfit, said the Ghost Army found Patton to be among the easiest generals they worked with. “Patton was extremely helpful and welcoming and made suggestions to make the deception better. He totally embraced their ideas,” he says.
The Ghost Army pulled off its most elaborate hoax in March 1945 as part of Operation Viersen. As the 9th Army prepared to make the dangerous crossing of the Rhine River , the Ghost Army positioned itself 10 miles south of the intended landing spot to re-direct German attention. The Ghost Army inflated both 600 dummies and their own size by impersonating two divisions and 40,000 troops .
To give the impression that the 30th and 79th infantry divisions were amassing, radio chatter spread false reports about their intended movements and sonic trucks blasted a soundtrack of pontoon bridge construction, artillery fire and even officers swearing. The Ghost Army stenciled fabricated division numbers and insignias onto their vehicles and erected phony headquarters and command posts manned by fake commanders and generals. They sewed counterfeit shoulder patches onto their uniforms and boisterously discussed their false intelligence in local bars and cafes to ensure their disinformation would be overheard by any lurking German spies.
The ruse worked . While the Nazis attacked the Ghost Army, the 9th Army crossed the Rhine with little resistance.
Weeks later, the Ghost Army’s mission came to an end along with World War II. The soldiers may have trafficked in falsehoods, but their heroism was all too real. While three of its members were killed and approximately 30 were wounded, the Ghost Army saved the lives of between 15,000 and 30,000 American servicemen, according to military estimates.
Ghost Army Recognized With Belated Congressional Gold Medal
Following the war, Ghost Army members returned home and settled into careers in advertising, architecture, design, theater, art, fashion and radio. For decades, their exploits remained little-known as members followed strict orders to not even tell their families about the Ghost Army, lest a similar unit needed to be deployed against a new enemy in the Cold War—the Soviet Union.
While a few articles about the Ghost Army slipped through the censors in the immediate aftermath of the war, the military did not officially declassify information about the outfit until 1996 .
Seeking to gain official recognition of the Ghost Army, Beyer launched the nonprofit Ghost Army Legacy Project as well as a grassroots campaign for the Ghost Army to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. “I was very conscious of the fact that because of secrecy these guys had not received any recognition and thought that was something due to them,” Beyer says. “I thought what they did was remarkable, and I was amazed at the degree they were not part of the World War II pantheon.”
In February 2022, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Company Special, which undertook a pair of sonic deception operations against the Nazis in Italy, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “their unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations.”
“Performance and art are not just things we do as recreation, they are a critical part of human endeavor,” Beyer says. “The Ghost Army used creativity and illusion to save lives.”
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How an army of artists and tricksters conned the Nazis and bluffed their way to victory in World War II
It sounds like an idea that was cooked up in a Hollywood writer's room, but it really happened.
By James Clark | Published Feb 20, 2021 3:18 PM EST
The plan sounded like it was hatched in a Hollywood writer’s room. It was early 1944, and with victory in the Second World War far from certain, the Army pulled together roughly 1,100 soldiers to form the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a unit poised to have a far greater impact on the battlefield than others several times their size. Once in the European theater, their mission was to tie up as many enemy troops as possible, throw their foe’s ranks into disarray, and help pave the way for an Allied advance into Germany.
Their arsenal was limited — the heaviest weapons at their disposal were .50 caliber machine guns, and nearly every engagement they took part in left them outnumbered, outgunned, and by all accounts outmatched.
Yet the Ghost Army, as it came to be known, prevailed; Not through massive artillery barrages, aerial assaults, or brutal attacks on the enemy lines, but by bamboozling the German military through deception and trickery.
They did it with inflatable tanks — hundreds of them — backed by the sounds of marching troops, down to soldiers shooting the breeze on duty, blasted out from massive loud-speakers, and with messages sent to fake units, with the intent that enemy codebreakers would decipher them.
This is the story of how an army of con artists headed off to war and bluffed their way to victory.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Sept. 1, 2020.)
Standing up the Ghost Army
The inspiration for the Ghost Army came from the British military’s successful use of deception at the Battle of El-Alamein during the North Africa campaign. There, the Brits leveraged the unorthodox tactics of Jasper Maskelyne , a stage magician turned-soldier.
Maskelyne helped them “disguise their tanks as trucks, and trucks as tanks, and it actually went a long way toward their success,” explained Larry Decuers, a former U.S. Army infantryman with the 101st Airborne and a curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The British military’s ingenuity at EL-Alamein greatly impressed American military planners in England, and on Jan. 20, 1944, the U.S. Army began its foray into the world of deception, though not everyone was thrilled at the idea of spending the war shepherding a bunch of creative types around Europe.
“A lot of the old career Army officers, I think even the commander of the unit, wasn’t too happy about being given command of this deception outfit when he’d rather just be commanding a line battalion,” Decuers told Task & Purpose.
Even the unit’s official history attests to this:
Officers who had once commanded 32-ton tanks felt frustrated and helpless with a battalion of rubber M-4s, 93 pounds fully inflated. The adjustment from man of action to man of wile was most difficult. Few realized at first that one could spend just as much energy pretending to fight as actually fighting.
Designed to be small enough that it could be maneuvered around the theater as needed, the Ghost Army had a big enough footprint that could impersonate a force several times its size.
“They could move the Ghost Army to fill in a lightly defended area in the line — of course, the heaviest thing they had was a .50 cal machine gun, but they can bluff the Germans into thinking ‘there’s two divisions here, so we’re gonna stay away from that part of the line,” Decuers said.
The Ghost Army at war
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was broken into four units each with a specific role to play in their deception operations.
The first, and perhaps the best known, is the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, which was responsible for creating the inflatable tanks, planes, artillery pieces, and other physical props that “everyone thinks of when they hear the words ‘Ghost Army’” Decuers said.
The idea: Dupe the Germans into thinking you had more armor — and the personnel to maintain and run them — than you really did.
Then there was the 3132 Signal Service Company, experts in sonic deception tasked with producing, and playing, a wide variety of sounds, from troop and vehicle movements, to bits of dialogue between soldiers. If the 603rd formed the skeleton of the Ghost Army, then the deception unit could be considered its muscle and sinew — it made the ploy work .
“They produced a huge library of sound effects,” Decuers said. “They recorded sounds of tanks going uphill, sounds of tanks going downhill — because to a trained observer they can definitely tell the difference. Also, sound effects of soldiers building pontoon bridges, even down to sergeants telling a private to ‘put that cigarette out.’”
“It was a very very wide array of sound effects at their disposal.”
The sounds were recorded at Fort Knox, Ky. on transcription disks — which were akin to giant records. However, they’d sometimes skip, so once in theater, the audio was transferred to a wire recorder, a predecessor to magnetic tape, Decuers explained.
“It’s also one of the first recorded instances of multi-track recording,” added Decuers. “They would mix the sound effects to the deception they were trying to pull off, and then they would broadcast this over big giant speakers in the back of half-tracks that were about 500 pounds.”
It wasn’t enough that they just record and replay these sounds, the sonic unit had to make sure the enemy heard it. To that end, technicians at Bell Labs developed firing tables, like those used for artillery batteries, to allow the Ghost Army to adjust the sound of their broadcasts to reach certain distances, effectively dialing in their audio barrage.
Next came the 406th Combat Engineers Company, who provided physical security for the unit, dug the emplacements for the inflatables, and as the Ghost Army’s deceptions became more elaborate, they got in on the action and helped flesh out the ruse.
“They would make fake division patches, and then these engineer members would wear these fake patches and post [military police officers] at crossroads and go to town, and have drinks and talk loose,” Decuers said, explaining that soldiers would intentionally spread misinformation in the hopes German spies and collaborators would be listening.
“It was for the benefit of German agents,” Decuers told Task & Purpose. “That was very common — they left a lot of agents behind, many of which were indigenous people who were working for the Germans.”
If the camouflage unit could be considered the bones, the sonic unit the muscle, and the combat engineers, the skin, then Signal Company Special — a second signals unit composed of highly skilled radio and morse code operators — would be the brain.
