Recognition for the Ghost Army is long over due.
May 29, 2021, saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass a bill that would honor veterans who served in a unit known as the “Ghost Army.” Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster and Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act is now set to go to a vote before the Senate.
Many may not be aware of the Ghost Army and its work to aid Allied efforts against Germany during the Second World War. This is something the House is aiming to change, as this unit was instrumental in many Allied victories during the course of the war.
Artists joined the fight
Those who served in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops weren’t typical soldiers. They came from less conventional backgrounds and held careers in art, sound engineering, makeup artistry, photography, and architecture. They were sought for their creativity, and a total of 1,100 men joined the unit between 1944 and 1945.
The unit’s origins aren’t fully known. It’s rumored the idea came from Douglas Fairbanks Jr., an actor and naval officer. Inspired by the special forces installations in England, he’s said to have lobbied those in higher positions to create a unit whose sole purpose was deception. The request was granted and the Ghost Army was formed.
Visual deception was the name of the game
The goal of the Ghost Army was to trick enemy forces into believing Allied units were stationed where they weren’t. Their illusions also aimed to make these forces appear larger and more powerful than they really were. Essentially, they were charged with creating the right atmosphere to make themselves appear omnipresent.
The visual effects were the charge of 603rd Camouflage Engineers. They utilized rubber tanks and dummy planes, and often blended these fake vehicles in amongst real ones. The aim was to intermix them, with the fake ones given purposefully poor camouflage, so vital equipment was less likely to be targeted.
The visual deception also applied to the physical appearances of both equipment and soldiers. They would dress themselves up as other infantrymen — logos and all — and paint the insignia of other units onto their fake tanks and artillery.
Some even drove around in looping convoys, intended to give the impression an entire unit was being transported. In reality, there were only three individuals in the vehicle: a driver and two soldiers at the rear.
The ghost army used their acting skills to dupe spies
Along with staging fake battle scenes, the unit spent time staging interactions intended to confuse and intimidate Axis soldiers.
Traveling between villages in France that were known to house spies and informants, they dressed themselves up as Allied generals and officers. They would then go about their daily activities, such as drinking in pubs and speaking with girls, where they would let “slip” false intel about battle plans and unit positions, under the guise of having loose lips and too much to drink.
The Ghost Army was able to effectively stage their battle scenes with the help of the 3132 Signal Service Company. With the aid of engineers at Bell Labs, the unit traveled to Fort Knox to record military sounds and noises on wire recorders. This included sounds made by infantrymen, tanks and artillery units.
The sounds were mixed in a theater in order to match whatever atmosphere was needed. They were altered to portray different weather events and distances. The soundtracks were then played on the battlefield through amplifiers and speakers mounted on half-track vehicles. The efforts were so effective that the recordings were heard from as far as 15 miles away.
Radio deception was also in their wheelhouse
The importance of radio to the spread of information was not missed by the Ghost Army. The 3132 Signal Service Company created “spoof radio,” where actors impersonated radio operators from real units.
They also mimicked the idiosyncratic methods of morse code used by those operators who were departing. This helped them to create the illusion that Allied units were in areas they had actually already departed.
These efforts were so authentic-sounding that they fooled many, including radio broadcaster Axis Sally. She was an American living in Germany who was hired by Joseph Goebbels to amplify state propaganda to those in the U.S.
Her primary focus was the denunciation of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British, and the Jews. The Ghost Army managed to trick her into believing a division of Allied troops was preparing for battle at a spot where no troops were actually stationed.
The end of the war
The unit returned to America upon the end of the war in Europe. While it was initially believed they’d be sent to aid the fight against Japan, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon put an end to that conflict.
At discharge, the unit had served four armies across five European countries, staged over 20 battlefield deceptions, and was present for five campaigns, including D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Rhine’s Operation Plunder.
The Ghost Army is credited with saving approximately 15,000 to 30,000 American lives during WWII. Despite their heroic efforts, however, they were never formally honored by the government, due to the classified nature of their work. As such, they were unable to publicly speak of their exploits during the war.
The Pentagon denied the unit’s existence until 1996, when all related documentation was declassified. Now, 25 years after that declassification, here’s hoping this latest House bill gives these men the recognition they rightfully deserve.