Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Ghost Army

World War II was a blend of strategies, battlefronts, and brave and warring men and women. Innumerable pages fill books about these individuals, but a group of creative and artistic men who participated in World War II recently captured my attention. These crews, known as the Ghost Army were not soldiers trained with assault weapons; instead they were actors and artists who successfully fought in World War II with an entirely different set of war tactics. Known by the Army as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, this 1,100-man Ghost Army started into action in June 1944 near Normandy. Their top-secret assignment was to use deception, trickery, and bluffs to save lives during World War II.

To accomplish this the Ghost Army set up their props from Normandy to the Rhine, staging twenty different battle deceptions while impersonating U.S. Army units in order to mislead the enemy. To accomplish this they used inflatable tanks, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes as well as giant speakers that broadcast sounds of artillery, troops, and fake radio transmissions. The author, Rick Beyer, stated that the Ghost Army traversed “the European Theater to put on a traveling road show of deception, two nights here, and a week there, with the German Army as their audience."

The camouflage engineers of the Ghost Army were responsible for the visual deceptions. Air compressors were used to inflate pump-up tanks, cannons, airplanes, trucks, and jeeps. After these were deflated they were hidden so they could not to be detected by air. The camouflage engineers from the Ghost Army could create dummy airfields, artillery batteries, motor pools, and tank formations within just a few hours. They also generated fake troop bivouacs that even included phony laundry hanging out on the line to dry.

The Ghost Troops also did some play-acting to mislead their enemies. At times their illusions involved driving trucks in looping convoys with just two men in the seats near the tailgate; this simulated a truck full of infantry under the canvas cover. Recorded sounds being played from the covered back of the vehicle assisted with the illusion of a full vehicle. Actors also posed as military police and were deployed at cross roads wearing appropriate divisional emblems. A few of the “ghost officers” simulated staff officers and generals, and visited towns where the enemy would be likely to see them. At times, actual artillery pieces and tanks were assigned to the Ghost Unit to make the imitations seem more realistic to the enemy from a distance.

The Ghost experts in sonic deception worked with engineers at Bell Laboratories. Before heading to Europe, this team went to Fort Knox and recorded sounds of armored and infantry troops. Sounds were recorded on state-of-the-art wire recorders, the forerunner of tape recorders. Once in Europe, these pre-recorded sounds were mixed to match the deception the Ghost Army was trying to make the enemy believe. On the battlefield, the sounds were blasted from huge amplifiers and speakers attached to half-tracks. These bogus sounds of battle could be heard fifteen miles away.

The United States Army gathered their Ghost Troops from the world of talented artists and actors. These men literally painted, sketched and acted their way across Europe during the war. The Ghost Army landed in France a few weeks after D-Day and ‘fought’ until the war ended. They staged over twenty battlefield deceptions and were usually functioning near the front lines.

Their first mission in France was to simulate a fake Mulberry Harbor at night using lights to entice German fire away from the actual troops. Next they assisted in confusing the German troops at Brest. Using speakers and pre-recorded sounds, the Ghost Army led the opposing forces to believe there were approximately 30,000 men nearby waiting to attack; far more than were actually there.

Members of the Ghost Army were talented artists previous to the beginning of World War II. Many of them spent their downtime while on the front lines, filling notebooks and journals with drawings of their surroundings, each other and their deceptions. After the war ended, the Ghost Soldiers continued in their chosen fields of artistic endeavors. A few recognizable names from the Ghost Army include: clothing designer, Bill Blass; sculptor Ellsworth Kelly; and wildlife artist Arthur Singer.


  1. My favorite one yet Lana!!!

  2. Thanks Nate! It is a side of World War II that I had never heard of until recently.

  3. Lana,
    Thanks for posting this. My Father was in this unit, the 3132 signal service company. I live about a mile from Fort Monmouth where they trained, and on one visit he asked me to drive over so he could look around. Bell Labs Holmdel is about 5 miles from here. Not all the Special Troops were artists, my father was drafted, but the unit was looking for soldiers with high IQ's so he was in. He never told us much about the unit, other than he served with Bill Blass. Once we were watching "Battle of the Bulge", during the scene where the German commandos are dressed as MPs he started laughing as said "That's exactly how it was." I only recently realized he was identifying with the "fake" MPs!

  4. Thanks for the post.You can learn more about this story at, the official website of an upcoming PBS documentary.