“They were recruited from units all over the Army, and the requirement was that they be very skilled morse code operators,” Decuers told Task & Purpose. “These guys were so skilled they could study another morse code operator’s sending style, and then they could imitate them.”
For example, if the company was impersonating an infantry unit, then they would carefully study that division’s radio traffic, down to the smallest detail: “How many times they sent transmissions between battalion and regiment, things like that; and then they would copy the operator’s sending style,” Decuers explained.
The idea was to create a whole network of phony traffic, with the intention of having it intercepted by German forces.
“It’s like this big multimedia deception operation, where every contingency was thought of,” Decuers said. “And that’s what makes the Ghost Army unique: They were the only unit doing it.”
The Ghost Army was so good, sometimes they even hoodwinked their own forces.
“What I find interesting is how they were almost even more successful at deceiving Allied troops than they were the Germans,” Decuers said.
“During one of their deceptions, they’re playing audio sounds of tanks, and a colonel from an adjacent unit rolls up on them at night and says ‘what are all these tanks doing here? Nobody said anything about tanks being here.’ And they’re like ‘Sir, we don’t have tanks here,’ and he says ‘Don’t tell me, I know what I hear, those are tanks!'”
Then there was the time a friendly pilot landed on what he thought was an airfield but was in fact just a Ghost Army prop designed to trick enemy scouts.
“They built fake airfields, and had inflatables of these L-5 grasshoppers — artillery spotting aircraft — and a real grasshopper pilot landed at their fake field,” Decuers said.
The Ghost Army’s greatest success came during Operation Viersen, in which the unit of craftsmen, artisans, and artists, conned the German military into thinking that two divisions — some 30,000 Allied soldiers — were going to cross a particular part of the Rhine river.
And so, the Germans allocated their limited forces to hold a position against just 1,100 men.
“So for this deception, they employed 600 of these inflatable tanks and artillery pieces,” Decuers said. “They used the fake unit patches and bumper markings on their vehicles, and then they employed the sonic deception, the fake radio traffic, and they even created a phony divisional and battalion headquarters in a town.”
It was like a symphony of subterfuge and each member of the Ghost Army had a role to play; sonic deception formed the brass section, with pre-recorded sounds of tanks and troops thundering toward the river; signals as the woodwinds, sending misdirection over morse code in a harmony of toots and beeps; the engineers as the percussion, leading with bold decoys, manning fake checkpoints and outposts. And finally, the camouflage unit — the string section of this troupe — with hundreds of inflatable tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, and machinery that had to be tied down so a strong wind wouldn’t blow them away.
“This was the operation that is considered their greatest success,” Decuers said. “So they’re impersonating the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions and they bluffed the Germans into believing they were crossing the Rhine river, and the Germans bit on it.”
“The Germans concentrated a lot of their precious forces at that point, and it cleared the way for actual crossings further up or down the river.”
In an interview with NPR in May 2019 , Gilbert Seltzer, a former Ghost Army soldier recounted the operation:
“The goal was to draw fire away from the real battery to us,” Seltzer told NPR. “For instance, when the Rhine [River] was crossed, we were able to get the German army to assemble opposite us, firing at us. And when the actual crossing was made, about 20 miles to our north, there was practically no resistance.”
Though the Ghost Army’s primary role was deception, they faced their share of danger and took enemy fire on multiple occasions, though they suffered few losses.
“And as dangerous as this job could have potentially been, they only lost three guys in combat,” Decuers said. The Ghost Army soldiers who were killed in combat were Chester ‘Chet’ Pelliccioni, George Peddal, and Thomas Wells.
The legacy of the Ghost Army
From 1944 until the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops served across Europe, from Normandy, France to Belgium, Luxembourg, at the Rhine in Germany, and conducted more than 20 deception operations.
The men who served in the Ghost Army were drawn from across the country, and from all walks of life — some were graduates of prestigious universities, others had left jobs as gas station attendants in small towns. They were painters, writers, sculptors, engineers, and radio operators. Some were career soldiers, others were draftees.
From their ranks came a number of acclaimed artists , from abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, to photographer Art Kane, and fashion designer Bill Blass — who hand-tailored his uniform for a more svelte fit.
They were selected for their skill and creativity, but most of all, because they were unconventional — and utterly unexpected.
“They kind of needed people who could see something before it was actually created, so artists were the people they wanted, I guess because they had a vision of what something could be,” said Decuers.
Though kept secret for decades, the Ghost Army’s wartime service is one that lends itself to incredible storytelling. It’s been the subject of books, a PBS documentary , and will be the focus of an upcoming World War II drama directed by, and starring, Ben Affleck .
The soldiers themselves were tireless scribes of their own history, and it makes sense, many were artists, observers of life and the human experience — precisely what made them such formidable tricksters.
But when they weren’t doing that , they painted, sketched, and wrote their way across Europe and through the war. Those images, as well as recreations of the Ghost Army’s inflatable tanks and artillery pieces, were part of a recent display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
“I think one of the most interesting components of the exhibit is the artwork that all of these guys — these were lifelong artists, and they sketched any chance they had,” Decuers said of the National World War II museum’s current collection. “It’s probably one of the best-documented unit journeys in the Army if I were to guess.”
“They had so many artists, and these guys were so talented. It’s kind of interesting to see the war through the point of view of these paintings and sketches and things like that,” he said.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops is believed to have saved between 15,000 and 30,000 American lives, according to Smithsonian Magazine . Their deceptions were never discovered by the enemies they fooled, and every inch of ground gained through trickery meant that other soldiers were spared from having to take it by force.
The story of Ghost Army is, at its heart, one of service and subterfuge. It’s about a group of extraordinary soldiers who turned, not to their rifles, but their imagination and wit, to help win the day.
RELATED: Ben Affleck is making a movie about the secret Army unit that tricked Nazis into chasing ‘ghost armies’ during WWII
James Clark is the former Deputy Editor of Task & Purpose. He is an Afghanistan War veteran and served in the Marine Corps as a combat correspondent. Contact the author here.
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How the Ghost Army of WWII Used Art to Deceive the Nazis
Unsung for decades, the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops drew on visual, sonic and radio deception to misdirect the Germans
Kellie B. Gormly
Bernie Bluestein was 19 years old when he spotted a vaguely worded notice on the bulletin board at his Cleveland art college in March 1943. It was the middle of World War II, and the United States Army was seeking recruits for a new, non-combat camouflage unit that would draw on the art of deception to misdirect the enemy.
All for serving his country but not exactly the “fighter-type person,” Bluestein enlisted in the enigmatic unit. He didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment would prove riskier than most non-combat roles: If the Nazis found out that members of the so-called “ Ghost Army ” were playing them for fools, they were likely to retaliate brutally.
“If I had known that before I got into the service, I probably would have made a different decision,” says Bluestein, now 98. A resident of Schaumburg, Illinois, he remains an avid artist , making everything from paintings to ceramics.
Known formally as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops , the unit carried out more than 20 deception campaigns during the final year of the war. Drawing on members’ artistic talent and technological savvy, the Ghost Army created elaborate illusions featuring inflatable tanks, jeeps and artillery; speakers that blasted prerecorded tracks of troops in action; and falsified radio dispatches. Their goal: to confuse and intimidate the Germans by offering a false sense of the Americans’ numbers and troop movements.
In total, the 23rd saved the lives of an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 American servicemen. Their successful missions included D-Day and Operation Viersen , a March 1945 hoax that convinced the Germans their enemies were planning to cross the Rhine River far north of where they actually attacked. Though the unit’s numbers were limited—it comprised 1,023 men and 82 officers—the soldiers’ visual, sonic and radio deceptions managed to convince the Germans that they faced enemy forces of up to 40,000 men .
Despite the Ghost Army’s pivotal role in the Allied victory, few outside of the unit knew of its existence until decades after the war. Smithsonian magazine published the first feature-length, public account of the group’s exploits in April 1985; veteran Arthur Shilstone illustrated the article and offered firsthand testimony of his wartime experiences. The U.S. government declassified the unit’s official history around that same time, according to the Ghost Army Legacy Project , but soon reclassified the records and kept them under wraps until 1996.
