Soldiers of the 'Ghost Army' helped America deceive its way to victory

Julia LeDoux
May 20, 2019 - 2:31 pm
Ghost Army

Ghost Army Legacy Foundation

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A group of soldiers put on a traveling, multimedia road show that helped America secure victory in World War II.

Known as the "Ghost Army," the tactical deception unit was officially called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and was made up of nearly 1,100 soldiers, many of whom were Jewish.

“It was top secret and so secret that a lot of the guys in the unit didn’t know other guys in the unit,” said Roy Eichorn, a member of the Ghost Army Legacy Project’s board of directors and stepson of Ghost soldier George Martin.

From a few months after D-Day in June 1944 until the war in Europe ended in 1945, they impersonated other Army units in order to deceive the Germans, Eichorn explained.

“It was originally designed as a deception unit,” he said. “When the Allies were planning to go into Normandy, they realized they had a problem. They could only bring so many troops and so much equipment.”

In order to fool the Germans, the Ghost Army was tasked with simulating two divisions, Eichorn said.

“This was huge,” he added. “Nobody had really tried this.”

They used lumber, cardboard and whatever else they could find to build phony convoys, fake divisions and make-believe headquarters that misled the Germans about the strength and location of American units.

“Just as an armored division moved, this moved,” said Eichorn. “It moved its dummy equipment, it moved its soldiers pretending to be other soldiers. It moved its radio networks.”

In addition to helping to defeat the Germans, the Ghost Army’s subterfuge helped to liberate concentration camps, Eichorn said.

“They had all these people they liberated from concentration camps and slave labor camps,” he said.

The Ghost Army staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often near the front lines, Eichorn said. They also used inflatable tanks, sound trucks and radio transmissions to fool not only the Germans but civilians as well.

“On average, these guys covered 10,000 miles between June of 1944 and May of 1945,” Eichorn said.

Ghost Army
Ghost Army Legacy Foundation

Many Ghost Army soldiers were art students, some of whom went on to find fame. Among them were fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, artist Arthur Singer and photographer Art Kane.

Ghost Army soldier Bill Anderson landed in France on June 11, 1944 (D-Day Plus 5).  He used telephones and telephone lines to pass on false information to the Germans.

“We saved a lot of lives,” he said. “We would be there one day and gone the next.” 

Anderson, who went on to work in the electronics division of CBS after the war, recalled that a few French civilians inadvertently got a first-hand look at what the Ghost Army was doing when they stumbled upon the soldiers performing a “superhuman” feat.

“They saw four guys picking up a tank,” he said.

Eichorn said that Ghost Army soldiers also mislead the German Army about where Gen. George Patton and his army were headed in July of 1944, which helped them to quickly move across France.

Ghost Army
Ghost Army Legacy Foundation

“They paid real attention to detail,” he said. “Headlights on the trucks were real. The dummy patches on their uniforms were real. The tire tracks they laid were real.”

During the Battle of the Bulge, Eichorn said the Ghost Army drew the Germans away from a real crossing of the Rhine River by the 9th Army. 

Ghost Army soldiers also spent time among the civilian population, picking up useful information while passing on misinformation.

“They had guys who spoke probably every language in Europe,” Eichorn said.

In addition to their deceptive capabilities, the Ghost Army also transported real American casualties in their trucks.

“The Germans saw truckloads of casualties coming out of the areas where the Ghost Army worked,” he said.

There is now a bipartisan push in Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Ghost Army. In the House of Representatives HR 2350 has been introduced by Reps. Annie Kuster, D-N.H. and Peter King, R-N.Y.  

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