BATTLEFIELD DECEPTION—the act of misleading enemy forces—has been used for centuries to gain advantage in combat. During World War II the US 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 US Army history. Beginning in Normandy, two weeks after D-Day, the 23rd conducted 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 US 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 (creator of the header image above)—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 is now the subject of a new exhibit at The National WWII Museum—the source of the images on these pages. Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II will be on display at the Museum in New Orleans from March 5 through September 13, 2020, and goes on tour after that; dates and locations below.
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Display Dates: June 16, 2022 – January 2, 2023
Nevada Museum of Art
Display Dates: March 4, 2023 to July 23, 2023
The Ghost Army Collection
Article originally appeared in World War II magazine; © 2020 HISTORYNET, LLC.
A New Orleans native, James Linn first became involved with the institution then known as The National D-Day Museum in 2001 as an eighth-grade volunteer on weekends and during the summer. Linn joined The National WWII Museum staff in 2014 and served as a Curator until 2020.