A few weeks after D-Day, the 23rd Special Headquarters Troops set off for Europe and, like many units, were supplied with tanks, trucks, and artillery. The only difference was that their vehicles and weapons were inflatable dummies.
The 23rd was a 1,100-man deception unit known as the Ghost Army and was tasked with misleading the Germans about how many troops there were in an area, where troops were located, or what the troops were doing. Within the 23rd, the 603rd Camouflage Engineers were in charge of the visual illusions. They inflated and positioned dummy tanks, trucks, jeeps, airplanes, and artillery and set up fake airfields and bivouacs. The 3132 Signal Company was tasked with audio deception. Supplied with prerecorded sounds of military life, the men played the records over loudspeakers, mixing the different sounds to create the audio illusion of an army on the move, preparing for attack, or whatever effect they wanted. The Signal Company Special practiced their deception over the airwaves, mimicking real radio operators but supplying false information. The 406th Combat Engineers covered security, demolition, and construction and performed tasks like creating fake tank tracks.
But the men of the 23rd not only created deceptions, they also were the deception. They added and removed insignia from their uniforms to masquerade as men from other units and went into towns, hitting the local bars and misleading German informants about which troops were actually in the area. They also painted and repainted their jeeps and trucks to constantly reflect whichever unit they were supposed to be at the time. The 23rd mimicked large convoys of covered army trucks filled with soldiers by having two men sit on the tailgate of the otherwise empty trucks—making it look like the vehicles were full—then looping the same trucks over and over again through an area.
Since creativity was a must for the men of the 23rd, many of them were artists and actors, some recruited right out of art schools. Many of the artistically inclined captured images of the war around them, using whatever they could get a hold of, from pencils to fountain pens to watercolors. Some of the men would have successful artistic careers after the war, including fashion designer Bill Blass, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, music photographer Art Kane, and abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly.
In all, the 23rd completed 21 missions, the most successful of which was Operation Viersen, where they misled the Germans into believing that Allied troops were crossing the Rhine River in a different spot than they actually were, saving thousands of lives. During and after the war, the existence of the Ghost Army was classified, and many of the men were told not to tell anyone what they really did. It wasn’t until 50 years later, in 1996, that the project was finally declassified.
Read more about the Ghost Army on NPR, or listen to an episode of All Things Considered on the topic. You can also visit the website for the Ghost Army documentary to find much more information and to view clips from the film. Find more stories from the war in Fold3′s World War II collection.