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The Ghost Army

November 4, 2021

by: By Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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From 1939 to 1945, over 30 nations of the world contributed their best and brightest to the over 100 million military personnel who would engage in the deadliest conflict in human history. World War ll would claim the lives of over 60 million people, 40 million of them civilians. The Holocaust, Hitler’s genocidal attempt to rid the world of the Jews, claimed six million victims and brought a legitimacy to anti-Semitism that haunts the Jewish people to this day. When the dust of war had settled, the political and social landscape of the globe was changed forever. Many experts agree that the rebirth of the nation of Israel in 1948 would not have happened had it not been for the atrocities Europe’s Jews endured during World War ll.

Who would have imagined, amid battle-hardened officers leading battle-weary troops with the latest in weaponry, that a unit would emerge whose expertise was trickery? Armed with nothing heavier than .50 caliber machine guns, this unique unit would take part in 22 large-scale deceptions that played a critical role in the ultimate Allied victory in Europe.

The Battle of Illusion

According to the World War ll Museum, this “Ghost Army” was the first full spectrum multimedia, tactical deception unit in US Army history. Under the leadership of 82 officers, the unit’s 1,023 enlisted men were not ground troops or snipers. Recruited from art schools, advertising agencies and even the entertainment industry, they were artists, musicians, actors, telegraph operators, radio personalities, set designers and sound and light technicians. Many went on to find fame after the war. The many testimonies of its members agree that the majority of the 1,105 men were Jewish.

The unit consisted of the 406th Combat Engineers, the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the 3132 Signal Service Company Special and the Signal Company Special. Collectively known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the unit had the unique mission to impersonate other Allied army units to deceive the enemy. From a few months after D-Day, when the Allied forces landed in France, to the end of the war, they used inflatable tanks, airplanes and other vehicles; sound trucks and fake radio transmissions; scripts and various other pretenses to stage more than 22 battlefield scenarios. Using imagination and illusion to trick the enemy into believing that as many as 30,000 Allied troops were in the neighborhood, the 23rd saved thousands of lives and helped liberate Europe from the Nazis.

The 23rd relied on four tactical areas to accomplish ruses that helped deflect German units from the locations of larger Allied units. The largest of the four handled visual deception and were known as camoufleurs. This unit was equipped with inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks and airplanes, all able to be unpacked and inflated by air compressors in less than twenty minutes. Once inflated, they were partially camouflaged so that enemy aerial reconnaissance could spot them. Two bulldozers traveled with the unit and were used to create mock airfields and the tracks that real tanks would have left in the dirt. They created dummy troop bivouacs, complete with fake laundry hanging on clotheslines, motor pools, artillery batteries and tank formations in just a few hours. Their work was so convincing that an allied plane occasionally actually landed on their “airstrips.”

The Signal Service Company handled sonic deception by recording the sounds of armored and infantry units onto sound effects records that were then mixed to match any scenarios they wanted the enemy to believe. This program was then recorded on state-of-the-art wire recordings and played back with powerful amplifiers and speakers mounted on halftracks. Their sounds could be heard 15 miles (24 km.) away.

Radio deception operators created phony radio traffic, impersonating radio operators from real units. Morse code operators had their own identifiable style when sending messages, and Signal Company operators mimicked real operators’ styles so effectively that the enemy was never the wiser.

Special effects were critical to the operation. This unit created “atmosphere” by painting insignia on vehicles, creating uniform patches and positioning a few personnel in vehicles to give the impression of a fully motorized infantry unit, often driven in loops to look like long convoys. This unit sent soldiers into small towns to impersonate GIs and even officers on short leave. They ate in restaurants and drank in bars, convincingly leaking false information.

These deceptions were so effective that the Ghost Army was responsible for the success of major battles and troop movements during the final year of the war. General George S. Patton relied on them during the battle of Bettembourg, where the 23rd convinced the German army that the US 6th Armored Division was on the move miles from their actual location. Most of their ruses only required 24 to 48 hours, but this one lasted 10 days, putting the entire 23rd at great risk. Their deception was successful and a critical part of the liberation of Paris.

In March 1945, a massive crossing of the Rhine River would allow US and British forces to advance rapidly into the German interior and bring about the defeat of the Third Reich. Generals Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower called on the 23rd to convince the Germans that their crossing was happening 17 miles (27 km.) from its actual location. The ruse was so effective that the Germans concentrated all their forces against the Ghost Army, and Patton and Eisenhower crossed the Rhine nearly casualty free.

The 23rd’s last operation was not deception. Concentration camps were being liberated with no forces trained in dealing with survivors. The victims of Nazi terror spoke 29 different languages, and it was discovered that the various members of the Ghost Army spoke those 29 languages. Their final assignment was to work with those survivors, hearing their stories and helping them find the resources they needed to begin the process of healing. They worked with over 100,000 inmates, many of whom would make their way to Israel.

After the war, the members of the 23rd were sworn to secrecy. With the exception of one magazine article early on, the story of the Ghost Army, its role in the victory over the Third Reich and the contributions it made to the future of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel were not made public until 1995. In May 2021, the US House of Representatives passed the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act. Once passed by the Senate, this unit and its members will receive the recognition and honor they deserve.

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