BATTLEFIELD DECEPTION—the act of misleading enemy forces—has been used for centuries to gain advantage in combat. During World War II the U.S. 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a carefully selected group of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees, elevated that deception to an art form.
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.
Activated on January 20, 1944, the 23rd was the first mobile, multimedia tactical deception unit in U.S. Army history. Beginning in Normandy two weeks after D-Day, the 23rdconducted 22 deception operations over a nine-month period. The largest came near the end of the war, when, on March 18-24, 1945, the 1,100-man unit mimicked two divisions—more than 30,000 troops—to deceive the Germans about the site and timing of the U.S. Ninth Army’s Rhine River crossing that would take Allied forces deeper into Germany. The deception was a success: when the two actual Ninth Army divisions crossed the river on the night of March 23, they met little resistance.
Soldiers of the Ghost Army were sworn to secrecy. After the war, records were classified and equipment packed away. A smattering of newspaper articles appeared in August 1945, but the Pentagon otherwise succeeded in keeping the story quiet until 1985, when a Ghost Army veteran, artist Arthur Shilstone, illustrated his story for Smithsonian magazine. The unit’s records remained officially classified until 1996.
The story of the mysterious unit that fooled Hitler’s armies, saved thousands of lives, and played an important part in Allied victory in World War II was the subject of an exhibit at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans called Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II. The following images are from the exhibit. ✯
—James M. Linn IV, curator, The National WWII Museum
All images courtesy of The Ghost Army Collection/The National WWII Museum
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of World War II.