Weeks after the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, the young men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops encountered D-Day’s lingering carnage as they waded ashore. Bloated bodies churned in the surf. Tree branches cradled the carcass of a cow blown skyward by explosives.

Fear and adrenaline coursed through the GIs, along with hope that they wouldn’t have to fire their rifles. Their mission, after all, wasn’t to kill Nazis but to perform for them.

Armed with sound effects, costumes, scripts and props, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and its sister unit, the 3133rd Signal Company Special, brandished Hollywood-worthy stagecraft in European theaters of war to dupe the German army about the location and size of Allied forces. The 1,100 sound engineers, radio broadcasters, fashion designers, ad men, artists, actors and theater set designers unofficially known as the “Ghost Army” masqueraded as a combat force more than 30 times its actual size.

Ghost Army inflatable tanks along the Rhine River in March 1945. Ghost Army Legacy Project.

Operating as close as a quarter mile from the front lines, the Ghost Army is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers by luring away the enemy during more than 20 full-scale deception campaigns.

Subterfuge has been an integral part of warfare from the time the Greeks wheeled a wooden horse to the gates of Troy. Even during World War II, Operation Fortitude’s elaborate ruse convinced German forces that the D-Day invasion would strike Calais, not Normandy.

Yet the Ghost Army – nicknamed the “Cecil B. DeMille Warriors” by one member – is unique in the annals of warfare, according to Rick Beyer, co-author of “The Ghost Army of World War II” and producer and director of a 2013 documentary on the force.


“It’s the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in the history of warfare,” he said. “They are capable of projecting their deception – visual, sound, radio, special effects – through all these different means, and they are essentially another arrow in the quiver of a battlefield commander to maneuver the enemy.”

Although a U.S. Army report credited the Ghost Army with saving the lives of between 15,000 and 30,000 servicemen, its story remained untold for decades as information about the force stayed classified until 1996. On Thursday, the top-secret unit will finally get its just due when it receives one of the country’s highest awards, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Recruited from advertising agencies, communications companies and art schools – through vaguely worded notices seeking creative candidates for noncombat camouflage battalions – the Ghost Army hoodwinked the Germans about the location of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army as it swept eastward across France during the summer of 1944. The Americans fooled Nazis’ eyes by deploying fleets of inflatable rubber tanks, trucks and airplanes and tricked their ears by broadcasting phony radio chatter and playing prerecorded soundtracks of troop exercises from 500-pound loudspeakers.

Despite initial successes, Lt. Fred Fox believed the Ghost Army needed even more theatrics. “There is too much MILITARY and not enough SHOWMANSHIP,” he wrote in a memo to the unit’s leaders. “We must remember that we are playing to a very critical and attentive radio, ground and aerial audience. They must all be convinced.”

Members of the Ghost Army put new bumper markings on a jeep as part of their “special effects” program. Ghost Army Legacy Project.

At Fox’s behest, the Ghost Army added a fourth dimension – physical deceptions referred to as “special effects” – to its visual, sonic and radio initiatives. Operations grew more sophisticated as actors donned uniforms with insignia of other units to impersonate officers and recited choreographed scripts in phony command posts. When Patton found his line dangerously thin along the Moselle River in September 1944, the Ghost Army rushed from Paris and kept the Germans at bay for a week by posing as the 6th Armored Division.

In its final blockbuster performance, the Ghost Army mimicked two 9th Army divisions – a 40,000-man force – set to make the difficult crossing of the Rhine River in March 1945. Moving like phantoms under the cloak of darkness, the tricksters set up operations 10 miles south of the intended attack location. They inflated 200 decoy trucks and tanks. They blared sounds of rumbling vehicles, hammering and even soldiers swearing. They radioed false orders to simulate movement to the front and posed as loose-lipped colonels and generals while planting disinformation for German spies to overhear in local bars and cafes.


“I guess we were successful because the Germans fired upon us,” 100-year-old Ghost Army veteran Bernie Bluestein of Hoffman Estates, Ill., who specialized in fake signs and vehicle stencils, recalled in an interview. “We convinced them that we were the real thing.” As the Germans moved their defenses and shelled the faux force, the 9th Army encountered token resistance as it forded the Rhine with minimal casualties.

After the curtain fell on World War II, the military’s greatest showmen, which included artist Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass, returned home to resume their creative lives. For decades, though, they were sworn to secrecy about their exploits in case the Cold War required similar subterfuge. “Some of these guys went to their graves without telling anybody in their families what this unit was involved in,” Beyer said.

“I didn’t even tell my wife until the 1990s, when the secrecy came off,” said 100-year-old veteran Seymour Nussenbaum of Monroe Township, N.J., who was part of a team that crafted fake patches. “I couldn’t potentially risk the lives of any soldiers who might be involved because of what I said.” The Pratt Institute graduate and retired package designer joked that because of his decoy-inflating experience, whenever family members asked him what he did in the war, he could answer truthfully: “I blew up tanks!”

While Beyer’s book and documentary raised awareness of the Ghost Army, he believed the unlikely World War II heroes deserved even greater attention and honor. “I’ve been surprised at how this story has escaped the history books and Hollywood,” he said. “I had been blown away by their deceptions, blown away by the fact that they came back and kept quiet about it for 50 years, and I thought they needed some official recognition.”

Following a grass-roots lobbying effort launched by Beyer and other Ghost Army Legacy Project volunteers in 2015, President Biden signed a bill in 2022 authorizing the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’s highest honor – to the master illusionists. Of the unit’s seven known surviving members, Bluestein, Nussenbaum and 99-year-old John Christman of Leesburg, N.J., plan to attend Thursday’s medal ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

“I’m certainly happy that it’s happening and they’re giving us a little recognition,” said Bluestein, who joined the Ghost Army while a scholarship student at the Cleveland Institute of Art and had a long, successful industrial design career after the war. “But I’m very disappointed that it couldn’t have been a lot earlier when many of these soldiers were still living so they could have accepted and had some recognition the same as I am.”

“Probably thousands of people weren’t killed because of the Ghost Army,” Beyer said. “Life would have been different for a lot of people if this unit hadn’t been there. Now they’re getting their due, and I think that’s pretty incredible.”

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