Seventy-seven years after the war’s end, the men who served in the Ghost Army—no more than ten of whom are known to still be alive—have received one of the nation’s highest honors: the Congressional Gold Medal. In February, President Joe Biden signed a bill granting the award to the unit for its “unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations.”
“My mouth was wide open,” says Bluestein of the recognition. “It’s a thrill to have that honor. If you ask most of us, we never thought much about what we did. We did what we had to do in the war … and that was it.”
Comprising artists, architects, set designers, painters, engineers and other highly skilled creatives, the four-unit Ghost Army—the first of its kind in American history—was activated on January 20, 1944. (A separate, sonic-only unit called the 3133rd Signal Service Company operated in Italy.) It was inspired by the British troops who fought Erwin Rommel , a German field marshal nicknamed the “Desert Fox,” in Egypt in fall 1942. To trick the Germans, the British disguised tanks, weapons and supplies as trucks , masking the army’s progress and convincing the enemy that the attack would come from the south, not the north, two or three days later than actually planned.
The brainchild of London-based U.S. Army planners Billy Harris and Ralph Ingersoll , the Ghost Army “was more theatrical than military,” wrote Captain Fred Fox in the official history of the 23rd. “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.” Led by Colonel Harry L. Reeder, the unit included graduates of West Point and former Army Specialized Training Program participants; the men’s average IQ was 119—one of the highest in the Army, according to the National WWII Museum , which debuted a traveling exhibition on the Ghost Army in 2020.
“This is a unit that used creativity and illusion to save lives and help win the war. ... That’s something highly worthy of honor,” says Rick Beyer , producer of the 2013 documentary The Ghost Army and president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project . “It was a crazy idea applied in a challenging situation.”
After arriving in Europe in the summer of 1944, the Ghost Army immediately got to work. “The adjustment from man of action to man of wile was most difficult,” noted Fox in his history of the unit. “Few realized at first that one could spend just as much energy pretending to fight as actually fighting.”
Members of the 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion division created 93-pound , inflatable tanks that looked like the real thing from thousands of feet in the air. Blown up under cover of darkness, these dummy tanks and assorted inflatables featured painted details that lent the ruse an air of authenticity. The 3132 Signal Service Company and Signal Company Special supplemented the illusion with recordings of training exercises and construction, as well as radio messages that skillfully mimicked the styles of other units. The fourth and final unit in the 23rd, the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special , provided perimeter security and helped with construction and demolition.
“It really did make a dent in the German planning,” says Gerry Souter , co-author of The Ghost Army: Conning the Third Reich alongside his wife, Janet. “It kept them confused. It kept them off balance.”
Janet adds, “[The Germans] fell for it terrifically. They saw groups of tanks, and they heard people marching back and forth at night. They were so convinced that they sent over their jet plane bombers and fighters.”
Bluestein recalls learning how to construct dummy planes and trucks out of wood, which was then covered in burlap and “imperfectly camouflaged” with paint to attract the attention of enemy aerial scouts, per the Ghost Army Legacy Project .
“They looked so real,” he says. “[But] the equipment was just part of it. We circulated in the saloons and everywhere we could go into town at dusk, letting [locals] know that we were the real troops. … The tanks were just part of the visual effect.”
According to Gerry, the Ghost Army’s work was so secretive that none of the men in the unit spoke about it to their friends and family. Even their wives had only a vague idea of their husbands’ daily work overseas. Soldiers outside of the 23rd had no idea of the unit’s existence; when the men were off duty, they camouflaged themselves as members of other divisions by wearing fake badges and painting different insignias on their vehicles. In reading the men’s letters , says Janet, you can sense their loneliness and isolation.
“It is too bad I can’t tell you about the places I’ve seen—I hope I’ll be able to remember it all after I get home. Probably I will, bit by bit,” wrote Sergeant Harold J. Dahl in a September 3, 1944, missive to his family.
Ghost Army veteran George Dramis —a native of Ashtabula, Ohio, who was drafted in 1942 at age 18—remembers “roughing it” most of the time, sleeping outside and often lacking adequate supplies.
“It was just a wild and woolly period of time, but it was very interesting,” says Dramis, now 97. “I could hear fighting all the time—bullets whizzing by.”
After getting drafted, Dramis took a Morse code test and was selected for the Signal Company Special radio team. He took part in the Normandy landings on D-Day and a deception campaign conducted ahead of the Battle for Brest in August and September 1944. In addition to sending fake radio transmissions, Dramis and his comrades intercepted German radio signals.
“The idea was that we’re going to create a little unit of about 1,000 men or so, and we’re going to try to pretend we are a much larger unit,” Dramis says. “We were going to fake [out] the Germans … while the true divisions pulled out of the line and moved north or south of the position to attack. We would hold that position with just a few men. It was dangerous work because we didn’t have the firepower to withstand a frontal attack.”
Often operating within a few hundred yards of front lines across the Western Front, the Ghost Army may not have been directly involved in combat, but their work required much courage. All of the men carried a weapon—mostly carbines , or short-barreled rifles—but they lacked the heavy arms of combat units, leaving them vulnerable. Three members of the 23rd were killed in action, and around 30 were wounded by artillery fire.
“It’s a special kind of bravery,” Beyer says. “That’s a pretty nervy thing to do.”
Gerry adds, “[E]ventually they learned how to be a soldier, and how to be an effective soldier. They had to learn how to deal with something completely different.”
Per the Army’s official history , the 23rd’s “last deceptive effort of the war was fortunately [its] best.” Dubbed Operation Viersen , the March 1945 mission found the Ghost Army impersonating two entire divisions—around 40,000 soldiers—in an attempt to convince the enemy the U.S. Ninth Army would cross the Rhine River ten miles south of its actual crossing point. The men inflated more than 600 dummy vehicles, transmitted false radio dispatches and blared simulated sounds of soldiers building pontoon boats, enabling the Ninth to enter Germany with little resistance. The unit returned to the U.S. in July and was deactivated on September 15 , after the Japanese surrender.
At the end of the war, according to the Souters’ book, the Ghost Army’s deception equipment was recycled for use in the Army’s aggressor force training program, which created a hypothetical enemy for troops practicing fighting. None of the inflatable tanks are known to survive today , but the techniques pioneered by the unit have had a lasting influence on modern military tactics.
As for the men who served, some remained in the military after the war. But most returned to civilian life, still guarding the top-secret details of their wartime campaigns. Bluestein went back to school in Cleveland, became an industrial designer and settled in the Chicago area. Dramis was married for 75 years and eventually moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, to be near family. Other veterans found fame in creative fields: Notable alumni of the Ghost Army include fashion designer Bill Blass , artist Ellsworth Kelly and photographer Art Kane .
The Ghost Army may have been a small unit, but it made a big impact on the war’s success, Beyer and other historians argue.
“Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign,” declared a classified Army report released 30 years after the war.
The creativity and ingenuity of the Ghost Army undoubtedly contributed to the Allied victory, Beyer says.
“They’re worthy of hearing about,” he adds. “What they did is a real lesson in that war isn’t always about [charging] the hill. ... Sometimes, it’s about doing something smart and clever …. that will result in fewer deaths.
Beyer concludes, “Imagination and thoughtfulness can result in people [not having] to lose their lives.”
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Kellie B. Gormly | READ MORE
Kellie B. Gormly is an award-winning veteran journalist who freelances for national publications including The Washington Post, German Life, and Catster . She is a former staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Associated Press and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram .
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Ghost Army, a World War II Master of Deception, Finally Wins Recognition
President Biden signed a bill that bestows the Congressional Gold Medal to the members of “a traveling roadshow of deception” that built inflatable tanks and trucks to trick the Germans.
By Vimal Patel
The Ghost Army had one goal: Deceive Hitler’s forces and their allies.
Credited with fine-tuning the ancient art of deceptive warfare, the American military units of the Ghost Army used inflatable tanks and trucks to cloak the true size and location of American forces. They played ear-piercingly loud recorded sounds to mimic troop movement. They sent out misleading radio communications to scramble German intelligence.
