The Work Of This Clandestine Army Unit That Used Guile To Fight The Nazis Is Highly Relevant Again

The “Ghost Army” of WWII was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, just as its playbook is being dusted off for future conflicts.

byOliver Parken|
World War II deception unit the "Ghost Army"
Ghost Army Legacy Project


On March 21, 2024, World War II veterans Bernard Bluestein, 100, alongside Seymour Nussenbaum, 100, and John Christman, 99, attended a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. There, the men were given the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress's highest honor, for their involvement with the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — also known as the "Ghost Army" during the war. The awards come at a very relevant time. The incredible feats of deception and distraction by the unit are once again coming into vogue as the U.S. faces a very challenging potential fight in the Pacific. Tactics right out of the Ghost Army's playbook are being dusted off and deployed once again.

The Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the entire Ghost Army — after many decades of campaigning by the families of those who served with the unit, as well as Rick Beyer, an author and filmmaker who directed the 2013 documentary titled “The Ghost Army” — for its unsung wartime role.

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Operating in Europe from the summer of 1944 to the fall of 1945, the Ghost Army was tasked with following the Allied advance through France. Its objective was to fool the Germans about the number of Allied troops moving forward, as well as their whereabouts and operating orders. To do this, the unit put on a "traveling road show," blending visual, sonic, and radio methods of deception; perhaps most famously using inflatable mock tanks and vehicles to hoodwink the enemy.

Men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops pictured with inflatable tanks, jeeps and artillery, date unknown. National World War II Museum

Comprising over 1,000 men, the Ghost Army was made up of four different units — the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special (responsible for visual deception); the Signal Company Special (responsible for radio deception); the 3132 Signal Service Company Special (responsible for sonic deception); and the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special (responsible for overall unit security).

In all, the Ghost Army conducted over 20 large-scale deception campaigns, with the U.S. Army itself accrediting the former's work with saving the lives of between 15,000 and 30,000 men. "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 Army noted many decades after the war.

Origins of the Ghost Army

The creation of the Ghost Army was directly inspired by tactics used by the British against Erwin Rommel in the deserts of Egypt in the fall of 1942. Operation Bertram, conducted in the months leading up to the Second Battle of El Alamein, was designed to conceal preparations for the British and Allied attack to the north, and fool the Germans into thinking that an attack was imminent from the south.

Photograph of the framework of a dummy tank under construction at the Middle East School of Camouflage in the Western Desert, 1942. Cpt. Gerald Leet, British Army

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Ingersoll was the main mastermind behind the Ghost Army, as Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles note in their book, The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery. Having served in North Africa in 1942, Ingersoll found himself stationed in London in the second half of 1943, where he worked alongside British planners on various strategic deception plans. It was in late 1943, according to an unpublished account written by Ingersoll, that the idea for a specific battlefield unit, trained in, and able to execute, deception schemes near the frontlines, first came to him. Ingersoll was aided in fleshing out those plans by his superior, Col. Billy Harris.

Ingersoll, date unknown. The Ghost Army Legacy Project

In order to realize their plan, a go-ahead was needed from higher up the chain of command. U.S. Army Gen. Jacob L. Devers, the top U.S. commander in the European theater at the time, approved the creation of a deception unit in a memo to Washington on Christmas Eve, 1943. It was not long after, on January 20, 1944, that the four-unit Ghost Army was established at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. Three of the four units were placed under the command of Col. Harry L. Reeder at Camp Forrest, while the sonic deception unit was trained at the Army Experimental Station at Pine Camp, upstate New York.

From its early beginnings, the Ghost Army was made up of an eclectic mix of individuals from all walks of life, Beyer and Sayles highlight. For artists and painters in particular, the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special constituted a vibrant environment in which they were able to continue their passion while also contributing something meaningful to the war effort. Yet the 603rd, as well as the Ghost Army more broadly, was made up of men from various backgrounds; including architects, engineers, policemen, accountants, and businessmen. Ultimately, what the Army was looking for were recruits with creative flare as well as ingenuity.

