How the Ghost Army of WWII Used Art to Deceive the Nazis
Unsung for decades, the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops drew on visual, sonic and radio deception to misdirect the Germans
Bernie Bluestein was 19 years old when he spotted a vaguely worded notice on the bulletin board at his Cleveland art college in March 1943. It was the middle of World War II, and the United States Army was seeking recruits for a new, non-combat camouflage unit that would draw on the art of deception to misdirect the enemy.
All for serving his country but not exactly the “fighter-type person,” Bluestein enlisted in the enigmatic unit. He didn’t know it at the time, but the assignment would prove riskier than most non-combat roles: If the Nazis found out that members of the so-called “Ghost Army” were playing them for fools, they were likely to retaliate brutally.
“If I had known that before I got into the service, I probably would have made a different decision,” says Bluestein, now 98. A resident of Schaumburg, Illinois, he remains an avid artist, making everything from paintings to ceramics.
Known formally as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the unit carried out more than 20 deception campaigns during the final year of the war. Drawing on members’ artistic talent and technological savvy, the Ghost Army created elaborate illusions featuring inflatable tanks, jeeps and artillery; speakers that blasted prerecorded tracks of troops in action; and falsified radio dispatches. Their goal: to confuse and intimidate the Germans by offering a false sense of the Americans’ numbers and troop movements.
In total, the 23rd saved the lives of an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 American servicemen. Their successful missions included D-Day and Operation Viersen, a March 1945 hoax that convinced the Germans their enemies were planning to cross the Rhine River far north of where they actually attacked. Though the unit’s numbers were limited—it comprised 1,023 men and 82 officers—the soldiers’ visual, sonic and radio deceptions managed to convince the Germans that they faced enemy forces of up to 40,000 men.
Despite the Ghost Army’s pivotal role in the Allied victory, few outside of the unit knew of its existence until decades after the war. Smithsonian magazine published the first feature-length, public account of the group’s exploits in April 1985; veteran Arthur Shilstone illustrated the article and offered firsthand testimony of his wartime experiences. The U.S. government declassified the unit’s official history around that same time, according to the Ghost Army Legacy Project, but soon reclassified the records and kept them under wraps until 1996.
Seventy-seven years after the war’s end, the men who served in the Ghost Army—no more than ten of whom are known to still be alive—have received one of the nation’s highest honors: the Congressional Gold Medal. In February, President Joe Biden signed a bill granting the award to the unit for its “unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations.”
“My mouth was wide open,” says Bluestein of the recognition. “It’s a thrill to have that honor. If you ask most of us, we never thought much about what we did. We did what we had to do in the war … and that was it.”
Comprising artists, architects, set designers, painters, engineers and other highly skilled creatives, the four-unit Ghost Army—the first of its kind in American history—was activated on January 20, 1944. (A separate, sonic-only unit called the 3133rd Signal Service Company operated in Italy.) It was inspired by the British troops who fought Erwin Rommel, a German field marshal nicknamed the “Desert Fox,” in Egypt in fall 1942. To trick the Germans, the British disguised tanks, weapons and supplies as trucks, masking the army’s progress and convincing the enemy that the attack would come from the south, not the north, two or three days later than actually planned.
The brainchild of London-based U.S. Army planners Billy Harris and Ralph Ingersoll, the Ghost Army “was more theatrical than military,” wrote Captain Fred Fox in the official history of the 23rd. “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.” Led by Colonel Harry L. Reeder, the unit included graduates of West Point and former Army Specialized Training Program participants; the men’s average IQ was 119—one of the highest in the Army, according to the National WWII Museum, which debuted a traveling exhibition on the Ghost Army in 2020.
“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.”
After arriving in Europe in the summer of 1944, the Ghost Army immediately got to work. “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.”
Members of the 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion division created 93-pound, inflatable tanks that looked like the real thing from thousands of feet in the air. Blown up under cover of darkness, these dummy tanks and assorted inflatables featured painted details that lent the ruse an air of authenticity. The 3132 Signal Service Company and Signal Company Special supplemented the illusion with recordings of training exercises and construction, as well as radio messages that skillfully mimicked the styles of other units. The fourth and final unit in the 23rd, the 406th Engineer Combat Company Special, provided perimeter security and helped with construction and demolition.
“It really did make a dent in the German planning,” says Gerry Souter, co-author of The Ghost Army: Conning the Third Reich alongside his wife, Janet. “It kept them confused. It kept them off balance.”
