The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was a World War II unit with a pretty unique job. While they weren’t spies, they were tasked with deceiving German troops, oftentimes using cardboard and other scraps they could get their hands on.
The 1,100-man unit, including many Jewish-American soldiers, mostly came from art backgrounds. They had been artists, architects, actors, set designers… really anything that involved creativity. Because their job was to ‘act’ like a different unit in order to fool the Nazis.
The Ghost Army
The United States got the idea for the Ghost Army by watching British soldiers in the Battle of El Alamein. Using dummies, camouflage and other deception tactics, the British Army fooled the Germans into believing that they had an extra armored division, and were attacking from a completely different direction. It led to a sound victory in battle.
The Ghost Army started in Tennessee, moved to a base in New York, and then overseas to Britain. Eventually they traveled east to Luxembourg where they worked along the Maginot Line, Hurtgen Forest, Ruhr River and the Rhine River. Their main goal was to masquerade as a battle unit, and draw German troops away from the real ones.
How it Worked
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops had several main wings that made them so successful.
- The 603rd Camouflage Engineers, who were masters of visual deception
- The 406th Combat Engineers, who acted as security
- The 3132 Signal Service Company Special, who handled radio and audio duplicity
Bernie Bluestein, a member of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, was poached from art school by Army recruiters.
“Usually when you get inducted they throw you into the infantry, they give you the gun and they say, ‘Okay, go out there and shoot the enemy and let him shoot at you,’” Bluestein said in an article by Forward. “I wasn’t looking for that type of an activity.”
Instead, he was transferred from field artillery to the Ghost Army, where he could use his talents to help win the war.
Bluestein is now 95. He mostly remembers wanting the war to be done with so he could get back to his life as a designer. And when he did return to the civilian world, he couldn’t talk about what he did — it was classified information.
But the Ghost Army worked because of artists like Bluestein who were good at what they did. And all these years later, he has found a way to take pride in it.
“We never thought much about it when we did it, but I guess as I got older I came to the realization that we did have a purpose there. We staked our lives to save the lives of other soldiers, the real soldiers.”
Did they really use cardboard?
They started off building wooden props, but when that took too long, the Army partnered with rubber companies to make inflatable ones. These could be inflated by air compressors, though sometimes they would have to be manually inflated if something went wrong.
The Ghost Army used anything they could find to dupe the Germans. This included pre-made dummies, fake laundry, and even cardboard that they painted to look like real war supplies.
The men would go to work to make fake airfields, tank formations and military camps in a matter of hours. Someone flying above would see the giant inflated aircraft and think they’d spotted a secret American base. And someone passing by would hear the sound of artillery – usually broadcast by the Ghost Army’s speakers – and think there was 30,000 American soldiers just around the corner.
Not only did they use fake recordings, but Ghost Army radio operators would regularly send out transmissions, mimicking the Morse Code from real units to be believable.
The Legacy of the Ghost Army
In 2013, director Rick Beyer made a documentary entitled The Ghost Army. It depicts footage from the time, and many members of the unit who share their experiences.
Before that, most people didn’t know the Ghost Army – or anything like it – ever existed. The Wall Street Journal critic Dorothy Rabinowitz said: “The unit’s work was top secret, its members’ experiences, recounted in this film, fascinating above all for what they tell about the determined inventiveness, the all-out ambition to try everything, characteristic of that war effort.”
Currently, Universal Pictures is working with Ben Affleck to produce a movie based on the documentary, and what the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops went through nearly 80 years ago.
While it was kept under wraps for so long, the Ghost Army’s legacy will live on, made possible by artists like Bluestein who pioneered a new way to win wars.
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