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Ghost Army of WWII: An incredible, secret story of wartime deception

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A rare color photograph of an inflatable tank used by the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops , aka the Ghost Army — a special Allied Army tactical unit that waged wartime deception across the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

The secret exploits of the Ghost Army – a special Allied Army tactical unit that waged wartime deception with inflatable tanks, audio and radio cover and more — escaped history for nearly 50 years after World War II. Now, author and documentarian Rick Beyer is doing his best to share the incredible story of the unconventional and heroic unit.

Beyer, who penned the 2015 book “The Ghost Army of World War II,” and directed and produced the 2013 PBS documentary “The Ghost Army,” presented a pair of programs last week at the Princeton and Oglesby libraries that gave a brief overview of his years of interviews and research on the special unit.

“They weren’t textbook heroes, but they served with ingenuity and valor,” Beyer said.

The Mission

The 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — aka the Ghost Army — had a historic and dangerous mission – imitate other Allied Army units to disguise their movement and deceive opposing forces across Europe. To accomplish their goal, the Ghost Army needed to combine sights, sounds and plenty of guile, in what Beyer calls “a dangerous game of make-believe.” The Ghost Army conducted 21 covert deception operations – impersonating 36 different units —from June 1944 to March 1945. In a typical mission, the 1,100 members of the unit would imitate a force of around 7,000-15,000 soldiers. In their largest deception, Operation Viersen, the Ghost Army impersonated both the 30th and 79th Divisions – around 30,000 troops.

Sights

To fool enemy aerial reconnaissance, the unit employed a huge arsenal of inflatable equipment that, from a distance, could pass as real. From tanks and trucks to artillery and beyond, the rubber gear was placed at various locales throughout France and to mask the movement of other troops. For extra realism, bulldozers were used under the cover of darkness to fashion tank treads in the ground around the inflatable weapons of war, helping complete a convincing visual con.

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A vintage photo shows the inflatable frame of a military truck used by the Ghost Army. The lightweight rubber frame was covered by canvas to help complete the illusion for enemy aerial reconnaissance. 

Sounds

Along with the inflatable equipment, the Ghost Army augmented their deceptions by broadcasting a mix of military sounds – recorded during military exercises at Ft. Knox – with the help of massive 500-pound speakers. The recordings were “extraordinarily effective” Beyer said, at times even fooling members of the unit and other Allied Troops.

To help complete the auditory illusion, the Ghost Army also employed a team of radio operators to send false messages out over the airwaves. The highly skilled radio operators of the Ghost Army even learned to mimic the distinctive Morse Code entry styles of the radio operators from the units they were impersonating, to better trick their enemies.

Special Effects

From fake unit patches, of which they produced an estimated 40,000, to ever-changing vehicle markings, the Ghost Army used plenty of theatrics to complete the illusion as they moved to different areas. Soldiers in town would carouse and sing the songs of the different divisions they were impersonating, spilling fabricated details of the unit’s movement in bakeries and beer halls. Fake command posts were set up – complete with fake generals.

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Artists in the Ghost Army crafted handmade counterfeit patches to imitate other units. The 1,100 man Ghost Army produced around 40,000 patches for their 21 missions and impersonated 36 different units from June 1944 to March 1945.

A dangerous job

While they had a wealth of inflatable tanks and artillery, the Ghost Army’s deceptions were carried out without the backing of their real-life battlefield counterparts. If the operation was discovered it could have been disastrous for the troops, whose largest weapon was a .50 caliber machine gun, according to Beyer. Three members of the Ghost Army were killed during operations, and dozens were wounded.

“Men bled and died to carry out these deceptions,” Beyer said.

Famous artists

One of the units that comprised the Ghost Army – the 603rd Camouflage Volunteers — was heavily comprised of artists. Two of those soldiers, minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass, would later go on to earn fame in their respective disciplines.

Recognition

Because their work was carried out in secret – even fellow Allied Troops weren’t in on the deceptions — members of the Ghost Army were never recognized for their covert mission. Currently there are two bills in the U.S. Legislature: HR2701 in the House of Representatives and S1256 in the Senate, that seek to honor members of the 23rd HQ Special Troops with the Congressional Gold Medal.

For more information on the Ghost Army, visit GhostArmy.com.

Chris Yucus can be contacted at (815) 220-6934 or lifestyle@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NT_ChrisYucus.

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Chris Yucus is the NewsTribune Lifestyle Editor. A member of the NewsTribune editorial team since 2011, Chris previously worked as a sports writer and staff photographer for the paper. He can be contacted at lifestyle@newstrib.com.

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