The objective was to trick the Germans into thinking the Allies were in the neighborhood in force, so that actual units elsewhere had time to maneuver.
The Ghost Army, described as “a traveling roadshow of deception,” was composed of engineers and artists, designers and architects, radio operators and truck drivers. The work was so secretive that group members, who are credited with saving thousands of Allied lives, were unsung heroes for several decades after the war. But a grassroots effort in recent years culminated this week in the ultimate recognition from the U.S. government.
On Tuesday, President Biden signed a bill that grants the Congressional Gold Medal — Congress’s equivalent of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — to members of the Ghost Army for “their unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations” during World War II.
“Through their courageous, creative and innovative tactics, the top-secret Ghost Army outmaneuvered and deceived the Nazis, saving thousands of Allied lives during World War II,” Representative Annie Kuster, Democrat of New Hampshire, who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement . “More than 75 years after defeating fascism in Europe, it’s time these soldiers receive the highest honor we can award: the Congressional Gold Medal.”
Bernie Bluestein, of Schaumberg, Ill., is one of only 10 known surviving members of the Ghost Army, an unofficial term for the two U.S. Army units involved in the subterfuge. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, Mr. Bluestein’s unit, carried out more than 20 deception campaigns close to the front, including in France and Germany. A sister unit, the 3133rd Signal Company Special, executed two campaigns in Italy in 1945.
In an interview on Tuesday night, Mr. Bluestein, 98, said the award gave him an indescribable feeling of satisfaction, but he expressed sadness that so few veterans were alive to enjoy the honor with him. The other surviving members of the group range in age from 97 to 99.
“Something we did was appreciated by so many people and at the time we didn’t realize that,” Mr. Bluestein said. “It’s really a great feeling to have people acknowledge that I had a job to do in the service and it was helpful in our winning the war.”
In one of the 23rd’s most elaborate feats of trickery, during the critical Rhine River campaign to finally crush Germany, the unit set up 10 miles south of the spot where two American Ninth Army divisions were to cross the river. To draw attention away from the actual divisions, the Ghost Army conjured up a decoy force of inflated tanks, cannons, planes and trucks; sent out misleading radio messages about the American troops’ movements; and used loudspeakers to simulate the sound of soldiers building pontoon boats.
The Germans fell for the ruse. They fired on the 23rd’s divisions, while Ninth Army troops crossed the Rhine with nominal resistance.
During that campaign, Mr. Bluestein and other soldiers would visit bars and gathering spots and pretend to be senior officers to create scuttlebutt among the locals that the Americans were up to something. The hope was that German spies would eventually be misdirected.
But Mr. Bluestein was an artist at heart. Before the unit began using inflatable tanks, he would paint on cloth draped over wooden tanks to make them look authentic. He stenciled insignia for 23rd members, and he produced posters to distribute around towns — anything to create an authentic flourish.
“Like, Coca-Cola signs, so they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, the Americans are here,’” Mr. Bluestein said.
Mr. Bluestein had a long career after the war as an industrial designer for companies that made household appliances like refrigerators and toasters, but in retirement he found himself embracing art again. These days, his favorite objects to sculpt are pins and needles, a tribute to his father, a tailor, and his mother, a seamstress.
About half of the soldiers in Mr. Bluestein’s unit, the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, were artists, said Rick Beyer, a documentarian who has chronicled the story of the Ghost Army and pushed for the gold medal.
The Army took existing units and “mashed them together, Frankenstein style,” to create the 23rd, he said, but it also recruited from art schools like the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cooper Union. Some members became famous after the war, like the fashion designer Bill Blass and the painter Ellsworth Kelly.
In addition to Mr. Bluestein, the other nine surviving members of the Ghost Army are Bill Anderson, 97, of Kent, Ohio; James T. Anderson, 99, of Dover, Del.; John Christman, 97, of Leesburg, N.J.; George Dramis, 97, of Raleigh, N.C.; Manny Frockt, 97, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Nick Leo, 99, of Brentwood, N.Y.; Mark Mallardi, 98, of Edgewater, Fla.; Bill Nall, 97, of Dunellon, Fla.; and Seymour Nussenbaum, 98, of Monroe Township, N.J.
Mr. Beyer, who produced a 2013 documentary that aired on PBS about the Ghost Army and later co-wrote a book with Elizabeth Sayles, “The Ghost Army of World War II,” said the effort to bestow a Congressional Gold Medal on the group was the product of a grassroots campaign that required two-thirds of each congressional chamber to co-sponsor the legislation.
“We had to convince literally 350 congressional offices, one by one, of doing this,” Mr. Beyer said. The end result was a rare bipartisan feat at a time of intense partisan rancor. “Sometimes, it’s good to take a breath and say maybe there are some things we don’t have to be completely cynical about,” he said.
“The Ghost Army in some ways is still helping to keep our country safe,” Mr. Beyer said, “because people are still studying what they did and are learning from it and use it today.”
Although warfare has evolved since then, and advanced reconnaissance technology makes fooling enemy forces with inflatable tanks a bigger challenge, the principles and innovation of the Ghost Army live on today in the work of soldiers who practice psychological operations, Gen. Edward G. Burley, a retired Army brigadier general who commanded the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force in Iraq, said in an interview.
General Burley said soldiers today are taught about the imagination employed by the Ghost Army to “think outside the box” to make military deception more believable.
“These are giants, and we’re standing on their shoulders,” he said. “Their techniques are still being used today. We’re just adding additional elements to adjust for technology.”
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Photos: How the Top Secret ‘Ghost Army’ Fooled Enemies With Fake Weapons and Sound Effects
BATTLEFIELD DECEPTION —the act of misleading enemy forces—has been used for centuries to gain advantage in combat. During World War II the U.S. 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a carefully selected group of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees, elevated that deception to an art form.
Known as the “ Ghost Army ,” the top-secret unit waged war using inflatable tanks and weapons, fake radio traffic, sound effects, even phony generals—all to fool the enemy into thinking that the Army was bigger, better-armed, or in a different place than it was.
Activated on January 20, 1944, the 23rd was the first mobile, multimedia tactical deception unit in U.S. Army history. Beginning in Normandy two weeks after D-Day, the 23rd conducted 22 deception operations over a nine-month period. The largest came near the end of the war, when, on March 18-24, 1945, the 1,100-man unit mimicked two divisions—more than 30,000 troops—to deceive the Germans about the site and timing of the U.S. Ninth Army’s Rhine River crossing that would take Allied forces deeper into Germany. The deception was a success: when the two actual Ninth Army divisions crossed the river on the night of March 23, they met little resistance.
Soldiers of the Ghost Army were sworn to secrecy. After the war, records were classified and equipment packed away. A smattering of newspaper articles appeared in August 1945, but the Pentagon otherwise succeeded in keeping the story quiet until 1985, when a Ghost Army veteran, artist Arthur Shilstone, illustrated his story for Smithsonian magazine. The unit’s records remained officially classified until 1996.
The story of the mysterious unit that fooled Hitler’s armies , saved thousands of lives, and played an important part in Allied victory in World War II was the subject of an exhibit at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans called Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II . T he following images are from the exhibit. ✯
—James M. Linn IV, curator, The National WWII Museum
All images courtesy of The Ghost Army Collection/The National WWII Museum
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of World War II.
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Psych Ops – Meet the Top Secret “Ghost Army” of WW2
On April 1, we told you about some of the most famous wartime deceptions in history from the legendary Trojan horse to dummy cannons called Quaker guns . What we didn’t tell you about was the U.S. Army’s 23 rd Special Headquarters Troops, known affectionately as the “Ghost Army”.
