The mission and existence of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was kept Top Secret until 1996. Although this unit was never part of the Army Security Agency, many of the missions it performed were eventually passed to ASA units. Perhaps, if it had not been deactivated at the end of World War II, it would be part of our ASA heritage today.
In 1941, the U.S. began to form a hand-picked army to fight in Europe. What made it different is that its troops were composed of artists, designers, actors, meteorologists, and sound technicians, and their true mission was not to fight, but to deceive the German army. Their props were inflatable tanks and pyrotechnics; their tools camouflage, "spoof" radio plays, special effects, and sonic deception. Their last "disappearing act" was to vanish from history. Officially they were designated as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the first and last battlefield deception outfit ever authorized by the U.S. Army. From Normandy to the Rhine, with four American armies in five countries, they put their own lives on the line to save the lives of their comrades.
German soldiers referred to them as the "Phantom Army," because one moment they were in one place, and the next, they were attacking their flanks or from the rear. This small army duped the Germans successfully in 21 separate operations during World War II, many of which took place within a few hundred yards of the front lines. Using their tactics and technology, more than a thousand secret soldiers served in this ghost army. Many of the new recruits were already famous; others would win celebrity stripes after the war. Among them were abstract expressionist Ellsworth Kelly, whose paintings hang in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan; Olin Dows, a prominent artist and personal friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; artist Harold Laynor; fashion designer Bill Blass; movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Amelia Earhart's publicist, the debonair Hilton Howell Railey; George Diestel, a Hollywood set designer; and Art Kane, a fashion photographer.
The special makeup of the group was a deliberate effort to concentrate bright people together so they could feed off each other's imaginations and come up with new and better ways to deceive the enemy. Deception was their way of life. Pretending they were someone else was always their foremost activity. Sometimes this required individuals to play particular roles, but usually the unit passed itself off as some other outfit. Customarily this called for front-line presence, so they were as battle scarred as the troops they impersonated. Their special "artistic" makeup, and their front-line experience, combined to make their battalion the most unusual "deception" unit in military history to that time. The story of the Ghost Army remained under the cloak of government secrecy until about two decades ago. Watergate so alarmed Americans that the Freedom of Information Act, of little effect until then, was greatly strengthened and allowed determined parties to search records previously guarded against prying eyes. Engrossing tales about wartime activities slowly began to emerge from the vast storehouses of government records.
Still, almost nothing has been written about the Ghost Army. This is their true story--a tale of ingenuity, resourcefulness, artistry, comradeship, hard work, patriotism and courage. In the words of one veteran who served alongside them in their crowning performance at the Battle of the Rhine, "These men are real heroes-- not heroes because they killed a lot of Germans: heroes because they saved thousands of American lives."
Deception was used as a military tactic long before the Greeks slipped their wooden horse into Troy, but it didn't really come into its own, in a systematic and organized way until World War II. The advent of sophisticated reconnaissance and intelligence techniques, together with unprecedented battlefield mobility, put a new premium on the possibilities of tactical spoofing. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery pulled off an elaborate hoax in the British Eighth Army's decisive victory over Erwin Rommel's Afrikan Korps at El Alamein in North Africa, and the United States deftly faked out Germany's intelligence experts prior to the Battle of Tunisia. The success of those exercises in camouflage and cover plans helped convince American strategists of the need for a chameleon like ghost army in the European theater. Early in 1944, therefore, the War Department authorized the formation of just such an outfit, the 23rd Headquarters, Special Troops.
Three units were hurriedly assembled from around the country for training and reorientation at Camp Forest in Tennessee. The 244th Message Company, the 406th Engineer Security Company and the 3132nd Signal Service Company.
The mission of the 244th Signal Company was to develop and employ radio counter intelligence tricks. The 406th Engineer Combat Company, a disciplined fighting unit trained in desert warfare, was put in charge of all around security and tough construction jobs. The 3132nd Signal Service Company, was trained separately at the Army Experimental Station in Pine Camp, New York, where it pioneered in the development of "sonic deception" techniques. Perhaps the most effective artifice they developed were "sound" trucks, which broadcast the complex sounds of military units. Members of the 3132nd Signal Service Company carefully recorded the noises of typical tank and infantry and artillery units under varying weather conditions and from a range of distances. Before 1944 was out, they had a "sound" recording, of quite remarkable fidelity, of almost every type of military unit on the continent. They could and did bamboozle the Germans into believing they were hearing a tank battalion crank up a mile away, or an infantry regiment on the move just beyond that rise up ahead; or, whatever, they had a sound for it. A mere company of "sound" trucks could imitate a tank or infantry division!
A forth unit, the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion had already been experimenting with deceptive installations for nearly two years. It was given the responsibility for camouflage and dummy equipment.
