Thirty years after the end of World War II, a U.S. Army analysis singled out members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops for particular recognition. “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,” it reported.
The men of the 23rd weren’t a band of elite commandos, however, but masters of illusion recruited from the leading art schools in the United States. The top-secret unit—nicknamed the Ghost Army—gave new meaning to “the art of war.” Wielding creativity rather than weapons, the 1,100 artists, set and fashion designers, writers and sound effects engineers staged elaborate ruses that diverted the attention of Nazi forces away from actual operations being undertaken by the Allies.
Inspired by British deceptions in North Africa earlier in the war, the Ghost Army participated in 21 missions across Europe between June 1944 and March 1945. Led by former New Yorker managing editor Ralph Ingersoll, the unit fooled the enemy by making it appear to be a much larger armored division with 20,000 soldiers.
Their work was worthy of a movie production. Costume designers fashioned fake uniforms. Sound engineers recorded a library of sound effects that mimicked that of an attacking army. Radio operators broadcast misleading traffic from a real armored division. Painters and illustrators designed hundreds of rubber tanks, jeeps, trucks, artillery and aircraft that could be inflated with gasoline-fueled air compressors, yet look authentic enough to deceive Nazi aerial reconnaissance. Actors wearing counterfeit patches on their uniforms sauntered into local taverns near the front lines and talked loudly of phony maneuvers and nonexistent generals, knowing that their misinformation would likely meet the ears of Nazi spies. No detail was too small for the Ghost Army. They even employed bulldozers to create fake tracks around inflatable tanks.
From the beaches of Normandy to the Rhine River, the Ghost Army operated in dangerous situations. A handful of members participated in D-Day and sustained a pair of casualties while they attempted to camouflage beach installations. For days in September 1944, the unit managed to plug a dangerously undermanned portion of General George Patton’s line as he attacked the fortified city of Metz. The Ghost Army’s greatest hoax occurred in March 1945 when it impersonated two complete divisions of 40,000 men using soundtracks of construction work and more than 600 inflatable vehicles. The ruse drew Nazi units away from the Ninth Army, allowing it to cross the strategically important Rhine River. The deception also continued well after the end of the war as the existence of the Ghost Army remained top secret for four decades.
Three members of the Ghost Army died in the line of duty, and dozens of others were wounded. According to Rick Beyer, who produced and directed the 2013 documentary “The Ghost Army” and co-wrote a 2015 book on the unit, the unlikely war heroes saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers through their sophisticated charades that diverted enemy attention away from the real theaters of war.
Most of the veterans of the Ghost Army—including fashion designer Bill Blass and artist Ellsworth Kelly—have passed away. Only a few dozen men in 11 states and the District of Columbia still survive, according to Beyer, and as the ranks of the Ghost Army continue to dwindle, backers of a bipartisan bill to award the Ghost Army one of America’s highest civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal, are making a renewed push.
The legislation, which was introduced last year by Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-New Hampshire) and Rep. Peter King (R-New York), has been co-sponsored by more than 30 representatives on both sides of the aisle. “There’s so few of them left, so having some of them still alive when that recognition happens is really important,” says Robert Dahl, whose late father, Harold Dahl, served in the unit.
In the past eight years, World War II units including the Native American Code Talkers, Women Airforce Service Pilots, the Monuments Men and the Doolittle Raiders have received the Congressional Gold Medal. “The dangerous, life-saving, top-secret work of the Ghost Army is well deserving of similar recognition,” Rep. Kuster says.
“It is finally time that the American people recognize their ingenuity and selflessness which saved countless American and Allied lives,” says Rep. King. “They deserve their due.”
In addition to the possible honor from Congress, recognition of the Ghost Army could be coming to movie theaters around the world. Producers of the film “American Sniper,” including actor Bradley Cooper, have optioned the rights to Beyer’s story for a motion picture.