In A Nutshell
During World War II, the Ghost Army was a special unit created by the United States military. This band of artists used costumes, sound recordings, and inflatable tanks to keep the Nazis on their toes. By the end of the war, the Ghost Army had saved between 15,000 and 30,000 American lives.
The Whole Bushel
The members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops weren’t your typical G.I. Joes. Instead of M1s and Thompsons, they were armed with props, state-of-the-art recording equipment, and big rubber inflatables. Strangest of all, they were a major military secret. Almost no one knew they existed, and the few who did referred to them as the Ghost Army. While the men of the 23rd were very much alive, they were incredibly sneaky, and most importantly, they were all highly skilled artists.
The Ghost Army was made up of 1,100 painters, actors, and sound technicians, all of them recruited from northeastern art schools. They were an unlikely bunch to go against Hitler, but their goal wasn’t to kill the enemy. The Ghost Army was all about deception. Their job was to create illusions. For example, when the Army wanted to give the impression that a huge infantry unit was on the move, the Ghost Army would drive canvas-covered trucks in endless circles. Any onlookers would think hundreds of troops were being transported when it was really just a handful of guys in a couple of trucks. If the top brass wanted to spread a little disinformation, the Ghost Army’s actors would lounge around in cafes and spread rumors about where certain units might be headed or when a certain attack might take place, fooling Nazi spies into reporting nonsense to their superiors. Sometimes the actors even dressed up as generals and visited completely random towns, tricking the Germans and their cronies into thinking something important was going down.
However, the Ghost Army’s most important illusions took place on the battlefield. Their primary mission was to make the Allied forces look bigger and stronger than they actually were, and to do that, the Ghost Army used sound recordings and rubber tanks. During Operation Bettembourg (September 1944), General Patton was planning to attack the city of Metz, but there was a huge problem: a 20-meter-long (70 ft) hole in his front line. There weren’t any actual troops to fill in the gap so the Ghost Army was sent in to put on a show. The Ghosters set up life-size inflatable tanks and mixed in a few real ones for good measure. Then they played recordings of Shermans rumbling and machines moving and irate sergeants shouting, “Put out that cigarette, private!” Their 225-kilogram (500 lb) speakers were so powerful that the Germans could hear every sound up to 24 kilometers (15 mi) away. Even though there were only 1,100 of them, their routine was so convincing that they tricked the Germans into thinking 20,000 men were getting ready to attack. Terrified, the Nazis retreated.
The Ghost Army’s greatest moment came near the end of the war when they helped the American Ninth Army cross the Rhine. With their rubber tanks and mega-speakers, they conned the Nazis into thinking they were 30,000 strong, and while the Germans amassed on the bank opposite the 23rd, the Ninth crossed the river with almost no resistance. Wherever the Ghost Army went, be it Normandy or the Ardennes, they proved invaluable with their artsy skills, saving between 15,000 and 30,000 American troops. However, they really were invisible men. Not only did they wear fake badges and disguise their trucks to dupe spies into thinking they belonged to other divisions, but after the war they weren’t even allowed to tell their families about what they’d done. The mission was still top secret. In 1996, the Ghost Army was officially declassified, and these photographers, painters, and fashion designers were finally revealed as true American heroes.