This top-secret unit, which served in Europe from the Normandy Invasion right up to the war’s end, didn’t actually fight — its job was to confound, deceive and fool the enemy. And according to most accounts it was mission accomplished. Using everything from half-track-mounted loudspeakers and phoney radio chatter to dummy vehicles and all manner of smoke and mirrors, the Ghost Army was a curious mix of a sort of Army Rangers mixed with Penn & Teller. Recruited from Madison Avenue ad agencies, the Broadway stage and Hollywood back lots, the rank and file Ghosts were visual artists, combat engineers and creative types who excelled at special effects, illusion and set design. While the unit had fewer than 1,100 men, it could easily disguise itself as a 30,000-strong army, complete with armour and artillery, motor pools, sprawling camps, divisional headquarters, and even air support.
Ghost Army in the Field Some of the 23 rd ’s more successful scams included conning a much larger Wehrmacht unit in the port city of Brest into believing it was surrounded by an entire Allied army, and later in the war staging what appeared to be a massive Allied river assault of the Rhine to draw defenders away from actually planned crossing points. In one operation, it used lanterns and lights to simulate an Allied harbour facility in the days following the D-Day landings to draw enemy fire away from the real beachhead. In other missions it infiltrated the frontlines to blare battle sound effects on mobile loudspeakers. The combat noises, which could be heard for 15 miles, distracted and confused the enemy, often forcing them redeploy to meet what it thought was an Allied onslaught. The Ghost Army was also known to flood the airwaves with bogus Morse code signals, while sending its soldiers into civilian cafes and coffee shops to drop all sorts of misleading rumours, gossip and misinformation.
The British Magic Gang The Ghost Army, which was organized in the months leading up to the D-Day landings, took its cue from a British outfit in North Africa called the A Force, better known as the Magic Gang. Headed by an English film-maker named Geoffrey Barkas , the outfit was famous for hiding British planes and tanks in the open desert, creating dummy rail yards and port facilities for German bombers to attack while concealing the real ones and even fooling Rommel into believing that the British were going to assault the Afrika Corps far south of the actual objective of El Alamein. One of that unit’s better-known members was Jasper Maskelyne , a noted magician turned military camofleur who was famous for a number of large-scale illusions that confused German and Italian forces.
Ghost Army: The Movie For decades, the Ghost Army’s most convincing stunts were kept under wraps. Even its very existence was classified. It wasn’t until 1996 that much of what we know about the 23 rd Special Headquarters Troops was finally made public.
However this secretive outfit is about to get a lot more famous. The American public broadcaster, PBS, will air a special one-hour documentary about the unit in May. Simply entitled The Ghost Army , the film will also be screened at the GI Film Festival in Arlington, Virginia on May 10, the Washington D.C. Press Club on May 13 and the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans on May 15. It will air on most PBS stations on May 21.
Check out the official Ghost Army trailer here or visit the PBS website devoted to the documentary here .
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Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II
March 5, 2020 to January 31, 2021 Senator John Alario, Jr. Special Exhibition Hall
Activated on January 20, 1944, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the “Ghost Army,” was the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in US Army history. Consisting of an authorized strength of 82 officers and 1,023 men under the command of Army veteran Colonel Harry L. Reeder, this unique and top-secret unit was capable of simulating two whole divisions—approximately 30,000 men—and used visual, sonic, and radio deception to fool German forces during World War II’s final year. Now, through The National WWII Museum’s newest special exhibit, Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II, visitors can learn the story of the 23rd and their role in Allied victory through featured artifacts such as artwork, uniforms, an inflatable tank, and more.
Armed with nothing heavier than .50 caliber machine guns, the 23rd took part in 22 large-scale deceptions in Europe from Normandy to the Rhine River, the bulk of the unit arriving in England in May 1944, shortly before D-Day. The brainchild of Colonel Billy Harris and Major Ralph Ingersoll, both American military planners based in London, the unit consisted of a carefully selected group of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees, including famed artists such as fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane. Many West Point graduates and former Army Specialized Training Program participants were assigned to the 23rd, and it was said to have one of the highest IQs in the Army with an average of 119. The unit waged war with inflatable tanks and vehicles, fake radio traffic, sound effects, and even phony generals, using imagination and illusion to trick the enemy while saving thousands of lives along the way. The 23rd, along with the 3133rd Signal Service Company in Italy, helped liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi tyranny.
Following the war, the unit’s soldiers were sworn to secrecy, records were classified, and equipment packed away. Except for a newspaper article right after the war, no one spoke publicly about the deceivers until a 1985 Smithsonian article. Though knowledge of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was then public, it was still officially classified until the mid-1990s.
In Ghost Army , curated by the Museum’s James Linn, the unique story of the 23rd’s more than 1,100 men who deceived, sketched, and painted across Europe to manipulate Hitler’s armies is told through multiple elements including historical narrative text panels detailing unit operations, profiles of unit officers, archival photography, and even sketches and uniforms from unit officers. In addition, a robust schedule of public programming and educational initiatives, free to the public and students, will further explore the exhibit’s themes.
The exhibit will be on display in the Senator John Alario, Jr. Special Exhibition Hall, located on the first level of the Museum’s Hall of Democracy, from March 5 to January 31, 2021. After its run on the Museum campus, Ghost Army will be available for booking at institutions across the country including museums and local history centers.
Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II is exclusively sponsored by E. L. Wiegand Foundation.
Hall of democracy.
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Louisiana Memorial Pavilion
The Louisiana Memorial Pavilion exhibits take visitors into the monumental efforts on the Home Front and to the beaches of Normandy—focusing on the thousands of men and women who made Allied victory in World War II possible.
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In a war where the terrain was as deadly as the enemy, this pavilion tells the story of American servicemembers abroad—and how they overcame unprecedented challenges on multiple fronts to win victory in World War II. In over 19,000 square feet of exhibit space, two extraordinary exhibitions bring visitors inside the epic story of the war in its most infamous settings, bringing to life jungles, beaches, mountains, and oceans in 19 immersive galleries.
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The Solomon Victory Theater is home to Beyond All Boundaries , a 4D cinematic experience produced exclusively for The National WWII Museum by Tom Hanks—who narrates the film—and Phil Hettema.
The Hall of Democracy represents the center of the Museum’s expanding educational outreach initiatives—providing a space that will enable the institution to share its collections, oral histories, research, and expertise with audiences across the world.
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The John E. Kushner Restoration Pavilion features glass exterior walls that allow the public a permanent, behind-the-scenes view of the restoration and preservation of priceless WWII artifacts. New to the pavilion is the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Innovation Gallery, which focuses on how problems were solved during World War II through ingenuity and innovation.
Founders Plaza creates an impressive entryway to the Museum campus, safe passage for Museum guests, and a pleasant setting for rest and reflection as part of the visitor experience.
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The soaring Bollinger Canopy of Peace, set to stand 150 feet tall, will unify the Museum's diverse campus and establish the Museum as a fixture on the New Orleans skyline.
Three building levels will explore the closing months of the war and immediate postwar years, concluding with an explanation of links to our lives today.
The special exhibit Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II , on view in the Hall of Democracy’s Senator John Alario, Jr. Special Exhibition Hall from March 5, 2020 to January 31, 2021, and curated by the Museum’s James Linn, tells the story of the US Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and their deception operations across Europe through featured artifacts such as artwork, uniforms, an inflatable tank, and more.
The Story Of The Ghost Army's Tank Tricks That Helped Win WWII
Historically, wars have been witness to all kinds of deception. Seeding bad information, tactical concealment, false maneuvers, false demonstrations, and more. One of the most famous is the proverbial Trojan Horse, which is said to have hidden Greek soldiers in its wooden belly and allowed them to win their war against Troy. The art of deception in warfare has trickled down to modern times in various ways. For example, the U.S. Army reportedly blared eerie sounds from speakers during the Vietnam War to affect the morale of enemy soldiers. Irrespective of the form it takes, the end goal is to cast a shadow of superior might over the enemy without necessarily commanding one, or even putting soldiers on the battlefield.
Perhaps the most well-known instance of warfare deception from the U.S. side was the Ghost Army, which worked its magic during World War II. The tale of this battalion is one of courage, ingenuity, and bittersweet recognition. From inflatable tanks to disorientation, the Ghost Army used all manner of devices to deceive its opponents. It was only in 1945 that the U.S. government officially confirmed the deployment of a "ghost army," tasked with tricking the enemy using creative methods like false alarms, inflatable tanks, rubber dummies, and more, according to The New York Times . Interestingly, it was only in 2022 that President Joe Biden gave his nod to a bill that officially recognized the Ghost Army.
