New Hampshire Representative Ann McLane Kuster has introduced a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the “Ghost Army.” During World War II, the Ghost Army diverted enemy attention by deploying inflatable military vehicles and using radio trickery and other deceptive tactics.
Their contributions remained classified for more than four decades, but they’re getting more attention now. For more on the Ghost Army, we turn to Rick Beyer. He’s the author of The Ghost Army of World War II along with Elizabeth Sayles. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.
The Ghost Army is known more for trickery than it is for hand-to-hand combat. What are some of the cleverest deceptive tactics they used to help the Allies win World War II?
The mission of the Ghost Army, which was officially called the 23rd Headquarters Troops, was to basically pretend to be other, much larger Army units, to fool the Germans about the location and size of those units. So they had all sorts of tricks up their sleeve. They had inflatable tanks, trucks and artillery to fool enemy air reconnaissance. They had sound tricks so they could make it sound like columns of trucks and soldiers and tanks were moving in at night. They had fake radio. And they also had “special effects,” so they set up phony headquarters, they wore patches of the units they were impersonating, so that all of these messages would tell the enemy who might be listening in on the radio, watching, or having their spies there, who said the 75th Infantry Division was there, when in fact it was somewhere else 10 miles away.
How did the military realize it needed the Ghost Army?
US Army planners in London were working on trying to give the Americans every advantage they could. They saw what the British had done with deceptions in North Africa, with the D-Day deception about trying to fool the Germans about where the D-Day landings would take place. And they came up with the idea that if they could come up with a mobile deception unit that could be used over and over again it might give them an advantage. You know, it’s interesting, because General Eisenhower, who commanded the American forces in Europe during the fighting in 1944 and 1945, never felt like he had enough men. He always felt like he was suffering a manpower shortage. The Ghost Army was kind of a little stopgap for that. If you didn’t have enough troops to send to hold a certain part of the line, maybe you could send the Ghost Army, and they could hold it until the real troops got there.
Did these deceptive tactics work?
They did 21 different deceptions and we have evidence that a few of them worked really well. They certainly held 50 miles of the line for General George Patton in September 1944, and they helped deceive the enemy about a crossing of the Rhine River by the 9th Army in March of 1945 and those ones we know certainly were quite successful, and probably some of the other ones were, too. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether the enemy was fooled or not because the records didn’t all survive. But we do know that the Germans never discovered that there was a deception unit operating against them.
Were there any Ghost Army casualties?
Because they were operating so close to the front, there were three Ghost Army soldiers killed, about 20 or 30 of them wounded at various times. So this is kind of a funny story in some ways but it really was dangerous business that they were involved in.
Who were the Ghost Army members?
All kinds of different soldiers were in the Ghost Army. To handle visual deception, the Army recruited artists, young art students from art schools in New York and Philadelphia and elsewhere. Some of them went on to become famous, people like Bill Blass and Ellsworth Kelly. One of them was a New Hampshire man, Mickey McKane, who ended up becoming a Staff Sergeant in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. And there were all sorts of other people involved, it wasn’t just artists. It was people from all walks of life who were recruited as well into these units. And for the radio unit, they had very highly-trained radio operators for the sound unit. They recruited engineers, people who had worked in communications companies. So you have this mix of technically highly-trained people, kind of regular coal miners, bar tenders, policemen, etc. All working together to pull off these deceptions.
Tell us more about Mickey McKane.
He was working in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. And they’re the people who are inflating the tanks and trucks, often doing this at night, sometimes right near the front lines. Think about how scary that is. You’re not working with real weapons, but fake weapons, fairly close to where the Germans are, and worrying that they may attack you at any time if they figure out what you’re doing wrong. He was also involved in the special effects, where they’re physically impersonating members of other American units and trying to be actors and pretend they’re in another division. So Mickey was very involved in that as well.
Where would we be, historically speaking, were it not for the Ghost Army?
I don’t think the Ghost Army won World War II single-handed. I think we would’ve won pretty much the same way without them. I think their legacy is in lives saved. Probably they saved thousands of lives by fooling the enemy about where a battle would take place and giving American soldiers an extra advantage. And I think that legacy is summed up by what one soldier said, which was: “If one mother or one new bride was spared the agony of having to put a gold star in their front window, that’s what the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was all about.”