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Ghost Army members who staged secret WWII battlefield deceptions awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Mar 20, 2024, 9:05 PM | Updated: Mar 21, 2024, 3:46 pm

DALLAS (AP) — With inflatable tanks, radio trickery, costume uniforms and acting, the American military units that became known as the Ghost Army outwitted the enemy during World War II. Their mission was kept secret for decades, but on Thursday the group stepped out of the shadows as they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in Washington.

“The actions of the Ghost Army helped change the course of the war for thousands of American and Allied troops and contributed to the liberation of a continent from a terrible evil,” Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said during the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

She said that many of the techniques the Ghost Army pioneered are still used on the battlefield. “Even though technology has changed quite a bit since 1944, our modern techniques build on a lot of what the Ghost Army did and we are still learning from your legacy,” she said.

Three of the seven known surviving members attended the ceremony: Bernard Bluestein, 100, of Hoffman Estates, Illinois; John Christman, 99, of Leesburg, New Jersey; and Seymour Nussenbaum, 100, of Monroe Township, New Jersey.

Their work during the war “was like putting on a big production,” Nussenbaum said in an interview before the ceremony.

“We have had in some cases people impersonating generals, putting on a general’s uniform and walking around the streets,” he said.

Nussenbaum, who grew up in New York City, was studying art at the Pratt Institute before he joined the Army. Eventually, he joined a unit specializing in camouflage that was part of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.

“Our mission was to fool the enemy, to put on a big act,” said Nussenbaum, a painter who went on to a career in commercial art.

Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said during the ceremony that the Ghost Army members were “creative, original thinkers, who used engineering, art, architecture and advertising to wage battle with the enemy.”

“Their weapons were unconventional but their patriotism was unquestionable,” he said.

House Speaker Mike Johnson said during the ceremony that it’s estimated that between 15,000 to 30,000 lives were saved because of the Ghost Army’s work.

The legislation to honor the military units with the Congressional Gold Medal — Congress’ highest honor — was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2022. That came after almost a decade of work by family members of the soldiers and Rick Beyer, a filmmaker and author who has who helped bring their story to light after their mission was declassified in 1996. Beyer, president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project, produced and directed the 2013 documentary “The Ghost Army” and co-authored the 2015 book “The Ghost Army of World War II.”

“They put themselves in harm’s way wielding imagination, bravado and creativity in order that other soldiers might be able to fight and live,” Beyer told those gathered Thursday.

“This is a day that has been a long time coming but it has been well worth the wait,” Beyer said.

The Ghost Army included about 1,100 soldiers in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which carried out about 20 battlefield deceptions in France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, and around 200 soldiers in the 3133rd Signal Company Special, which carried out two deceptions in Italy.

One of the biggest missions, called Operation Viersen, came in March 1945 when the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops’ deception drew German units away from the point on the Rhine River where the 9th Army was actually crossing.

“They had hundreds of inflatables set up,” Beyer said in an interview before the ceremony. “They had their sound trucks operating for multiple nights. They had other units attached to them. They had set up multiple phony headquarters and staffed them with officers who were pretending to be colonels.”

“This was an all-hands-on-deck affair and it was completely successful,” Beyer said. “It fooled the Germans. They moved their troops to the river opposite where the deception was.”

In September 1944, the Ghost Army helped fill a gap in Gen. George Patton’s line during an attack on the Germans in the French city of Metz.

“They end up holding this part of the line for eight days, which is really long in terms of doing a deception, trying to keep up appearances,” Beyer said.

Kim Seale of Dallas said that his father’s work in the Ghost Army came as a surprise to him. Only about six months after his father’s death at the age of 84 in 2001, he was told of the connection by a past member of the Ghost Army who was putting together a reunion.

“I said, ‘What do you mean, Ghost Army?’” Seale said.

“My Dad never talked about it,” Seale said. “He kept the oath.”

He said his father, Oscar Seale, who was a captain, had told him that at one point during the war that he had transitioned from a tank division to a position as a courier. Seale said he now thinks that’s when his father joined the Ghost Army.

“It’s been a 20-plus year journey of learning about the Ghost Army, learning about what my Dad did, learning about what the men did and just being amazed at that story,” he said.

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Ghost Army members who staged secret WWII battlefield deceptions awarded Congressional Gold Medal