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How the 'ghost army' without a single weapon used their creativity to deceive the Nazis in WW-II

The secret weapon used by America in World War II finally gets its contribution recognized in the form of the Congressional Gold Medal.

How the 'ghost army' without a single weapon used their creativity to deceive the Nazis in WW-II
Image Source: The Ghost Army Legacy Project

It is impossible to ever fully be able to comprehend the impact of World War II. People can come up with their own analysis, but every country involved in it will keep the secrets associated with that time close to their hearts. This has led to many unsung heroes, whose contributions might never come to light. Ghost Army, was one such body whose part in the war was kept hidden from the world until almost three decades ago, as per Smithsonian Magazine. This unique group caused huge havoc for Germany in the war, helping the real military achieve their objectives. Today, a handful of the people in this group survive, but they have again entered the conversation thanks to the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed upon them by the government. 

Image Source: WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) presents the Congressional Gold Medal to veteran of the Ghost Army Bernie Bluestein as fellow Ghost Army veteran Seymour Nussenbaum attends the event during a presentation ceremony at the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center on March 21, 2024 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Congressional Gold Medal ceremony was held to honor the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Image Source: WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 21: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) presents the Congressional Gold Medal to veteran of the Ghost Army Bernie Bluestein as fellow Ghost Army veteran Seymour Nussenbaum attends the event during a presentation ceremony at the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center on March 21, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Congressional Gold Medal ceremony was held to honor the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The idea was put forward by London-based U.S. Army planners Billy Harris and Ralph Ingersoll. They were inspired by the strategy utilized by the British troops who fought Erwin Rommel, a German field marshal nicknamed the “Desert Fox,” in Egypt in fall 1942. The troops disguised tanks, weapons, and supplies as trucks, confusing the enemy about the attack. In order to make the camouflage genuine to the t, the four-unit "Ghost Army" employed artists, architects, set designers, painters, engineers, and other highly skilled creatives. 

(Original Caption)
(Original Caption) "Captured" Photo of General Rommel. Libya: This photograph, found on a German prisoner, shows General Erwin Rommel, Commander of the German North Africa Corps, seated atop a reconnaissance car chatting with some of his officers. Military observers in London today nominated Rommel as one of the ten best generals produced in 30 months of conflict throughout the world. (Passed by British censor).

Captain Fred Fox in the official history of the 23rd shared his thoughts about the group, “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.” Similar to the British troops, this group also pretended to be an army unit, with the objective of making enemies invest their resources towards them instead of against the real deal. Despite its "theatrical" nature it was important to have smart individuals on this team. Confusing the enemy requires a lot of care to detail, as one mistake could hurt their ego and invite a brutal attack. Therefore, the men collected in the group had an average IQ of 119—one of the highest in the Army, according to the National WWII Museum

Image Source: Ghost Army Legacy/
Image Source: Ghost Army Legacy

Ghost Army veteran George Dramis explained the process. “The idea was that we’re going to create a little unit of about 1,000 men or so, and we’re going to try to pretend we are a much larger unit,” Dramis says. “We were going to fake [out] the Germans … while the true divisions pulled out of the line and moved north or south of the position to attack. We would hold that position with just a few men. It was dangerous work because we didn’t have the firepower to withstand a frontal attack.”

Image Source: Ghost Army Legacy
Image Source: Ghost Army Legacy

“This is a unit that used creativity and illusion to save lives and help win the war. That’s something highly worthy of honor,” says Rick Beyer, producer of the 2013 documentary "The Ghost Army" and president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project. “It was a crazy idea applied in a challenging situation.” Just because they were 'pretending' to fight does not mean the ordeal was in any way easy for the men in the group. “The adjustment from man of action to man of wile was most difficult,” noted Fox in his history of the unit. “Few realized at first that one could spend just as much energy pretending to fight as actually fighting.” 

Image Source: The Ghost Army Legacy Project (Ground shot of dummy tanks set up for Operation VIersen.)
Image Source: The Ghost Army Legacy Project (Ground shot of dummy tanks set up for Operation VIersen.)

As soon as the group reached the location, they began work on their 93-pound, inflatable tanks, dummy planes, and many more fake equipment, sometimes straight from the wood. The men took care of every detail and also mingled with the locals to communicate that they were the real troops. Gerry Souter, co-author of "The Ghost Army: Conning the Third Reich" alongside his wife, Janet shared that the work was so secretive that the men were not even allowed to share the specifics with their family. None of the soldiers outside the unit knew about their existence.


 
 
 
 
 
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Operation Viersen, the group's last deceptive effort was also their most successful. The group pretended to be a division about to cross the Rhine River ten miles south of its actual crossing point. Their 600 dummy tanks did the trick and the enemy sent all their resources toward them while the real division easily entered Germany. The achievements of this group were under wrap for decades with many renetering civilian life, before finally being de-classified in 1996. 

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