The plan sounded like it was hatched in a Hollywood writer's room. It was early 1944, and with victory in the Second World War far from certain, the Army pulled together roughly 1,100 soldiers to form the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a unit poised to have a far greater impact on the battlefield than others several times their size. Once in the European theater, their mission was to tie up as many enemy troops as possible, throw their foe’s ranks into disarray, and help pave the way for an Allied advance into Germany.
Their arsenal was limited — the heaviest weapons at their disposal were .50 caliber machine guns, and nearly every engagement they took part in left them outnumbered, outgunned, and by all accounts outmatched.
Yet the Ghost Army, as it came to be known, prevailed; Not through massive artillery barrages, aerial assaults, or brutal attacks on the enemy lines, but by bamboozling the German military through deception and trickery.
They did it with inflatable tanks — hundreds of them — backed by the sounds of marching troops, down to soldiers shooting the breeze on duty, blasted out from massive loud-speakers, and with messages sent to fake units, with the intent that enemy codebreakers would decipher them.
This is the story of how an army of con artists headed off to war and bluffed their way to victory.
Standing up the Ghost Army
The inspiration for the Ghost Army came from the British military's successful use of deception at the Battle of El-Alamein during the North Africa campaign. There, the Brits leveraged the unorthodox tactics of Jasper Maskelyne, a stage magician turned-soldier.
Maskelyne helped them "disguise their tanks as trucks, and trucks as tanks, and it actually went a long way toward their success," explained Larry Decuers, a former U.S. Army infantryman with the 101st Airborne and a curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The British military’s ingenuity at EL-Alamein greatly impressed American military planners in England, and on Jan. 20, 1944, the U.S. Army began its foray into the world of deception, though not everyone was thrilled at the idea of spending the war shepherding a bunch of creative types around Europe.
"A lot of the old career Army officers, I think even the commander of the unit, wasn't too happy about being given command of this deception outfit when he'd rather just be commanding a line battalion," Decuers told Task & Purpose.
Even the unit’s official history attests to this:
Officers who had once commanded 32-ton tanks felt frustrated and helpless with a battalion of rubber M-4s, 93 pounds fully inflated. The adjustment from man of action to man of wile was most difficult. Few realized at first that one could spend just as much energy pretending to fight as actually fighting.
Designed to be small enough that it could be maneuvered around the theater as needed, the Ghost Army had a big enough footprint that could impersonate a force several times its size.
“They could move the Ghost Army to fill in a lightly defended area in the line — of course, the heaviest thing they had was a .50 cal machine gun, but they can bluff the Germans into thinking ‘there's two divisions here, so we're gonna stay away from that part of the line,” Decuers said.
The Ghost Army at war
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was broken into four units each with a specific role to play in their deception operations.
The first, and perhaps the best known, is the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, which was responsible for creating the inflatable tanks, planes, artillery pieces, and other physical props that “everyone thinks of when they hear the words ‘Ghost Army’” Decuers said.
The idea: Dupe the Germans into thinking you had more armor — and the personnel to maintain and run them — than you really did.
Then there was the 3132 Signal Service Company, experts in sonic deception tasked with producing, and playing, a wide variety of sounds, from troop and vehicle movements, to bits of dialogue between soldiers. If the 603rd formed the skeleton of the Ghost Army, then the deception unit could be considered its muscle and sinew — it made the ploy work.
“They produced a huge library of sound effects,” Decuers said. “They recorded sounds of tanks going uphill, sounds of tanks going downhill — because to a trained observer they can definitely tell the difference. Also, sound effects of soldiers building pontoon bridges, even down to sergeants telling a private to ‘put that cigarette out.’"
"It was a very very wide array of sound effects at their disposal."
The sounds were recorded at Fort Knox, Ky. on transcription disks — which were akin to giant records. However, they’d sometimes skip, so once in theater, the audio was transferred to a wire recorder, a predecessor to magnetic tape, Decuers explained.
"It's also one of the first recorded instances of multi-track recording,” added Decuers. “They would mix the sound effects to the deception they were trying to pull off, and then they would broadcast this over big giant speakers in the back of half-tracks that were about 500 pounds."
It wasn’t enough that they just record and replay these sounds, the sonic unit had to make sure the enemy heard it. To that end, technicians at Bell Labs developed firing tables, like those used for artillery batteries, to allow the Ghost Army to adjust the sound of their broadcasts to reach certain distances, effectively dialing in their audio barrage.
Next came the 406th Combat Engineers Company, who provided physical security for the unit, dug the emplacements for the inflatables, and as the Ghost Army’s deceptions became more elaborate, they got in on the action and helped flesh out the ruse.
"They would make fake division patches, and then these engineer members would wear these fake patches and post [military police officers] at crossroads and go to town, and have drinks and talk loose," Decuers said, explaining that soldiers would intentionally spread misinformation in the hopes German spies and collaborators would be listening.
"It was for the benefit of German agents,” Decuers told Task & Purpose. “That was very common — they left a lot of agents behind, many of which were indigenous people who were working for the Germans."
If the camouflage unit could be considered the bones, the sonic unit the muscle, and the combat engineers, the skin, then Signal Company Special — a second signals unit composed of highly skilled radio and morse code operators — would be the brain.
"They were recruited from units all over the Army, and the requirement was that they be very skilled morse code operators,” Decuers told Task & Purpose. “These guys were so skilled they could study another morse code operator's sending style, and then they could imitate them."
