How does one fight a ghost?

The seemingly phantom American force was one of the many problems facing the Wehrmacht in the summer of 1944.

The Germans were not, as they believed, fighting a numerically superior American force, but were waging a battle against artists, engineers, and inflatable tanks.

“Known as the “Ghost Army,” the top-secret unit waged war using inflatable tanks and weapons, fake radio traffic, sound effects, even phony generals — all to fool the enemy into thinking that the army was bigger, better-armed, or in a different place than it was,” writes James M. Linn IV, curator at The National WWII Museum.

Sponsored by The Ghost Army Legacy Project, on October 16 in Plabennec, France, outside the city of Brest, a new historical marker will be unveiled to commemorate the soldiers of the Ghost Army and their efforts towards liberating France out from under the yoke of Nazi occupation.

A soldier stands with a dummy M-4 Sherman. (U.S. Army)
A soldier stands with a dummy M-4 Sherman. (U.S. Army)

Activated on January 20, 1944, the U.S. 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was the first mobile, multimedia tactical deception unit in U.S. Army history. Made up of 82 officers and 1,023 men under the command of Army veteran Colonel Harry L. Reeder, this unique and top-secret unit was capable of simulating two whole divisions — approximately 30,000 men — while armed with nothing heavier than .50 caliber machine guns, according to The National WWII Museum.

First deployed two weeks after D-Day, the 23rd conducted 22 deception operations over a nine-month period — its largest coming on March 18-24, 1945 when the 1,100 man unit deceived the Germans about the site and timing of the U.S. Ninth Army’s Rhine River crossing.

But the unit’s baptism of fire came near the city of Brest on August 23-25, 1944. The battle “marked the first time the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops used visual, radio and sonic deception all together,” according to The Ghost Army Legacy Project.

Their mission in Brest was to exaggerate the size of American forces attacking the city. Outnumbered and outgunned, the 23rd blasted sounds of marching troops and inflated numerous plastic tanks to shore up the unit’s size. Their actions helped to convince the German general, Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, to surrender.

Credited with saving thousands of American lives during the final year and a half of World War II, the actions of the secret unit were kept classified until 1996, with their contributions to the war effort only recently receiving national attention.

In April 2021, Senator Edward Markey, (D-MA), introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the unit, “in recognition of unique and highly distinguished service during World War II.”

The latest memorial to the brave tricksters of the Ghost Army will stand on the exact spot where soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops carried out Operation Brest in August 1944.

“Operation Brest was a pivotal moment in World War II and an important achievement for the Ghost Army,” Plabennec Mayor Marie-Annick Créac’h-Cadec said in a press release. “The soldiers of the Ghost Army are deserving of this commemorative marker for their dedication, bravery and creative skills that helped keep France free of Nazi occupation.”

The dedication ceremony, which is open to the public, will take place at 11 a.m. in the village of Kerlin.