The Phantom Group's foundations
Officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the Ghost Army is said to have had close to 1,110 members, which included close to 82 officer posts. According to documents accessed by the National World War 2 Museum, the team had the expertise to mimic the presence of two entire divisions, roughly equivalent to 30,000 soldiers. They employed a combination of visual, sonic, and radio tricks to successfully deceive German forces in the last year of World War II.
The idea of the unconventional, but high-risk, unit reportedly came from Army veterans Billy Harris and Ralph Ingersoll. "I've never met anyone who was such a bright guy who was such a g******ed liar. He'd say anything to get what he wanted," U.S. intelligence officer Went Eldredge was quoted saying about Ingersoll by The Ghost Army Legacy Project . The biggest sub-group in the Ghost Army was the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, a 379-strong team comprising artists that specialized in cooking up visual deception tools such as inflatable tanks, hollow trucks, fake artillery, and more to trick enemy recon missions.
Then there was the 244th Signal Company, which created false radio signals that aped those from real army wings. The 3132 Signal Service company was tasked with playing troop movement sound effects. The 406th Engineer Combat Company offered real-world protection at the periphery of the 23rd's activities.
A hush-hush existence
The team's formation, as well as their operations, were a closely guarded secret. The activities of the Ghost Army, led by Colonel Harry L. Reeder, were instrumental in saving thousands of Allied lives during World War II, yet they remained shrouded in secrecy for many years post-war. Aside from a solitary newspaper article published shortly after the war, tales of the Ghost Army remained largely undisclosed until they were recounted in an April 1985 Smithsonian Magazine article "A phantom division played a role in Germany's defeat."
While this brought the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops into public awareness, their operations remained officially classified until the late 1990s. According to Smithsonian Magazine , it was around the same window of time in which the original article was published that the U.S. government made the official history of the unit public, as mentioned by the Ghost Army Legacy Project. However, they quickly made these records secret again and remained classified until 1996.
Unique band of recruits
Recruitment for the Ghost Army focused more on creative individuals instead of seasoned war experts. The objective was to harness their intellect to come up with creative plans to fool the enemy with as little direct confrontation as possible. Engineers, artists, illustrators, architects, sound experts, physics, and psychology experts, and more. The only major objective was to recruit men with high IQs. According to the National WWII Museum , the average IQ of Ghost Army members stood close to 119. Among them was fashion designer Bill Blass, who joined the legendary battalion in 1942.
Gilbert Seltzer served as a platoon leader and eventually became a lieutenant and adjutant in the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, a unit responsible for the visual deception tactics of the Ghost Army. The auditory illusions were managed by the 3132nd Signal Service Company, while the Signal Company, Special, specialized in crafting convincing radio messages to mislead German forces.
The 406th Combat Engineer Company played a crucial role in ensuring the safety and security of these operations. Other well-known members of the Ghost Army include photographer Art Kane, watercolor painter Arthur Singer, and artist Ellsworth Kelly.
The beginning of warfare deception
It was in 1944, just after D-Day, that the Ghost Army landed in France accompanied by trucks loaded with their signature inflatable tanks (roughly 50 of them) and a huge trove of records with different kinds of sound effects, among other deception paraphernalia. Each operation had its very own selection of pre-recorded sound effects, from the rumble of armored vehicles to the sounds of military drills and troop movements. The sound effects were blared from speakers mounted on trucks.
According to History , some of the sound effects could be heard as far away as 15 miles. Across a vast stretch, the team set up fake convoys, false troop divisions, and empty headquarters to parade the "might" of the American army. Their first successful mission was Operation Brittany, which allowed General Patton to reach French land and begin fighting the Germans. A few months later in December, the Battle of the Bulge saw the Ghost Army playing its radio tricks to great success. According to The Chicago Tribune , each speaker weighed as much as 500 pounds.
During a night in July 1944, members of the 603rd found themselves on a farm in Normandy. There, they strategically relocated an antiaircraft battery and substituted it with a rubber replica. By using fake tanks and guns, they created the illusion that the Second Armored Division remained in place, masking its actual movement. Befitting its purpose, the Ghost Army carried out its activities mostly at night.
The tanks which sold the trick
"It was a little bundle of stuff, which our tank was in. Or compress before you open the bundle, spread the nozzles around, and inflate it," said Cpl. Jack Masey in an interview series posted by the Ghost Army Legacy Project (shown below). Crafted with collaborative efforts of American rubber industry giants, these dummies were ingeniously fashioned to project an uncanny semblance of realism when viewed from the vantage point of a distant reconnaissance plane or the towering spires of a remote church.
But it was the speed of deployment that made these inflatable tanks a bigger worry for enemies keeping an eye on enemy movement. "In most cases, like a Sherman tank, we could inflate it and move within 15-20 minutes," recalled Private Joe Spence. In addition to making inflatable copies of the M4 Sherman tank, the team also created bogus air-filled versions of the M7 Priest self-propelled gun.
"Pulling this amorphous shape out of it and watching it fill with air, and taking form. You know, like a monster," another member of the unit was quoted as saying. The near-perfect shape, clean stitching, and intricate painting on these dummies made them seem more realistic than they should have. "That M4 tank was a beauty. That was a piece of work," a Ghost Army member remarked. But it didn't always go according to plan. "If things went very well, there were air compressors. If things weren't very well, there were bicycle pumps. And if things went terribly badly, there were our lungs," described Cpl. Masey.
Their biggest victories
According to a BBC report, the camouflage division of the Ghost Army was once tasked with creating a whole phony army and also creating enough decoys to hide the real army, in just 28 days. The team succeeded. In March 1945, the team staged its most impressive show near the Rhine River in their largest trick yet, dubbed Operation Viersen. This maneuver skillfully redirected the enemy's attention from an actual river crossing by the 9th Army.
"The Ghost Army inflated both 600 dummies and their own size by impersonating two divisions and 40,000 troops," reports History . Their efforts in misleading the Germans about the American 9th Army's Rhine crossing timeline were a huge success, leading to the saving of numerous lives. To sell the idea that they were indeed a part of a much larger army convoy, members of the Ghost Army reportedly hung out at local cafés to seed false information to raise false alarms among enemy spies and stir turmoil among locals.
Even the uniforms they wore had fake shoulder patches to go with the entire facade. Princeton University alumni Fred Fox, who once dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, pulled one such trick after he walked into a bar and came out with seized wine, planting false information among the Germans that the 6th Armored Division had reached the gates.
The Ghost Army's tactical brilliance
One of the earliest public records of the Ghost Army's exploits has been recorded in a story dated November 9, 1943, by The New York Times . It's worth noting that a team tasked with directly deceiving enemy forces armed its members with nothing bulkier than a 0.50 caliber machine gun. "We would move into the woods in the middle of the night, going through France, Belgium, and Germany, and turn on the sound" — from blaring loudspeakers — "so it sounded like tanks were moving on the roads," Gilbert Seltzer, a member of the Ghost Army was quoted as saying by Story Corps in 2019. An architect by profession with a degree from the University of Toronto under his belt, he explained that the natives would think of those sounds as tanks passing through their land. "Imagination is unbelievable," he remarked.
To outsmart the Germans, they camouflaged their tanks, weapons, and supplies to look like trucks. This strategy hid the army's real movements and made the Germans believe the attack would happen from the south and a couple of days later than it did, instead of from the north. A member of the unit said in the documentary that the unit effectively displayed a facade of formidable strength through its deceptive tactics, deterring enemy forces. Additionally, soldiers were not consistently positioned at the front lines, reducing their exposure to danger.
Future of the Ghost Army
For all that it managed to achieve, members of the Ghost Army were concerned about the risks of their mission. In a PBS documentary, a member of the battalion recalled their shocked reaction when they were told by their superiors that their job was to attract the enemy's attention. "We came to the conclusion that this was a suicide outfit," one member was quoted as saying.
