World War II's 'Ghost Army' Lands at COSI

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."

If ever there were a model for this sentiment from Sun Tzu's seminal warfare text, "The Art of War," it is the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, better known as the Ghost Army. Until government files were declassified in the 1990s, few had ever heard of this U.S. Army unit, active in the European Theatre of World War II from 1944 to 1945. The unit employed not weaponry, but various tools of deception to minimize combat and ultimately save lives, says Massachusetts-based historian Rick Beyer, who is bringing the story of the Ghost Army to COSI this month (June 4 to 7) as part of the museum's Top Secret: License to Spy exhibition, open through Sept. 7. Here, Beyer-who's directed a PBS film and co-authored a book about the Ghost Army-breaks down the unit's tactics across multiple media.

The Ghost Army worked with sound engineers to produce recordings of battle sound effects, which were played from specially outfitted sound trucks to spook enemies. "This would be the sound of convoys moving in at night," Beyer says. "Sound trucks over miles and miles would be able to create this illusion of a moving wall of sound, of hundreds of tanks moving in."

Ghost Army radio operators would purposely transmit bogus messages to be intercepted by the enemy. These transmissions would correspond with the sound trucks, in an attempt to persuade an enemy unit to retreat. "The Germans were very good at traffic analysis and could recognize specific radio code operators," Beyer says. "[Ghost Army] operators would have to mimic what real ones would do, and a lot of this was in Morse code."

Inflatable tanks were strategically placed across battlefields to deter enemy units from advancing. Bulldozers were even used to create tracks to and from a fake tank's current position. "They'd throw a camo net over the tank, place it under a tree, and from 100 yards away, you're going to believe it's a real tank," Beyer says. "You're in the middle of a war zone, after all." Pennsylvania-based StarBound Entertainment created a replica Ghost Army tank for COSI, based on WWII specs, now on display in the Top Secret exhibition.

This final method of deception sells the others. To persuade the enemy beyond disbelief, the Ghost Army would pose as an entirely different unit-say, the feared 6th Armored Division. "They would actually paint their jeep, put on 6th Division patches and drive through towns with a phony general so everyone would see," Beyer says. "Their attention to detail was just incredible."