US President Joe Biden on Tuesday (February 2) signed into law a bill titled, “Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act”, essentially providing recognition to the ‘Ghost Army’, a tactical deception unit deployed by the US during World War II.
In 1944, this unit was tasked with a mission to put on a show for the German troops in an attempt to deceive them and manipulate their decisions. Their deception tactics involved using inflatable dummy tanks, personeel, trucks and sound effects. The heaviest weapon in their possession was a 0.50 caliber machine gun.
Seventy-seven years since this mission was undertaken, there are just nine surviving veterans of the Ghost Army scattered across the US.
What is the Congressional Gold Medal?
The Congressional Gold Medal is the Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
The first recipients of the medal were participants of the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Congress subsequently broadened the scope of the medal to include actors, authors, entertainers, musicians, explorers, athletes, humanitarians and foreign recipients among pioneers in some other fields.
Most recently, the medal was awarded to the US Capitol Police and those who protected the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the day of the siege.
The ‘Ghost Army’
The existence of the ‘Ghost Army’ was unknown for about 50 years after it was formed in January 1944. The unit had a “strange mission”, to keep enemy troops in the dark about the number and location of American troops.
Its existence was declassified in 1996, when the official history, first written in 1945 by Captain Fred Fox–who served as an officer on the unit– also became available.
Ghost Army refers to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Company Special.
The official history notes that the unit was activated by the US War Department on January 20, 1944. The units were assembled and members trained fairly quickly in Tennessee. A year and a half later, the unit was on its way back home after having served with four US armies in France, Belgium, England, Luxembourg, Holland and Germany.
By the time the unit reached France, it had 82 officers in command and 1023 enlisted men. Most of the men and officers came from four units. Some were artists from New York and Philadelphia, some were combat engineers and some members were especially trained for deception.
The book, “The Ghost Army of World War II” notes that some of the work of the members involved building detailed models and camouflaged nettling. These would then be photographed by pilots who would fly overhead to show how the camouflage installations looked. The inflatable personnel installations were not very successful since they could not move.
Some operations of the Ghost Army
Some of the operations they undertook include Operation Brest, when the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops used visual, radio and sonic deception. At Brest, which was held by the Germans and was under siege by the Allies, the Ghost Army was tasked with inflating the apparent size of American troops so that the Germans would surrender. To do this they used inflatable tanks, sounds and illusions to fool the Germans, the Ghost Army Legacy Project notes.
Another operation was undertaken at Bettembourg, where the Ghost Army conducted its longest deception effort. For this operation, the unit had to pretend to be the Sixth Armored Division along the Moselle River in Germany. The Sixth Armored Division was attacking the fortress city of Metz at the time and the Ghost Army’s brief was to impersonate them so that the Germans thought that the line was being reinforced.
Even so, the verdict on the successes of the unit remains divided. The aforementioned book mentions a secret report that says that overall, the army failed to achieve what it could have. “Tactical deception, despite a record of successful minor manipulations of enemy intelligence, was characterised by a succession of wasted opportunities,” the report said.
But there were other experts who saw value in the unit’s work. One such person is a United States Army analyst named Mark Kronman who wrote a classified report praising the unit. He wrote, “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.”
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