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The Ghost Army of World War II

Luxembourg

Luxembourg today. I suspect the view probably isn’t all that different from when the Americans saw it in WWII. Image courtesy of Koan, Morguefile.

It’s amazing what people will do to win a battle or a war. You have to admire their cleverness.

I’ve just read a wonderful book by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles, called The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects and Other Audacious Fakery. If you like WWII history, art or military history, I strongly recommend it.

Near the end of World War II, there was a top-secret U.S. Army unit known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. This particular Army unit was expressly formed for the purpose of deceiving the enemy. The people in it were artists, designers, radio operators and engineers.

The idea behind the 23rd was to mimic Army movements, put out false radio signals and so on to make the Germans think that something was happening when it really wasn’t. The men of the 23rd were skilled in faking the appearance of a real battalion; sometimes they were so good, they even fooled their own side!

There were fake inflatable tanks and the 23rd would even create tank tracks to fool German spy planes. There’s a funny story in the book about how two Frenchmen accidentally came upon four American soldiers moving one of the tanks. I can only imagine what the Frenchmen thought: “Mon Dieu! Those Americans are STRONG!” (But someone saw them and swore them to secrecy.)

The book describes how the 23rd was formed and what it did in countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. They did amazing work at high risk; at any time, the Germans could have overrun the unit and shot everyone.

By what they did, the 23rd saved thousands of lives. They spared many families from the agony of losing someone important to them.

There are tons of illustrations in the book, since the artists found time to sketch now and then. I particularly liked the one of Luxembourg City, since I’ve visited there; strange to see it through the eyes of a World War II person.

It’s also interesting to note that the 23rd contained several people who would go on to build amazing careers. Fashion designer Bill Blass was one; photographer Art Kane was another.

PBS did a 2013 documentary. If you seek out the documentary or the book, have fun! Here’s the YouTube trailer for the PBS Ghost Army documentary; it’s well worth watching and explains a bit more about the capabilities of the Ghost Army.

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