It’s time to call the ‘Ghost Army’ what they are: Heroes
The term “unsung hero” has always struck me as a bit of an oxymoron, like “student teacher” or “unpopular celebrity.” Since “hero” is an honor we bestow on soldiers, scientists, and, most recently, essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic (no one calls themselves a hero), can a hero really be a hero if we haven’t sung their praises?
It is time to sing the praises of the Ghost Army, the secret World War II Army units that put their lives on the line to draw fire and confuse the Germans about where the real Allied troops were located.
The Ghost Army employed creative and daring techniques, such as positioning fake, inflatable tanks and armored vehicles, blasting ominous sounds of marching troops over huge loudspeakers, and filling the airwaves with bogus radio chatter and false intelligence to perplex nearby Germans. These illusions often were aimed at convincing the enemy they were badly outnumbered when the reverse was sometimes true. Even though they were only lightly armed, the Ghost Army often made themselves targets to lure the enemy closer, away from actual — heavily armed — troops. These techniques were some of the most important psychological warfare operations employed during the Second World War.
They have been called “a traveling road show of deception,” with a unit of only 1,100 troops looking and sounding like more than 20,000. They saved thousands of lives and helped win the war, but because their exploits were deemed “Top Secret” for nearly 50 years after the war, the Ghost Army never received the recognition they deserve.
It’s time to change that and to honor these soldiers of the greatest generation. It’s time to acknowledge the heroism and sacrifice of these brave men by awarding the Ghost Army with the Congressional Gold Medal, which, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the nation’s highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Ghost Army, which included the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg, and the 3133rd Signal Company Special in Italy. Now, a companion bill awaits action in the Senate. It deserves support.
What the Ghost Army did was an early version of psychological operations or “PSYOP.” As a retired brigadier general, I serve as vice president of the Psychological Regimental Association (PRA) of retired military officers, NCOs, and soldiers who have served in PSYOP units, the inheritors of the Ghost Army legacy. Our experience gives us a unique understanding of just how complex, difficult, and dangerous the Ghost Army’s operations were. We stand in awe of their ingenuity, bravery, and skill — as well as the critical role they played in defending our freedoms.
Today, the U.S. Army utilizes the story of the Ghost Army as part of its education efforts on deception against enemy forces. The U.S. John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., both use their exploits as an inspiration for the current generation of PSYOP and intelligence soldiers. But for the most part, because their missions were shrouded in secrecy for decades, many people remain unaware of the Ghost Army’s contribution to victory on the battlefields of Europe.
A group of citizens called the Ghost Army Legacy Project has waged a six-year campaign to spur Congress to award The Ghost Army with the Congressional Gold Medal. The bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) and Rep. Chris Stewart, (R-Utah) passed overwhelmingly in the House. Now it is up to the Senate to act on S. 1404, the bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Time is critical because there are only 11 veterans of the original Ghost Army alive today. They, as well as the descendants of their fellow soldiers, deserve to see their bold, brave lifesaving efforts acknowledged and honored by the country they served.
It’s time to call them what they are: Heroes.
Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Edward G. Burley served as Commander of the 2d PSYOP Group and Psychological Operations Task Forces during wartime in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently employed as an Assistant U.S. Attorney with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.