So, the troops of the Ghost Army began training for their new mission. Following the lead of General Montgomery, they worked with phony equipment and operations such as inflatable rubber tanks, dummy artillery, fraudulent radio messages, empty bivouacs, etc. They impersonated parts of so many different outfits that by accident they became proficient tailors just for the redesign of uniforms and attaching and removing shoulder patches.
Then, one night in early May, the main body of the U.S. Army's first and only tactical warfare deception unit trooped aboard the USS Henry Gibbons in New York harbor and embarked for Great Britain. There, the 23rd bivouacked for a month in six-man tents on the elegant grounds of a Victorian manor near Stratford-on-Avon. The British called the place Walton HaIl; the GIs called it Mouldy Manor. Training by all units was continued with considerable emphasis on athletics and recreation. Parties were held. Some of the men attended Shakespearean productions at Stratford; others passed the time relaxing at the Leamington Spa.
After about half of the command had departed for France, the remainder, some 600 men, spent a week waiting their turn at Charborough Park, the rambling estate of Adm. Lord Reginald Ernst-Ernie Drax, KCB, DSO. Often, while the enlisted men watched deer and played baseball on the manicured lawns, the Admiral invited the officers in to enjoy a glass of port and a warm bath. Everything went swimmingly until the day before the men pulled out, when their chagrined host announced haughtily: "Someone has beeeen in my sherry!"
It took two months, two planes and nine ships to transport the entire unit to France. The first detachments hit the beach shortly after D-Day and four men were wounded. Victor Dowd, a platoon sergeant with the 603rd and now an illustrator living in Connecticut, touched down with his platoon on Omaha Beach in a C-47 transport plane at D-Day plus seven. He wondered why there were nurses on the plane and then he saw the wounded waiting on the beach. Not long after that, the reality of warfare came home to John Hapgood, who was a corporal with the 603rd and is now an artist in New York City, when he took cover under a railroad car with fellow artist Phil Hornthal. German shells were crashing all around them. Between explosions, one of the men shouted sardonically, "The 603rd will never go overseas!"
The catalog of ruses employed by the 23rd's troops is almost endless. They used "flash" canisters to mimic artillery. They kept evening fires burning where there were no troops. Half-tracks left "tank" tracks. Inflatable artillery, trucks, planes, tanks, called big boys, and even buildings were all over the place, often covered by poor camouflaging! Dummy parachute drops diverted attention from real ones. False radio messages were mingled with true ones. Signs directing fictional traffic were put up. Some all-star performances were put on in rural bars with German ears by artistic "drunks" who carelessly let vital military information slip out with their alcoholic boasts. Phony bridge parts were stacked along streams, sometimes a counterfeit bridge was actually built. It was going so well once, that an alert American general ordered the last minute substitution of real bridge parts.
One of the adverse effects of being good at what they did, that is, having the Germans believe they were the real McCoys, in that they called fire in upon themselves frequently.
The 23rd's first combat duty came with Operation Elephant, whereby a little under half of the unit pretended to be the Second Armored Division while that outfit secretly took up a new position. They were minimally successful, learning among other things that when just a bit of air went out of a rubber tank that its cannon drooped in a tell tale manner. It took place in the forest near Cerisv-la-Foret, France, in early July and involved about 400 men. German units were maintaining a defensive position nearby. As the armored division moved out, the 23rd moved in, replacing real tanks with dummies and substituting rubber artillery for steel weapons. Did it work? An official digest of the 23rd's operations concludes that the deception was effective because the Germans, expecting an attack in the vicinity where the 23rd was operating, held their position while the U.S. tanks made their move. However, historian Fox suspects that "little good was done." The main problem had to do with the fact that the 2nd Armored Division carried out its move in broad daylight with no attempt at secrecy. The need for better liaison and stricter camouflage measures, borrowed shoulder patches, simulated supply dumps, and cover stories concocted for consumption by enemy collaborators was assiduously observed from then on. It wasn't long, in fact, before the 23rd had a voluminous file on visual identifications and the men suffered many a bloody finger sewing bogus shoulder patches on their uniforms before going into action.
The first action that involved all units of the 23rd was called Operation Brest, and it took place just outside that French port city in August 1944. The major objective was to make a tank unit appear much stronger than it really was. Its principal objective was to bluff the Germans into surrendering the city. The 23rd augmented real units already in place with "troops," using dummies, spoof radio installations and a variety of misleading special effects. The 23rd kept up a pretense of routine firing by setting off its flash canisters; as was often the case in subsequent operations, a few authentic weapons remained in place to add substance to the sham. On three successive nights, men of the 23rd approached within 500 yards of the enemy lines and projected their amplified recordings of tanks approaching, taking up positions and withdrawing. Engines roared. Gears clashed and ground. Voices shouted in the dark, orders, counter orders, frustrated cursing at yet another Army snafu. Friendly troops a mile away were completely fooled and so, apparently, was the enemy. The dummy flash batteries drew repeated counter fire and the German Commander at Brest, General Herman B. von Ramcke, later testified that he had been taken in by the armored act. Von Ramcke, with a force of approximately 38,000 men, 17,000 more than U.S. intelligence estimated, had already made a decision to stand and fight. The plan failed to make the Germans evacuate, but it did pin down real German troops to hold the line against phony artillery and tank battalions. Brest fell in mid-September.