Deception and Trickery At War

Following a three-month training period between January and April 1944, the camouflage, radio, and combat engineering units from Camp Forrest began their journey to England. Based at Stratford-upon-Avon in England's west midlands, they practiced three deceptions called Cabbage, Cheese, and SPAM, from May 29 to June 3. This was the same part of the country where Operation Fortitude, the D-Day deception, was taking place.

It was a few weeks after D-Day, which occurred on June 6, that the work of the Ghost Army in theatre properly began. Its men operated very close to the front lines. While the main action was never far away, men of the Ghost Army were not charged with fighting in the conventional sense; but to use their weapons of visual, sonic, and radio deception to fool the Germans as part of a different form of warfare.

Landing craft and ships unload troops and supplies at Omaha Beach a few days after D-Day. Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie/U.S. National Archives

Prop dummies of various forms, which the Ghost Army had experience making during their training earlier in 1944, were crafted to create the illusion of additional mass. Inflatable mock tanks, armored vehicles, and even aircraft were blown up under the cover of darkness, as were improvised dummy artillery pieces, which were painted to look as authentic as possible.

Various dummy vehicles created by the Ghost Army. Beyer and Sayles, The Ghost Army of World War II
Improvised artillery. Beyer and Sayles, The Ghost Army of World War II

Bernie Bluestein, who served as part of the 379 man-strong 603rd, remembered constructing mock trucks and planes out of wood, which were "imperfectly camouflaged" in order to attract the attention of enemy aerial scouts. "They [all] looked so real."

Bernie Bluestein pictured during the war. The Ghost Army Legacy Project
Inflatable rubber airplane. Beyer and Sayles, The Ghost Army of World War II
The Ghost Army of World War II

Ensuring that these inflatable props were properly executed visually was a crucial part of the deception, because, as Beyer and Sayles indicate in The Ghost Army of World War II, the smallest of inaccuracies could have been spotted by enemy scouts, causing the rouse to collapse.

On top of the visual components, audible trickery was used, too. The 145 men of the 3132 Signal Service Company Special would play sound effects, typically recordings made of troops moving and conducting drills, which were blasted from powerful speakers mounted on armored vehicles. These were often played at night, and when enemy observation posts couldn't be seen, but could be heard.

Speakers used by the 3132 Signal Service Company Special. Beyer and Sayles, The Ghost Army of World War II

Extensive research between Ghost Army technicians and experts from Bell Laboratories in the early part of 1944 resulted in the recordings being captured, Beyer and Sayles note. The level of detail that went into recording the sounds accurately was significant. Bell engineers developed a method by which microphones, located at the center of a circle, recorded the noises made by continuously moving vehicles to avoid sound pitch drops; which could potentially give away the deception due to the scientific principle known as the Dopler effect.

When it came to actually broadcasting the sounds in Europe, other factors had to be accounted for which could impact the sounds, including wind speed and direction.

In addition, so-called "spoof radio" was performed by the roughly 266 men of the un-numbered The Signal Company Special. Their work typically involved impersonating enemy radio operators and sending false transmissions as well as Morse code signals to German units. They also worked to intercept genuine German radio transmissions, aiding in the Ghost Army's ability to assess the impact of its work.

Radio deception involved creating phony radio networks to fool German intelligence officers listening in on American frequencies. Most of the transmissions were in Morse Code. The Signal Company, Special was the radio deception arm of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. SGT Stanley Nance was a high-speed radio operator, who named his truck "Kilowatt Kommand." The Ghost Army Legacy Project

Overall security for the Ghost Army was provided by 168 men from the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special. They also aided in construction and demolition work, and helped in visual deception by using bulldozers to simulate tank tracks.

While these visual and sonic tricks were used to great effect, it wasn't the only means by which the Ghost Army was able to deceive the enemy. Moving through the French villages, until recently occupied by the Germans, it became apparent to the men in the unit that there was opportunity to fool Nazi spies and collaborators with what became known as "special effects" or "atmosphere."

