Secret WWII unit recognized after 77 years
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On February 1, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Ghost Army” in recognition of their unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations in Europe during World War II.
The Ghost Army, officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was activated on January 20, 1944, and was the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in the history of the US Army. Its existence was top secret for more than 50 years until it was declassified in 1996, along with its sister deception unit, the 3133rd Signal Company Special, which operated in Italy, carrying out two missions near the end of the war.
As described by the Ghost Army Legacy Project, their job was to “create a traveling roadshow of deception on the battlefields of Europe, with the German Army as their audience.” Inflatable tanks, fake radio traffic, and sound effects were just a few of the tricks used to make up “phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters” created to fool the enemy about the size and location of American units.
“From June 1944 to March 1945, armed with nothing heavier than .50 caliber machine guns, they carried out over 20 battlefield deception missions in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. They saw action on the beaches of Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge, but near the war’s end, they pulled off one of their biggest stunts. The American Ninth Army was set to cross the Rhine River and head deeper into Germany, and the 23rd was tasked with luring the Germans away. Just over 1,000 men posed as the 30th and 79th divisions, tricking Hitler’s army into thinking there were over 30,000 men.
Using their “props,” the unit, consisting of only 82 officers and 1,023 men, was capable of simulating two entire divisions.
In order to pull off this hoax, a carefully chosen group of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees was assembled. Included in the mix were not-yet-famous fashion designer Bill Blass, painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane.
Many West Point graduates and former Army Specialized Training Program participants were assigned to the 23rd, and it was said to have one of the highest IQs in the Army, with an average of 119.
Although many of its members went on to have careers in the arts, they were unable to tell the story of what they had done – even to their wives, family members, and friends – until after the information was declassified.
The Ghost Army has been credited with saving many American lives. In a video that explains what they did and how they did it, several veterans of the unit were interviewed. When speaking about the lives they saved, Sgt. Spike Berry said, “They estimate that we saved between 15 and 30 thousand lives with our maneuvers, but, you know, even if we only saved 15 or 30, it was worth it.”
“One mother, or one new bride…was spared the agony of putting a Gold Star in their front window – that’s what the 23rd did for us…was all about,” said Sgt. Stan Nance.
The medals will be awarded to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the 3133d Signal Company Special, and its nine surviving members at a ceremony on Sunday, February 13. You can watch it live at 2 p.m. EST.
Ghost Army veterans receiving medals:
Bill Anderson, Kent, OH, Signal Company Special, age 97
Bernie Bluestein, Schaumberg, IL, 603rd Camouflage Engineers, age 98
John Christman, Leesburg, NJ, 406th Combat Engineers, age 97
George Dramis, Raleigh, NC, Signal Company Special, age 97
Manny Frockt, West Palm Beach, FL, 3132nd Signal Service Co. Special, age 97
Nick Leo, Brentwood, NY, Signal Company Special, age 99
Mark Mallardi, Edgewater, FL, 406th Combat Engineers, age 98
Bill Nall, Dunellon, FL, Signal Company Special, age 97
Seymour Nussenbaum, Monroe Township, NJ, 603rd Camouflage Engineers, age 98.
The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions dating back to the American Revolution. The first recipient was George Washington, and the latest, which was approved last December, were the service members who perished in Afghanistan on August 26, 2021. Each medal honors a particular individual, institution, or event.
The recipients were all military until Congress broadened the scope of the award in 1864 to include pioneers in aeronautics and space, notables in science and medicine, athletes, and entertainers. American businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt was recognized for his “patriotic gift” of a passenger steamship to the Union Navy during the second year of the Civil War.
Recognition of the Ghost Army was made possible by the Ghost Army Legacy Project and its president, Rick Beyer, who launched a campaign asking people and various organizations to contact their Senators and Representatives in support of the unit receiving the award.
The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Rep. Annie Kuster (D, NH), Rep. Chis Stewart (R, UT), Sen. Edward Markey (D, MA), and Sen. Susan Collins (R, ME).
Speaking from the House floor on January 26, Rep. Annie Kuster said, “What made the Ghost Army special was not just their extraordinary courage, but their creativity. Their story reminds us that listening to unconventional ideas, like using visual and sound deception, can help us solve existential challenges like defeating tyranny.”
“I am thrilled these deserving, brave, and intrepid warriors of deception have at last been awarded this high honor,” said Beyer, who has worked for seven years to get this bill passed. “Armed with their wits and guile these men saved lives and helped win the war. Their story is an inspiration to all of us! So many have contributed to this moment — volunteers, members of the House and Senate from both parties, Ghost Army veterans and their families — with energy and devotion to seeing the valiant efforts of the Ghost Army properly honored.”
The following resources were used to compile this article. Visit their websites to learn more about this fascinating, courageous, and creative effort.
Originally published on Citizen Stringer, February 9, 2022