Skip to content

After decades of secrecy and years of lobbying, Congress grants Ghost Army gold medal

World War II veterans tricked the enemy with sound effects and inflatable tanks

World War II “Ghost Army” veterans are applauded after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal on Thursday.
World War II “Ghost Army” veterans are applauded after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Eight decades after their military feints saved thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives during the struggle to free Europe from Adolf Hitler’s grip, the men of America’s fabled “Ghost Army” were honored with a Congressional Gold Medal on Thursday.

Only seven of the more than 1,000 troops who served in the Ghost Army are still alive today, and three — Bernard Bluestein, John Christman and Seymour Nussenbaum — attended Thursday’s ceremony. 

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and 3133rd Signal Service Company performed more than 20 operations during World War II, tricking German generals into believing large divisions of tanks and infantry were poised to attack in one location when, in fact, Allied forces were preparing assaults elsewhere.

Called to the stage one by one by Speaker Mike Johnson to accept the highest honor that Congress can bestow, the men received a standing ovation from the crowd gathered in Emancipation Hall to celebrate them.

Speaking softly from a wheelchair, the 100-year-old Bluestein offered his thanks on behalf of the surviving veterans, saying, “I am very proud and happy to be here.”

The men were recruited from creative fields — sound engineers, set designers, artists and architects — to dupe fascist forces across Europe. The Ghost Army remained a military secret for half a century, when it was finally declassified in 1996. The push to honor the Ghost Army grew out of a 2013 documentary of the same name, leading to the founding of a nonprofit dedicated to the units’ legacy in 2016.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster was recruited to the effort by the documentary’s director, Rick Beyer, who went to college with the New Hampshire Democrat. Kuster noted how surprisingly long it took to honor the veterans. “How hard could that be?” she recalled wondering at the time she agreed to help.

“It turns out it took seven years,” Kuster deadpanned.

The push to recognize the Ghost Army wound up on former Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart’s desk after the granddaughter of one of the veterans, Stanley Nance, did a school project on the unit. Nance died at the age of 103 in 2021.

Beyer, who also leads the Ghost Army Legacy Project, remarked on the humility of the many veterans he came to know: “When the Ghost Army soldiers were landing at Omaha Beach, when they were setting up inflatables in the rain near the front line in Brest, when they were freezing in the snows of Bastogne or drawing fire on the Gothic line in Italy, they would have been shocked by the idea that, 80 years later, a grateful nation would have honored them in this way because no soldier who served in this unit considered himself a hero.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who introduced the act authorizing the medal, noted that he had worked alongside a Ghost Army vet, John “Jack” McGlynn, in the Massachusetts state legislature. McGlynn died in 2016.

Kuster, whose pilot father survived being shot down and held in a German POW camp, noted that veterans of the war never liked to talk about their service, but the Ghost Army, sworn to secrecy for so long, had to keep especially mum. “One of my favorite lines was one gentleman who would only tell his family, ‘I blew up tanks,’ without saying they were inflatable.”

The award was bestowed before a crowd of hundreds, made up of the families of Ghost Army veterans and military servicemembers. Some openly wept at times during the ceremony.

One of the Ghost Army’s first deceptions came shortly after D-Day. The unit deployed legions of inflatable tanks, pumped fake engine rumbles and other sound effects through massive speakers and sent fake radio messages for the enemy to intercept, convincing Germans occupying the French city of Brest that the Americans would attack from the east and west, when in fact U.S. forces were coming in from the north. German artillery targeted the fake tanks, according to the Ghost Army Legacy Project.

In later operations, the Ghost Army kept Nazi forces from attacking a weak point along the front line near the Moselle River in September 1944 by posing as the 6th Armored Division. As the Allies invaded Germany toward the end of the war, the Ghost Army imitated a 40,000-man force amassing on the bank of the Rhine River 10 miles south of where the actual crossing was planned.

Deception in war, of course, was nothing new, as both of the ceremony’s two prayer leaders noted. “We remember how they gained their place in history by fooling, by tricking their brother enemies, the Germans, as Jacob tricked Esau,” Rev. Donald Fox, the son of Ghost Army veteran Fred Fox, said during the invocation.

At the end of the ceremony, Chaplain (Maj.) Aaron Stucker-Rozovsky noted how the judge and prophet Gideon led a band of 300 warriors “who used a combination of audacity, skill, daring and deception to sow confusion, fear and most importantly defeat in the hearts of the massive Midianite army.”

“Two thousand years later, two elite and likewise small groups, 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and 3133rd Signal Service Company, again used these attributes — audacity, skill, daring and deception — to throw the evil that was Hitler and his Nazi armies into utter disarray.”

In addition to the act’s lead sponsors, the Ghost Army was feted by Johnson, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

McConnell noted how his own father served in Europe in Gen. George Patton’s Army, which suffered heavy casualties. But his dad made it home. “I think about how these stories are intertwined,” he said. “How, as one Ghost Army veteran put it, ‘sparing one mother or one new bride the agony of putting a gold star in their front window’ was what his unit was all about.” 

Recent Stories

Democratic lawmaker takes the bait on Greene ‘troll’ amendment

Kansas Rep. Jake LaTurner won’t run for third term

At the Races: Impeachment impact

Capitol Lens | Striking a pose above the throes

Democrats prepare to ride to Johnson’s rescue, gingerly

Spy reauthorization bill would give lawmakers special notifications