However, the most remarkable aspect of the Ghost Army was that it wasn't entirely comprised of field-hardened warfare experts. Instead, it counted among its ranks a healthy number of artists, architects, engineers, deception experts, technical sound wizards, and almost anyone whose skills could lend a helping hand with their acts of warfare trickery. It is, therefore, not a surprise that after their service in the Ghost Army, many members pursued successful careers in various creative fields.
Among them were individuals who became renowned in their respective industries, such as Bill Blass, who emerged as a prominent fashion designer; Art Kane, who gained fame as a photographer; and Ellsworth Kelly, who established himself as a notable painter. Their careers spanned advertising, art, architecture, and illustration, showcasing the diverse talents of these former military artists. According to CBS News , Jack Masey's creative journey led him to design backdrops for the State Department, and among his remarkable creations was the iconic kitchen setting where Nixon and Khrushchev engaged in their historic debate (PDF).
A long road to recognition
According to The New York Times , from June 1944 to the spring of 1945, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops successfully executed 20 similar operations, which significantly contributed to the preservation of countless American lives. However, some accounts put that number at 22 operations. Despite all its accomplishments beyond the battlefield, the Ghost Army didn't receive official government recognition for decades. These unsung heroes continued their lives without official recognition for their contributions.
However, this changed following a determined campaign spearheaded by Democrat Representative Annie Kuster. Her efforts culminated in the United States government formally acknowledging and honoring the vital role played by the Ghost Army after President Biden signed a bill . But it was quite a bittersweet moment. Most of the members of the Ghost Army had died by the time the U.S. bestowed upon them a Congressional Gold Medal for their valor and duty.
The most recent member of the group to leave the mortal plane was Gilbert Seltzer, who breathed his last late in 2021 at the age of 106. According to The New York Times , he was the oldest surviving member of the Ghost Army and acted as a veteran ambassador for the group. "'Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign," an Army analysis concluded about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.
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tv QA Rick Beyer The Ghost Army of World War Two CSPAN May 30, 2021 11:00pm-12:00am EDT
Q&A Rick Beyer, The Ghost Army of World War Two CSPAN May 30, 2021 11:00pm-12:00am EDT
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Uploaded by TV Archive on May 31, 2021
EXPLAINED | What Was 'Ghost Army'? Secretive WWII Deception Unit Awarded Congressional Gold Medal
The ghost army was the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in the history of the us army. it used visual, sonic, & radio deception to fool german forces during world war ii's final year..
What Was The Ghost Army?
How Did The Ghost Army Fool The Germans?
The Ghost Army Consisted Of Soldiers From 46 States
Selected operations of the ghost army, the ultimate test for the ghost army, what was the order of the battle, who are the surviving ghost army veterans.
- Nick Leo — He is the oldest of the surviving veterans. Aged 99, he lives in Brentwood, New York.
- Bernie Bluestein — Aged 98, Bluestein lives in Schaumburg, Illinois.
- Mark Mallardi — Aged 98, he lives in Edgewater, Florida
- Seymour Nussenbaum — The 98-year-old lives in Monroe Township in New Jersey
- Bill Anderson — Aged 97, he lives in Kent, Ohio
- John Christman — He lives in Leesburg, New Jersey, and is 97-years-old
- George Dramis — Aged 97, he lives in Raleigh, North Carolina
- Manny Frockt — The 97-year-old lives in West Palm Beach, Florida
- Bill Nall — He lives in Dunnellon, Florida, and is 97 years of age
What Is The Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act?
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Sensitive to Art & its Discontents
The Artist-Filled Shadow Army of World War II
A Ghost Army soldier next to a rubber M4 Sherman tank, 93 pounds fully inflated (image courtesy the National Archives and PBS)
There are many reasons that the US and Allied troops won World War II. One of the more obscure ones may be the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army .
The Ghost Army was basically what it sounds like — an invisible shadow army of the larger one. Its job was to stage elaborate deceptions to trick the Germans and lure them off track, doing so with three units: the 603rd Camouflage Engineers (visual); the 3132 Signal Service Company Special (sonic); and the Signal Company Special (radio). All together, the groups used dummy inflatable tanks and airplanes, sound effects of tanks rolling and troops marching, fake radio transmissions, and more to carry out 21 missions, each time attempting to convince the Germans of the false presence of tens of thousands of US troops. They didn’t always succeed, and they had casualties along the way (they were never armed beyond their fake weapons, which seems crazy), but their last mission, Operation Viersen in March 1945, was by all accounts their most successful. The Ghost Army managed to redirect German soldiers preparing for an American attack across the Rhine, allowing the actual American soldiers to advance with relative ease.
The deception of the Ghost Army came about through an impressive combination of skill and artistry, and in fact, many of the men in the visual unit were artists themselves, plucked directly from art schools. Ellsworth Kelly was among them, as were fashion designer Bill Blass and wildlife artist Arthur Singer.
The existence and history of the army are fascinating, and not a story that’s been widely told. (The project was classified until 1996.) Author and film producer Rick Beyer has spent seven years tracking down documents, interviewing veterans, and piecing together the tale of the Ghost Army; his documentary premieres tomorrow night on PBS. I emailed to ask him a few questions.
* * *
The official history of the Ghost Army, with the unit’s ghost emblem at the bottom (click to enlarge) (all images via ghostarmy.org unless otherwise noted)
Jillian Steinhauer: How did you first hear about the Ghost Army? What made you want to explore and tell this story?
Rick Beyer: I first learned about the Ghost Army eight years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Martha Gavin, a woman in the Boston area whose uncle was in the unit. Martha was passionate in her belief that this little-known story needed to be told in a documentary. Her enthusiasm was the spark that started the whole project.
I have always loved quirky history stories, the strange, “can you believe it?” stuff. In fact, I’ve written an entire book series, The Greatest Stories Never Told , that focuses on exactly those types of stories. The idea that there were American soldiers in World War II going into battle with inflatable tanks and sound-effects records was so bizarre, so contrary to every image from every war movie I’ve ever seen, that it immediately attracted my attention.
On top of that was the fact that many of the soldiers in the unit were artists, who used their spare time to paint and sketch what they saw on the battlefield. The first time I met Martha Gavin, at a Starbucks in Lexington, she was carrying an armload of three-ring binders filled with her uncle’s wartime artworks. I was captivated with the way they presented such a unique and intimate perspective of the war. And that’s how I got hooked.
JS: How were the men recruited into the Ghost Army?
RB: The US Army decided to create this deception unit, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops (aka the Ghost Army) , in January 1944. Because they were in a hurry, they drew on existing units to put it together. To handle visual deception, they selected the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. This unit had originally been formed in 1942, and many of the people in it were established artists or art students. According to the official US Army history of the unit, “It was composed mainly of artists from New York and Philadelphia with an average IQ of 119.” Recruiting was done through art schools such as Pratt and Cooper Union, as well as by word of mouth. In some cases, it was the soldiers, looking for a way to put their art skills to work, who found the camouflage unit. Of course it wasn’t secret at that point — the secrecy didn’t come until later when the 603rd became part of the Ghost Army.
A page from Bill Blass’s sketchbook during the war
JS: The film touches on this briefly, but can you explain a bit more about the visual deceptions and stunts that the 603rd Camouflage Engineers pulled off in the US, before they were deployed to Europe?
RB: The camouflage unit was involved in a number of projects before it became part of the Ghost Army. They camouflaged the plant in Baltimore where B-26 bombers were made, as well as large railroad guns near Amagansett, NY. In addition, in 1943, the 603rd took part in large scale maneuvers in Tennessee and Louisiana (along with hundreds of thousands of other soldiers.) They were camouflaging artillery, headquarters, etc.
Left: troops sketching in a bombed-out church in Trevieres; right: a painting by one of the men of the same church
JS: The film paints a very positive picture of the Ghost Army, but I’ve read that their results were somewhat mixed. Is there an accepted opinion on how successful they really were at deceiving the Germans?
