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.
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.”