Essentially, this meant actually impersonating other U.S. divisions, with members of the Ghost Army showing up to specific locales in order to again give a false sense of troops' whereabouts and intentions. Men would don patches belonging to the division they were impersonating, and put division markings on their vehicles. Fake command posts brimming with "officers" were established. Moreover, Ghost Army personnel would frequent local French cafes, bars, and brothels in order to spin false stories for spies and collaborators to overhear. What's more, Ghost Army lieutenants and captains would often impersonate U.S. Army colonels and generals in order to maximize the impact of the deception.

Special effects. The Ghost Army Legacy Project
Fake operational headquarters. The Ghost Army Legacy Project

While having a fair amount of license in performing these sorts of roles, secrecy was critical. "Not only did we have to deceive the enemy, but we also had to deceive our own people, so they wouldn't spread the word," according to retired Maj. Gen. George Rebh, a captain with the 406th, Beyer and Sayles state in their book.

Of all the Ghost Army's deceptions during the war, its "last... was fortunately [its] best," the Ghost Army Legacy Project notes. Operation Viersen of March 1945 saw it impersonating two whole divisions, equal to around 40,000 soldiers, in order to fool the Germans that the U.S. Ninth Army would cross the Rhine ten miles south of the actual crossing place. Over 600 dummy vehicles were inflated for the task, while false radio signals and troop simulation sounds were broadcasted; allowing the Ninth to cross into Germany with little active resistance.

Post-War History and Legacy of the Ghost Army

In July 1945, the Ghost Army returned to the U.S. and, following the Japanese surrender on September 2, it was deactivated on September 15.

During the war, the highly secretive nature of the unit's work — both within the Army and amongst the families of those within it — meant that public knowledge about its wartime exploits was little known. This remained the case for decades afterward. It was not until the 1980s that public awareness of the unit began to increase, following the publication of a 1985 Smithsonian article on its history. It was only in 1996, moreover, that the U.S. government declassified the unit’s official history. From then onwards, a concerted effort to raise awareness of the Ghost Army intensified — leading to President Biden's signing off on awarding it the Congressional Gold Medal in 2022.

Men from Company D of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the unit that handled visual deception for the 23rd. The Ghost Army Legacy Project

While official recognition of the unit has been a long time coming, the sorts of work it performed went on to be used by the U.S. military into the latter twentieth- and twenty-first centuries.

Aspects of the Ghost Army's sonic deception work can be seen within U.S. military psychological warfare campaigns during the Vietnam War; although this had a more specific focus on undermining enemy morale, rather than fooling them about troop numbers and movements.

Moreover, during psychological warfare campaigns against ISIS in the Middle East, strange noises — including blasting crying sounds, recording of troops pretending to retreat, and other confusing audio — were blasted through sound equipment by the U.S. military to confuse and unsettle the enemy.

Deception tactics, notably visual forms of deception, are still being used, if not explored, by present-day militaries. In fact, these types of tactics are entering into a kind of renaissance within the U.S. military due to challenges the services could face during a conflict with China in the Pacific.

For the Air Force, being able to deceive opponents via the concealment of its forces and other deception methods similar to those used by the Ghost Army could well be as important as physical defenses during such a conflict. You can read all about this here. Larger joint efforts to develop and deploy similar tactics are underway, and parts of the U.S. military's 2025 Fiscal Year budget request reflects that, with much of the work being classified.

A budget line item regarding deception. DoD document

In the ongoing war in Ukraine, we have seen the extensive deployment of battlefield decoys. As we've noted previously, modern decoys and training mockups can have very high degrees of fidelity, including in how they might appear to various sensor systems.

Some of the same tried and true tactics that the Ghost Army put into play the better part of a century ago will be combined with new forms of guile. These include advanced electronic warfare capabilities that make entire armadas and formations appear where they are not to multiple enemy sensor systems. Cyber warfare will also be a key component of this. When all these tactics are coordinated in a real-time manner, the tactical case being portrayed becomes extremely compelling to an enemy. Indeed, the enemy's belief in their own eyes and ears could end up costing them dearly.

So while the work of the Ghost Army itself ended many decades ago on the battlefields of World War II Europe, the types of deception it perfected remain just as relevant today.

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