RB: The Ghost Army carried out 21 different deception missions on the battlefields of Europe, and it is clear that some were more successful than others. In the case of Operation Bettembourg, where they filled a hole in Patton’s line for a week in September, 1944, and Operation Viersen, where they deceived the Germans about where two American divisions would cross the Rhine in March, 1945, there is good evidence of success. In other deceptions, the evidence is not as definitive. In a few cases its clear that they did not have the hoped-for impact. So I think describing their results as mixed is pretty accurate.
One interesting point is that there is absolutely no evidence that the Germans ever discovered that there was a deception unit operating against them.
A map of Ghost Army operations (click to enlarge)
JS: My first reaction while watching was that these missions were basically suicide. Luckily, it didn’t play out that way, and in the end the Ghost Army suffered only a small number of casualties. But did the men, when you interviewed them, talk about this aspect of the project? Were they terrified? (Did anyone defect?)
RB: I think it takes a special kind of braveness to operate on or at the front when your goal is to draw enemy fire and you don’t have any heavy weapons with which to defend yourself. Many admit that they were scared, and they count their blessings that they made it home alive. Of course not everyone did … a handful of people in the unit were killed, and a couple of dozen wounded, mostly by artillery. I don’t know of anybody who deserted.
JS: The Ghost Army project was classified until 1996. Do you have any thoughts on why it was kept quiet for so long, and/or do you know any of the circumstances behind the decision to declassify it?
RB: The experts I have talked to suggest that it was kept secret so that if the Cold War turned hot, we could use the deception techniques in fighting the Russians. Fred Fox, an officer in the unit who went on to work in the Eisenhower White House, tried in the ’50s and ’60s to get the official army history of the unit declassified, so he could write about it, but the Pentagon refused.
I’ve heard tantalizing hints that there may be parts of the story that are still considered secret, but of course it is hard to nail that down.
A Ghost Army half-track outfitted with playback equipment and a 500-pound speaker with a range of 15 miles (image courtesy the National Archives and PBS)
JS: Was WWII the first time the US used this type of military deception? Did we go on to use it in other conflicts, and do we still?
RB: Military deception has been around for a long time, at least since the Trojan Horse , and probably well before then. What made the Ghost Army unique is that it was specific unit dedicated only to deception, that it was mobile (like a traveling road show) and multimedia (visual, sonic, radio, and “special effects.”) Certainly some of those techniques have been used since then … for example, in the first Gulf War, I know the US used both sonic deception and inflatable tanks, and I am sure that radio deception is a very active field. But for some reason the US Army is not anxious to share with me the details of how it conducts deceptions in the present day!
The Ghost Army premieres on PBS tomorrow night, May 21, at 8 pm EST.
Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best... More by Jillian Steinhauer
3 replies on “The Artist-Filled Shadow Army of World War II”
The mythology of Ghost Army is a central conceit of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1987 novel “Bluebeard”.
Cool! I need to read that.
Thank you for doing this series. My Father John Kennedy was an artist in the unit and he just passed away. He remembered his army buddies until the end. When he finally spoke of his experiences, (in the 1990s), I thought of all his stories and friends and overlaid them with the documentary facts. I think I even saw him in some of the photos. To see him again at this point in his life was profound. The whole story and facts are profound. Thank you.
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Ghost Army (23rd & 3133rd) Roster:
This searchable database of soldiers who served in the Ghost Army has been carefully constructed from a variety of wartime rosters, supplemented with years of painstaking research. It is a work in progress. The goal is to appropriately remember every soldier who served in the Ghost Army. The database includes those who served in the 23 rd Headquarters Special Troops, which operated in northern Europe; the 3133rd Signal Service Company, which operated independently in Italy; and selected soldiers from the Army Experimental Station and the 12th US Army Group Special Plans Branch, both of which were deeply involved in the deception effort. There are full bios for more than 400 of the soldiers, and work continues to create more. Please note you can also use the search function (magnifying glass) in the upper right to search the bios and the rest of the website. For questions, or to provide information on a Ghost Army soldier, please reach out to us via the Contact Page.
Paul D Aarons
Born 1925 in ia, asn#37673319, 3133rd signal service co, jerome abbott, born 1921 in ny, asn#12183732, darrell abraham, born 1913 in ks, asn#37726118, arthur r abrams, born 1909 in pa, asn#32848192, 603rd engineer camouflage bn, joseph f accardi sr., born 1916 in ny, asn#32862560, 406th engineer combat co, burton elias ezra adams, born 1914 in sd, 23rd headquarters co, leonard f adriance, born 1922 in nj, asn#12204320, paul c agnew, born 1923 in ny, asn#11120272, rolf e ahlsen, born 1911 in sweden, asn#32903251, albert raymond albrecht, born 1924 in wi, 3132nd signal service co, william g aliapoulos, born 1917 in nh, asn#11039048, david allan, born 1907 in scotland, asn#32989833, maurice n allard, born 1923 in nd, asn#37560773, hallet allen, asn#6996622, james p allen, ralph g allen, born 1922 in wv, asn#15336640, morton j allison, asn#36592846, william d allshouse, born 1925 in oh, asn#35233156, charles t almond jr., born 1925 in va, asn#33842763, asn#12126438, charles c amadon, born 1917 in ri, asn#11011247, herbert t amborski, born 1914 in ny, asn#12166163, george a amsdill, born 1922 in ny, asn#42084789, john swift “jack” anderegg jr., born 1924 in pa, asn#11121677, stanley s anders jr., born 1925 in pa, asn#33827637, austin a anderson, asn#36891065, donald w anderson, eric r anderson, harold thomas anderson, born 1917 in nj, asn#32754166, james anderson, james thomas anderson, born 1923 in va, asn#32487853, joe k anderson, born 1919 in tx, asn#18016558, signal co, special, pete anderson, asn#37219664, william john anderson ii, born 1924 in oh, asn#35049197, alexander george andré, born 1911 in denmark, asn#32335539, elwood richard andrews sr., born 1911 in nj, asn#20250961, james d andrews, born 1924 in canada, asn#32844118, virgil d ankrom, asn#37223210, carl thomas apicella, born 1917 in oh, asn#35921496, howard j arbo, born 1919 in me, asn#31150717, edmund minor archer, born 1904 in va, asn#32523166, domenico arena, born 1908 in italy, asn#32350291, edgar m armstrong, walter wendell arnett, born 1912 in ky, asn#14158813, jack arnofsky, clarence b arnold jr., charles john ashe, born 1921 in mo, asn#17064289, lolen e atchison, born 1919 in al, asn#34399294, eliot heath atkinson, born 1907 in ma, asn#11088515, please support our ongoing efforts.
The soldiers of The Ghost Army used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and imagination to fool the Germans on the battlefields of Europe. The Ghost Army Legacy Project is ensuring that these men and their accomplishments are never forgotten.
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The Ghost Army: America's Fighting Artists Quiz
During ww2, artists were recruited into a unique unit called the 23rd headquarters special troops. they saved thousands by creating fake armies, and soon the fighting artists became known as the ghost army..
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Deceiving Hitler: The Ghost Army of WWII
Evening program with book signing, evening lecture/seminar, select your tickets.
In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of young American GIs landed in France to conduct a secret mission. Armed with rubber tanks, fake artillery, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, their job was to create a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, with the German Army as their audience.
From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Recruits including future fashion designer Bill Blass and painter Ellsworth Kelly were taken right out of art and fashion design schools.
Author and documentary filmmaker Rick Beyer tells the hard-to-believe story of the most curious group of soldiers deployed in the western theater of war. Operating dangerously close to the front lines, their deceptions saved thousands of lives.
Beyer’s book co-authored with Elizabeth Sayles, The Ghost Army of World War II (Princeton Architectural Press), is available for sale and signing.
In their off hours, members of the Ghost Army used their skills as artists to document the military camps, towns, and refugees of the war-ravaged Europe that served as the backdrop for their deceptions—or to escape from it. Take a look at some of their personal drawings and paintings, including a page from young Bill Blass’s fashion sketchbook.