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World War II Ghost Army veterans receive the Congressional Gold Medal

Three of the seven surviving Ghost Army veterans were in attendance.
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Unit patches from the Ghost Army along with images of the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal.
The Ghost Army received the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., today. (Wikimedia Commons and U.S. Mint images; Task & Purpose composite image)

Sworn to secrecy for 50 years, the soldiers of the Ghost Army faded back into society after playing a critical role in the Allied effort to win World War II. They’ve been recognized for their success and sacrifice by receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. 

The surviving masters of deception, along with the Ghost Army’s family and friends, received the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony held at 11:00 a.m. today inside the Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol Complex in Washington, D.C. The Medal is the nation’s highest civilian award a unit can receive and is custom-designed, 3-inches in diameter, and made of gold worth approximately $30,000.

Reverend Donald Fox, the son of Ghost Army veteran Fred Fox, gave an opening prayer at the ceremony.

“Here we are assembled around the Statue of Freedom surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, Native Americans, inventors, leaders in peace in war and civil rights,” Fox said.

“We thank you, God, that the men of the Ghost Army are being recognized as soldiers who made a huge contribution to winning World War II in Europe without hardly ever firing a gun. We thank you for the way that these 1,100 individuals with their creative courage, represent the best in our nation, one nation, under God, indivisible.”

Three of the seven surviving Ghost Army veterans were in attendance. Bernard Bluestein, of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, served in the visual deception unit of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. John Christman served as a demolition specialist for the 406th Engineer Combat Company, and Seymour Nussenbaum served in the 603rd and helped make the counterfeit patches used by the unit in special effects.

Other surviving members, not in attendance include James “Tom” Anderson, George Dramis, William Nall, and John Smith.

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“We can never repay them for their invaluable contributions to the Allied victory. And thank you to the surviving vets for being with us here today. […],” Senator Edward Markey said. “The Ghost Army’s tactics were meant to be invisible, but today their contributions will no longer remain unseen in the shadows.”

President Joe Biden signed the Congressional Gold Medal Act into law two years ago, awarding the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and 3133 Signal Company the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill becoming law concluded the Ghost Army Legacy Project’s nearly 10-year effort to seek recognition for the unit.

The Ghost Army had an authorized strength of 82 officers and 1,023 men, with Col. Harry L. Reeder commanding the top-secret unit. Their work only became known to the public after it was declassified in 1996, five decades after the conclusion of WWII. 

The soldiers mastered deception by implementing visual, sonic, and radio deception methods to fool the Nazis during WWII’s final year. The Ghost Army could simulate two whole divisions, a force of approximately 40,000 men, a tactic that was used close to the front lines to distract the Nazis so another unit could blindside them. 

The unit is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives. During a post-war assessment of its effectiveness, a U.S. Army analyst praised the soldiers of the Ghost Army for their profound impact. 

“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,” the analyst wrote.

The Ghost Army soldiers were hand-selected from art schools, communication companies, and other creative and technical areas of America’s workforce. The first four soldiers landed on D-Day, and the first operation occurred on June 14, 1944. Task Force Mason landed on Omaha Beach and drew the Nazis’ gunfire and artillery away from the 980th Artillery for 28 days. 

The Ghost Army went on to carry out 21 deception operations, implementing inflatable tanks, artillery, airplanes, and other vehicles, specially designed soundtracks, and creative radio deception that threw off Axis spies. They even created fake generals and staff.

Like a set on Broadway, the Ghost Army soldiers immersed themselves in roles designated for the operation. They’d hang out in cafes, spilling counterfeit stories for spies who may have been within earshot. But it wasn’t just their war contributions that helped the American war effort, the Ghost Army artists would host galleries of the artwork they created on the side. Jim Steg, a Ghost Army veteran, painted portraits of soldiers during the war.

“Over the course of the war, the Nazis regularly stole great masterpieces, an attempt as you know, to consolidate power and crush the human spirit,” said House Speaker Mike Johnson. “But here’s the thing. Just as the enemies of freedom were stealing and destroying the world’s great works of art. Men like Jim Steg were using their God-given talents, creating new works of art, to defeat our enemies and uplift the spirits of their fellow soldiers.”

Operation Viersen was the Ghost Army’s last mission in WWII, carried out by the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. According to the Ghost Army Legacy Project, the objective was, “…to deceive the enemy as to the actual Rhine River crossing area, strength of the crossing and time of crossing.” 

From March 18 to 24, the ghost soldiers simulated a major crossing of the Rhine River, impersonating the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions within assembly areas while the actual divisions assembled in a different area. They used fabricated radio networks, soundtracks of construction work and artillery fire, and more than 600 inflatable vehicles.

Three Ghost Army soldiers were killed in action, with many more injured. The Ghost Army’s legacy continues in today’s Psychological Operations units.

“This is a well-deserved honor for the unsung heroes of the Ghost Army,” said Col. Eric Johnson, the 8th Psychological Operations Group commander. “This year marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day and many people know of the great deeds of the people who stormed the beaches of Normandy, but many do not of the Ghost Army. We trace modern Psychological Operations from them, and we are proud to honor and continue their legacy. Although 80 years have passed, it’s a capability that’s still needed today in modern competition, crisis, and conflict.”

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