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Time to honor the 'ghosts' of WWII

Time to honor the 'ghosts' of WWII
© Rick Beyer

Gil Seltzer is a ghost — a living, breathing ghost who commands our attention.

He is the oldest living veteran of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — the extraordinary WWII army unit known as “The Ghost Army.”

Today, Sunday, Oct. 11, Seltzer turns 106. An architect who began his career in 1937, he worked until late last year. His projects include a sports arena in upstate New York, buildings at West Point, and a WWII memorial in New York’s Battery Park. His secret to longevity? “Keep away from booze and women until you're 12." 

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More than 75 years ago, Seltzer and his fellow G.I.s created a “symphony of subterfuge.” They used inflatable tanks, sound effects, radio trickery and other forms of illusion to baffle German intelligence about the size and location of American forces. Their top-secret deceptions are credited with saving 15,000-30,000 American lives. A de-classified U.S. Army analysis characterizes their exploits this way: “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men, which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.”

Yet the bold, creative risk takers of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops have never been officially honored. Efforts to rectify that omission are underway. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress to award the unit a Congressional Gold Medal. To date, 200 members of the House and Senate have co-sponsored bills HR 2350 and S1421, but more Congressional support is needed to move the legislation forward.

Seltzer was a 29-year-old lieutenant when he was informed that his mission was to draw enemy fire away from other units. “We all came to the conclusion that this was a suicide outfit,” he says.

His unit went into action just days after D-Day, mounting 22 deceptions from Normandy to the Rhine. There were moments of humor — like the time a grumpy French farmer approached a fake anti-aircraft artillery piece they had just inflated. “Encore Boom-Boom?” inquired the farmer. He slapped his hand on the rubber-dummy gun. His eyes widened. “Boom-Boom, Ha-ha!” he laughed. There were times of great tension, too, like when they had to hold a 25-mile-gap in Patton’s line with mere sleight of hand. “There was nothing between the German Army and Paris but a bunch of rubber tanks,” says Seltzer.

The Germans never discovered their secret, and they escaped annihilation. Still, four men died and dozens were wounded during these life-saving missions.

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Secrecy demanded that the derring-do of this Ghost Army not be officially recognized. Today, despite books and a documentary on the subject, most people know nothing of their stranger-than-fiction wartime mission. Only 16 men survive of the 1,100 who served in the unit. Four of those veterans are over 100. They deserve to be honored while they are still with us.

The National World War II Museum and the American Legion support this legislation. “The people of the United States are grateful for their extraordinary courage and remarkable ingenuity in the face of the enemy,” says the Legion’s resolution.

Seltzer is humble regarding such an honor. “I think other units are a whole hell of a lot more worthy than we are,” he told me on the phone the other day, a mantra of modesty that echoes what other Ghost Army veterans have said.

But as someone who has studied this unit for the last 15 years, interviewed dozens of veterans, walked the battlefields, and scoured the archives, I beg to differ. They frequently operated a hair’s breadth from the front lines, drawing fire upon themselves to protect others. They used creativity to help defeat a brutal enemy. They exemplified out-of-the-box thinking that inspires today’s U.S. Army PSYOPS troops. They put their lives on the line with ingenuity as their only defense. Then, they came home and kept silent for decades.

“The men recruited for the Ghost Army were men of muscle, but also men of the mind," says Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Mass.), sponsor of the Senate bill. "They were creative, original thinkers that used engineering, art, architecture and advertising to wage battle with the enemy. Their weapons were unconventional but their patriotism was unquestionable."

For Gil Seltzer and all veterans of the Ghost Army, for their families, for the unknown legions who survived due to their magnificent battlefield fakery, for descendants of those legions, it is incumbent upon Congress to award these men the Congressional Gold Medal now.

It’s time to honor the ghosts.

Rick Beyer is an author, documentary producer, and co-host (with Chris Anderson) of the History Happy Hour livecast on the Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours Facebook and YouTube page. He produced the PBS documentary “The Ghost Army” and co-authored the book “The Ghost Army of World War II” with Elizabeth Sayles. He is also president of the nonprofit Ghost Army Legacy Project.