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The tricksters who saved lives during World War II

A soldier stands next to a dummy tank in May 1944.

A soldier stands next to a dummy tank in May 1944.

US National Archives

Few April Fool's Day pranks could hold a candle to the tricks of the US “Ghost Army,” a group of World War II soldiers whose knack for illusion saved tens of thousands of lives.

“All warfare is based on deception,” wrote the ancient strategist Sun Tzu, and as the Allies prepared to invade Nazi-occupied France, two American military planners dreamed up a clever ruse. Using troops handpicked for their creative talents and intelligence, they would flood Nazi intelligence with disinformation, whipping up whole divisions out of theater props and carefully staged media.

Roughly 1,100 men were sworn to secrecy about their work, including fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane. Working with canvas, paint, cameras, radios, and sound effects records, the unit carried out over 20 major operations during the liberation of France, Belgium, and Germany.

One story of their courage: On Sept. 14, 1944, the unit was camped outside Paris when urgent orders arrived. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army was fighting tooth and nail to take the fortress city of Metz, the key to advancing into Germany itself. But his flank along the Moselle River was weak, with just 500 troops holding the line.

The Ghost Army transformed those 500 into a fearsome force of 8,000, with inflatable tanks and ersatz heavy weapons. The mission was meant to last two days, but the spectral soldiers maintained their deception against increasingly aggressive German patrols for a week until the 83rd Infantry Division could take its place.

The unit’s techniques were so essential to the war effort that their exploits remained classified for 50 years. As such, the men who outfoxed Nazi intelligence went largely unrecognized for their service before all too many of them passed away.

Congress, at long last, formally honored them this year with a Congressional Gold Medal on March 21.


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