During World War II, the United States Army formed a very unique and interesting unit called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, otherwise known as the Ghost Army. No, the US Army did not grab an ouija board to summon the fallen and re-recruit them (as far as we know, at least). This unit held an important mission in the Normandy Landings. Their main weapon? An inflatable tank and a whole lot of wild imagination. We’re not joking.
Before the Invasion
Before the Allied forces rushed to the coast of Normandy, the US Army recruited a total of 1,100 people from art schools, advertising agencies, and other fields of work that foster creative thinking. They were artists, architects, actors, set designers, and engineers. They assembled the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops with the main purpose of misleading, deceiving, and befuddling the German Army. They were equipped with dummy tanks and artillery, fake aircraft, and giant speakers to broadcast the sounds of men and artillery to trick the Germans into thinking it was upwards of a two-division 30,000-man force. Above all, the mission was classified and remained so for 40 years until it was revealed to the public in 1996.
This course of action was inspired by the deception technique that the British did in the battle of El Alamein in late 1942 called Operation Bertram.
On June 6, 1944, exactly on the first day of the D-Day Invasion, the First Army landed and engaged with the German forces on the coast of Normandy. The Ghost Army started their work in the background. Their tasks were divided by their combat units depending on the type of deception they were assigned to do: sonic deception, radio deception, visual deception, and the collective atmosphere.
3132 Signal Service Company Special
This unit was responsible for the sound deception. Led by Col. Hilton Railey, the journalist who recruited Amelia Earhart to fly across the Atlantic. As written by The Ghost Army Website:
With the help of engineers from Bell Labs, the men of the 3132nd painstakingly recorded sounds of armored and infantry units onto a series of sound effects records that they brought to Europe. For each deception, sounds could be mixed to match the scenario they wanted the enemy to believe. This program was recorded on state of the art wire recorders (the predecessor to the tape recorder) and then played back with powerful amplifiers and speakers mounted on halftracks. The sounds they played could be heard 15 miles away.
Lt. John Walker of the 3132 Signal Service Company said, “We could go in at night and crank the speakers up out of the back of the half-track, and play a program to the enemy all night, of us bringing equipment into the scene. And we could make them believe that we were coming in with an armored division.”
They handled the “spoof radio” where they made phony traffic nets, impersonating radio operators from real units. They even applied Morse Code to mimick the operator’s method to make the enemies think they were still there even though its radio operator was long gone.
603rd Camouflage Engineers
Equipped with inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes, the unit would pump them up with air compressors, and then “camouflage” them imperfectly so that enemy air reconnaissance could see them and made them think that the Allies were plainly doing a lousy job at the whole camouflaging thing. They could create dummy airfields, motor pools, artillery batteries, and tank formations within a couple of hours. There were even fake laundry hanging on clotheslines to make the setup extremely convincing.
The majority of the people in this unit were from art schools in New York and Philadelphia.
406th Combat Engineers
To complete the whole makeup scenario, they added theatrical effects and called them “atmosphere.” They would simulate actual units that were really elsewhere by painting their insignia on vehicles as if they were regimental headquarters units. They would drive trucks and lories in circles to simulate long convoys, where in reality, this was just a two-person job. They would also send people in towns while wearing specific divisional generals and staff officers’ uniforms where enemy scouts might be. Occasionally, they would send some real tanks and artillery to make the inflatables in the distance look real.
All in all, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops faked 20 battlefield scenarios.
Recognizing Their Service
Just last February 1, 2022, President Biden signed the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act. It states:
S. 1404, the “Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act,” which provides for the award of a Congressional Gold Medal to the “Ghost Army,” in recognition of their unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations in Europe during World War II.
Thank you to Representative Kuster and Senators Markey, Portman, Blumenthal, Collins, and many others for their leadership.
All the world’s a stage, including the warzone, and they proved to be great actors and actresses.