Janet adds, “[The Germans] fell for it terrifically. They saw groups of tanks, and they heard people marching back and forth at night. They were so convinced that they sent over their jet plane bombers and fighters.”
Bluestein recalls learning how to construct dummy planes and trucks out of wood, which was then covered in burlap and “imperfectly camouflaged” with paint to attract the attention of enemy aerial scouts, per the Ghost Army Legacy Project.
“They looked so real,” he says. “[But] the equipment was just part of it. We circulated in the saloons and everywhere we could go into town at dusk, letting [locals] know that we were the real troops. … The tanks were just part of the visual effect.”
According to Gerry, the Ghost Army’s work was so secretive that none of the men in the unit spoke about it to their friends and family. Even their wives had only a vague idea of their husbands’ daily work overseas. Soldiers outside of the 23rd had no idea of the unit’s existence; when the men were off duty, they camouflaged themselves as members of other divisions by wearing fake badges and painting different insignias on their vehicles. In reading the men’s letters, says Janet, you can sense their loneliness and isolation.
“It is too bad I can’t tell you about the places I’ve seen—I hope I’ll be able to remember it all after I get home. Probably I will, bit by bit,” wrote Sergeant Harold J. Dahl in a September 3, 1944, missive to his family.
Ghost Army veteran George Dramis—a native of Ashtabula, Ohio, who was drafted in 1942 at age 18—remembers “roughing it” most of the time, sleeping outside and often lacking adequate supplies.
“It was just a wild and woolly period of time, but it was very interesting,” says Dramis, now 97. “I could hear fighting all the time—bullets whizzing by.”
After getting drafted, Dramis took a Morse code test and was selected for the Signal Company Special radio team. He took part in the Normandy landings on D-Day and a deception campaign conducted ahead of the Battle for Brest in August and September 1944. In addition to sending fake radio transmissions, Dramis and his comrades intercepted German radio signals.
“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.”
Often operating within a few hundred yards of front lines across the Western Front, the Ghost Army may not have been directly involved in combat, but their work required much courage. All of the men carried a weapon—mostly carbines, or short-barreled rifles—but they lacked the heavy arms of combat units, leaving them vulnerable. Three members of the 23rd were killed in action, and around 30 were wounded by artillery fire.
“It’s a special kind of bravery,” Beyer says. “That’s a pretty nervy thing to do.”
Gerry adds, “[E]ventually they learned how to be a soldier, and how to be an effective soldier. They had to learn how to deal with something completely different.”
Per the Army’s official history, the 23rd’s “last deceptive effort of the war was fortunately [its] best.” Dubbed Operation Viersen, the March 1945 mission found the Ghost Army impersonating two entire divisions—around 40,000 soldiers—in an attempt to convince the enemy the U.S. Ninth Army would cross the Rhine River ten miles south of its actual crossing point. The men inflated more than 600 dummy vehicles, transmitted false radio dispatches and blared simulated sounds of soldiers building pontoon boats, enabling the Ninth to enter Germany with little resistance. The unit returned to the U.S. in July and was deactivated on September 15, after the Japanese surrender.
At the end of the war, according to the Souters’ book, the Ghost Army’s deception equipment was recycled for use in the Army’s aggressor force training program, which created a hypothetical enemy for troops practicing fighting. None of the inflatable tanks are known to survive today, but the techniques pioneered by the unit have had a lasting influence on modern military tactics.
As for the men who served, some remained in the military after the war. But most returned to civilian life, still guarding the top-secret details of their wartime campaigns. Bluestein went back to school in Cleveland, became an industrial designer and settled in the Chicago area. Dramis was married for 75 years and eventually moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, to be near family. Other veterans found fame in creative fields: Notable alumni of the Ghost Army include fashion designer Bill Blass, artist Ellsworth Kelly and photographer Art Kane.
The Ghost Army may have been a small unit, but it made a big impact on the war’s success, Beyer and other historians argue.
“Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign,” declared a classified Army report released 30 years after the war.
The creativity and ingenuity of the Ghost Army undoubtedly contributed to the Allied victory, Beyer says.
“They’re worthy of hearing about,” he adds. “What they did is a real lesson in that war isn’t always about [charging] the hill. ... Sometimes, it’s about doing something smart and clever …. that will result in fewer deaths.
Beyer concludes, “Imagination and thoughtfulness can result in people [not having] to lose their lives.”