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The Ghost Army’s Battlefield Deceptions Could Finally See Congressional Honors

Dummy M7 Priest Ghost Army inflatable tank
The Ghost Army Legacy Project
A member of the Ghost Army's 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion stands in front of an inflatable tank destroyer designed to trick German soldiers.

In the weeks following D-Day, a highly specialized group of men arrived in France. The 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were there not to fight, but to deceive — mounting a “traveling road show” of inflatable tanks, fake radio broadcasts and more, designed to convince Hitler’s generals that Allied forces were massing where in reality they were not.

The “Ghost Army” project found remarkable success. Some historians say it saved up to 30,000 American troops with the elaborate deceptions. But for years, the men involved never spoke of their work. The Army, perhaps hoping to utilize similar strategies in future conflicts, held the work as classified until 1996.

In recent decades, the Ghost Army’s creative deceptions are finally beginning to get their due. One major reason is Rick Beyer’s documentary, “The Ghost Army,” which premiered on PBS in 2013 and is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Beyer has joined with descendants of the Ghost Army, historians and other enthusiasts to form the Ghost Army Legacy Project, which seeks to honor the unit’s contributions.

Last year, the organization’s efforts paid off in Missouri, when Gov. Mike Parson declared June 6 “Ghost Army Recognition Day.” A bill to do the same thing nationally recently won approval in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But it took six years for the bill to win approval in the House, and the Senate version, S.1404, is still short on the 67 sponsors it needs for consideration. Carolyn Spence Cagle, a board member of the Ghost Army Legacy Project who lives in Lampe, Missouri, said she has repeatedly contacted the offices of Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley.

“I have been emailing Blunt and Hawley, really pestering them, I would say, about their need to step forward and support,” she said.

'A Symphony of Subterfuge'
Listen to Carolyn Spence Cagle and Rick Beyer discuss the Ghost Army's WW II exploits

Time is running out, said Beyer, who is also president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project.

“There are only 11 men still left out of the more than 1,100 who served in the unit,” he said. “The oldest of them is 106; the youngest is 96. The Ghost Army is going to be an army of ghosts in the not-too-distant future. And so it’s really important to try to honor them this way now, while some of them are still here to receive this honor.”

For Cagle’s father, it’s already too late. Joseph R. Spence was a Pennsylvania-based art student when he was recruited for the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. He served in Europe before returning home, finishing his degree and enjoying a long career in education. He died 12 years ago.

The Ghost Army’s service finally being declassified was a relief for Spence, who never spoke of what he did in the war until the Army finally gave its permission, Cagle said.

“I remember that my father, when he was finally allowed to talk about his experience in World War II, went into his study where there was a bureau and got out these medals that he had gotten from the French government for his service,” she said. “His eyes were wet, and all of us were very impressed. To think our dad was actually doing something that merited governmental gratitude was just phenomenal.”

Beyer said the ability to speak freely was a relief for many of the Ghost Army’s soldiers.

“Sometimes you get men who don’t want to talk about their experiences in World War II, but I found the exact opposite when I started to interview veterans — that they were dying to talk about it and appreciative that it was recognized as something good,” he said.

Thanks to the Ghost Army Legacy Project, the Missouri State Museum inside the Missouri Capitol will host an interpretative display on the units next month. A special screening of Beyer’s film is also planned for the IMAX in Branson on June 6, with a Ghost Army exhibit on display through June 6.

Related Event

What: Ghost Army interpretative display

When: June 6-30

Where: Missouri State Museum Veterans Gallery, 201 W. Capitol Ave., Jefferson City 65101

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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