For the next seven months, they were in frequent combat under many code names, among others, Casanova, Elsenborn, Koblenz, Knifedge, and Accordion. The American offensive began to bog down, but in eastern France the 23rd kept on the move. Its men enjoyed onion soup and Cointreau in Torcy, uncovered an immense German cache of cognac in Les Garangers and bought perfume in Paris. In southern Luxembourg, they assumed the guise of an armored division and managed to checkmate a duped German infantry division for seven days. In Belgium, the 23rd realistically simulated still another U.S. outfit ostensibly lolling about at a rest camp. The unit supported a "river-crossing demonstration" near Uckange, France, facilitating a surprise crossing of the Moselle elsewhere by the U.S. 90th Infantry Division. After the German breakout in early December, the Great Deceivers used their bag of tricks to help cover the movement of an infantry division into the Bulge.
Much of the 23rd's energy was devoted to obscuring the movement of other troops. In a typical cover operation, the 23rd's actors stayed in plain sight in the area they were supposed to be holding. They kept fires burning at night and visited supply dumps regularly. Having been briefed on the recent history of the outfit they were "playing," they chatted with civilians about things anyone in the real unit would know. Arthur Shilstone clearly recalls riding around villages in trucks for hours. At the rear, the two outside men would wear the proper patches and no one could see whether the rest of the truck's complement of 12 was inside the canopy or not.
When impersonating an armored unit, the 23rd often-used half-tracks to scar the ground with tread marks like those of tanks. Then the rubber tanks would appear, partly hidden by netting and sometimes augmented by a real tank or two. The dummies were always inflated at night, which took about half an hour using the compressor pumps.
There were problems, of course. Since the dummy equipment was positioned in the dark, an inflated tank would sometime be discovered in the morning facing the wrong way, a dead giveaway to aerial reconnaissance. The morning sun could cause trouble, too. One day some rubber planes began collapsing with a series of loud reports because the sun heated air had expanded. There was trouble with leaks, too. The troops dreaded the sight of limp gun barrels at first light, when the German reconnaissance planes usually flew over.
It was difficult to gauge the effects of the 23rd's operations. There were times when they appeared to have no impact whatsoever. There were other times when they confused friend more than foe. Often enough, though, the Germans were completely hoodwinked. Prisoners spoke in awed terms of an "elusive" division. A map overlay captured before one engagement showed that the enemy had mistakenly positioned a U.S. unit right where the 23rd wanted them to think it was. Even Axis Sally, the notorious German radio propagandist, was taken in by that ploy.
Given its flair for the dramatic, it was perhaps inevitable that the 23rd's most impressive battlefield performance would be its last. In March, the United States crossed the Rhine at Remagen, but the Ninth Army was held up near the river at Viersen, not far from the Dutch border. One of the Ninth's three corps moved north under the cover of darkness and prepared, in absolute secrecy, for a real assault on the Rhine. The 23rd teamed up with the Ninth's other two corps to engage in a bogus buildup designed to convince the enemy that a crossing would be attempted near Viersen in April. Engineers built facilities and paraded about with bridging equipment. Medical installations were set up and a vehicle control center broadcast news of heavy traffic. The 23rd's "notional divisions" made a brazen show of themselves around Viersen. Each one had nearly 400 rubber vehicles, including five liaison planes, and aerial photos of their installations looked remarkably authentic. All of the 23rd's sonic tricks and special effects were brought into full play.
It was a show that would have warmed the cockles of Cecil B. DeMille's heart, and it worked. The real Rhine crossing in March came as a complete surprise to the Germans and many American 1ives were saved. For its efforts, the 23rd received the next best thing to an Oscar, a formal commendation for "careful planning, minute attention to detail, and diligent execution" from the Ninth Army's commander.
The 23rd was inactivated in September 1945. Unlike many returning soldiers, whose exp1oits have been emblazoned across the pages of the nation's newspapers, the men of the 23rd came discover that Americans didn't know any more about them than the Germans did. The reason: everything they'd done had been classified "top secret." But at least, to the inevitable question, "What did you do in the war, Dad?" veterans of the ghost army could honestly respond: "I blew up tanks and guns, Son."
What is known for certain is that the 23rd was unique. There was no other unit like it in military history to that time. It was a vital part of the grandly successful joint British and American endeavor to deceive and defeat the Axis.