History

All you need to know about the Ghost Army of WWII

Jessica Evans Avatar
ghost army tank

An inflatable "dummy" M4 Sherman. (U.S. Army photo)

When you hear the term ghost army, sword-wielding zombies may come to mind. However, in this case, we’re talking about the creative young service members who built and operated military decoys during World War II.

Picture this! A German look-out stands atop a hill, pressing binoculars to his face. He spots eerie objects creeping through the tall grass at the edge of the horizon. There are 10 —no 20 of them, at least. More may be on the way! He runs to his Nazi commander and tells him the Americans are advancing in armored tanks.

The sound of engines rumble through the window, and machine guns can be heard firing off. The Germans hop on the radio and hear men giving coordinates in English. The accents are distinctly American. The U.S. troops are announcing their plan to shoot up a German base and take the commander hostage. The Germans think, “Nien, not on my watch!” Responding quickly, the Germans send a platoon out to stop the Americans in their tracks.

The Germans may have won the war had encounters like these led to real battles. Unfortunately for them, this was probably one of the many decoy missions carried out by the Ghost Army.

The Ghost Army

In WWII, an elite band of 1,100 U.S. Army soldiers pulled off one of the greatest deception operations against the Germans: masquerading as a 30,000-strong division for eight days! Thanks to these brave troops under General George S. Patton’s command – and their clever use illusions through physical movements, sounds and communication signals – it allowed American fighting forces to make some key breakthroughs that changed history forever.

These GIs used inflatable tanks and fake cannons to throw the Germans off their tracks time and time again. These special servicemen would carry giant balloons painted to look like armored tanks and trucks, and the distractions worked. The Germans wasted precious resources going in to fend off attacks only to find toy-like war props waiting for them. The Americans even went so far as to use military sound effects to make the decoy missions as believable as possible. Imagine waking to the sound of machine guns only to realize it’s just a soldier playing synthesized noise over a loudspeaker.

ghost army patch
23rd Headquarters Special Troops “Ghost Army” patch. (U.S. Army photo)

Mission after Mission

The service members carried out about 20 decoy missions across France, Belgium, and Germany, always keeping the Germans on their toes. The Company proved that even artists could contribute to the war effort. The military had recruited many of them from fine arts schools in both Europe and America. Some service members included fashion designed Bill Blass, photographer Art Kane, and painter Ellsworth Kelly.

Congressional Gold Medals

In February 2022, President Joe Biden signed a bill to award the brave members of the Ghost Army with one of Congress’s highest honors – The Congressional Gold Medal. Watch the ceremony here.

Speaking of WWII, check out the most dangerous club for World War II Civil Air Patrol pilots.