WWII veteran recalls part in little-known 'Ghost Army'
By GEORGE MORRIS | The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. | Published: August 9, 2017
BATON ROUGE, La. (Tribune News Service) — Like many veterans, Anderson Wilson joined the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars following his service in World War II. Before long, he quit going.
“All those fellows wanted to do was talk about what they did in the Army, and I couldn’t talk about that,” 94-year-old Wilson said.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Wilson, who lives in Slidell, could say he served in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — now known as the Ghost Army.
Formed a few months before D-Day, the Ghost Army’s job was to fool Germans about the location of American forces. Deception is as old as war itself, but this was the first U.S. unit whose entire job was pulling the wool over the enemy’s eyes.
And pull it they did — repeatedly, and with remarkable success.
In the French town of Brest, the Ghost Army convinced defenders the Americans were attacking from the left and right flanks, when the real attack was coming up the middle. On the Moselle River, they covered a gaping hole in Gen. George Patton’s lines. When the U.S. 9th Army crossed the Rhine River, German forces remained miles away, awaiting an attack from a largely imaginary force.
“That operation was so successful, they went 25 miles before they had their first casualty. How about that?” Wilson said. “They gave us credit with saving between 30,000 and 40,000 American lives and 10,000 German lives. Wasn’t that wonderful?”
Wilson had been in a field artillery unit in Texas until late 1943, when he was sent to Camp Forrest, Tennessee, joining other soldiers who had no idea why they were summoned.
“About 10 days after we were there, the barracks door blew open, and the full colonel walks in,” Wilson said. “He said, ‘I’m Col. Harry L. Reeder, and I’m here to form a unit for the invasion of Europe. If you can’t stomach the invasion, you get out now and no questions asked.’ Just that bluntly. Not a soul left. I was proud of that.”
Some soldiers were artists in a battalion whose job was to not only hide things but to create visual deceptions. They made all manner of inflatable vehicles, most notably tanks. Placed in a field, with bulldozer-created tread ruts nearby, they looked like the real thing from the air or from a distance.
Another company created radio traffic designed to mimic what would be expected of a two-division force of up to 30,000 troops. Since the Ghost Army often would replace forces that had already been in a location, Morse code operators learned to mimic the keystroke style of the existing unit’s operators so listening Germans would not suspect anything.
Another group had recordings of the sounds of tanks and trucks on the move, pontoon bridges being built and a variety of other noises typical of large army units. Those recordings were played over loudspeakers mounted on trucks. Wilson was part of the headquarters company.
“We wore the patches of the unit we were replacing,” Wilson said. “We painted the insignia of the unit on our vehicles. It looked the same. Most of our operations were done at night.”
Except when they wanted to be seen. Passing through towns that might still harbor spies, the Ghost Army sent vehicles through the center of town, then circled back around through the town again to create the impression of a huge convoy. Two soldiers would sit in the back of an otherwise empty troop truck to make it look full.
“Some of the best assignments we had were to go into the pubs at night and spread misinformation about troop movement,” Wilson said. “It wouldn’t be long until you’d see a pretty young lady get up and start to ease out, and what she didn’t know was that the Free French were on the outside to pick her up. I don’t know what happened to her after that. It was quite an operation.”
There always was the threat their deception would draw an attack, and sometimes it did. Canisters set off to impersonate artillery fire would receive fire in return. But casualties in the 1,100-man outfit were few.
“We had lookouts on the front line all the time,” Wilson said. “As soon as we sensed the Germans were on to something and were fixing to attack, we’d move out. Whoever was left in that area from some other outfit, they’d wake up the next morning and we were gone.”
After the war, the Ghost Army wasn’t just gone; it was as if it never existed. Its members were ordered not to talk about it, a rule that lasted four decades. Some of its veterans went on to fame, including fashion designer Bill Blass, sculptor and painter Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer and photographer Art Kane.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, is co-sponsor of a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the Ghost Army. Wilson is the only member still living in Louisiana.
“The only unit like it in the military,” Wilson said.