For example, if the company was impersonating an infantry unit, then they would carefully study that division's radio traffic, down to the smallest detail: “How many times they sent transmissions between battalion and regiment, things like that; and then they would copy the operator's sending style," Decuers explained.
The idea was to create a whole network of phony traffic, with the intention of having it intercepted by German forces.
"It's like this big multimedia deception operation, where every contingency was thought of,” Decuers said. “And that's what makes the Ghost Army unique: They were the only unit doing it."
The Ghost Army was so good, sometimes they even hoodwinked their own forces.
"What I find interesting is how they were almost even more successful at deceiving Allied troops than they were the Germans," Decuers said.
"During one of their deceptions, they're playing audio sounds of tanks, and a colonel from an adjacent unit rolls up on them at night and says 'what are all these tanks doing here? Nobody said anything about tanks being here.' And they're like 'Sir, we don't have tanks here,' and he says 'Don't tell me, I know what I hear, those are tanks!'"
Then there was the time a friendly pilot landed on what he thought was an airfield but was in fact just a Ghost Army prop designed to trick enemy scouts.
"They built fake airfields, and had inflatables of these L-5 grasshoppers — artillery spotting aircraft — and a real grasshopper pilot landed at their fake field," Decuers said.
The Ghost Army's greatest success came during Operation Viersen, in which the unit of craftsmen, artisans, and artists, conned the German military into thinking that two divisions — some 30,000 Allied soldiers — were going to cross a particular part of the Rhine river.
And so, the Germans allocated their limited forces to hold a position against just 1,100 men.
"So for this deception, they employed 600 of these inflatable tanks and artillery pieces,” Decuers said. “They used the fake unit patches and bumper markings on their vehicles, and then they employed the sonic deception, the fake radio traffic, and they even created a phony divisional and battalion headquarters in a town."
It was like a symphony of subterfuge and each member of the Ghost Army had a role to play; sonic deception formed the brass section, with pre-recorded sounds of tanks and troops thundering toward the river; signals as the woodwinds, sending misdirection over morse code in a harmony of toots and beeps; the engineers as the percussion, leading with bold decoys, manning fake checkpoints and outposts. And finally, the camouflage unit — the string section of this troupe — with hundreds of inflatable tanks, artillery pieces, trucks, and machinery that had to be tied down so a strong wind wouldn’t blow them away.
"This was the operation that is considered their greatest success,” Decuers said. “So they're impersonating the 30th and 79th Infantry Divisions and they bluffed the Germans into believing they were crossing the Rhine river, and the Germans bit on it."
"The Germans concentrated a lot of their precious forces at that point, and it cleared the way for actual crossings further up or down the river."
In an interview with NPR in May 2019, Gilbert Seltzer, a former Ghost Army soldier recounted the operation:
"The goal was to draw fire away from the real battery to us," Seltzer told NPR. "For instance, when the Rhine [River] was crossed, we were able to get the German army to assemble opposite us, firing at us. And when the actual crossing was made, about 20 miles to our north, there was practically no resistance."
Though the Ghost Army’s primary role was deception, they faced their share of danger and took enemy fire on multiple occasions, though they suffered few losses.
"And as dangerous as this job could have potentially been, they only lost three guys in combat," Decuers said. The Ghost Army soldiers who were killed in combat were Chester ‘Chet’ Pelliccioni, George Peddal, and Thomas Wells.
The legacy of the Ghost Army
From 1944 until the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops served across Europe, from Normandy, France to Belgium, Luxembourg, at the Rhine in Germany, and conducted more than 20 deception operations.
The men who served in the Ghost Army were drawn from across the country, and from all walks of life — some were graduates of prestigious universities, others had left jobs as gas station attendants in small towns. They were painters, writers, sculptors, engineers, and radio operators. Some were career soldiers, others were draftees.
From their ranks came a number of acclaimed artists, from abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, to photographer Art Kane, and fashion designer Bill Blass — who hand-tailored his uniform for a more svelte fit.
They were selected for their skill and creativity, but most of all, because they were unconventional — and utterly unexpected.
"They kind of needed people who could see something before it was actually created, so artists were the people they wanted, I guess because they had a vision of what something could be," said Decuers.
Though kept secret for decades, the Ghost Army's wartime service is one that lends itself to incredible storytelling. It’s been the subject of books, a PBS documentary, and will be the focus of an upcoming World War II drama directed by, and starring, Ben Affleck.
The soldiers themselves were tireless scribes of their own history, and it makes sense, many were artists, observers of life and the human experience — precisely what made them such formidable tricksters.
But when they weren’t doing that, they painted, sketched, and wrote their way across Europe and through the war. Those images, as well as recreations of the Ghost Army’s inflatable tanks and artillery pieces, will be on display until the end of the year at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
“I think one of the most interesting components of the exhibit is the artwork that all of these guys — these were lifelong artists, and they sketched any chance they had,” Decuers said of the National World War II museum’s current collection. “It's probably one of the best-documented unit journeys in the Army if I were to guess.”
The Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II exhibit will remain until Jan. 3, 2021, with the museum planning to produce a virtual tour that will be available sometime in October, for those who can't visit in person.
“They had so many artists, and these guys were so talented. It's kind of interesting to see the war through the point of view of these paintings and sketches and things like that.”
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops is believed to have saved between 15,000 and 30,000 American lives, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Their deceptions were never discovered by the enemies they fooled, and every inch of ground gained through trickery meant that other soldiers were spared from having to take it by force.
The story of Ghost Army is, at its heart, one of service and subterfuge. It’s about a group of extraordinary soldiers who turned, not to their rifles, but their imagination and wit, to help win the day.