It was Christmas Eve, 1943. The U.S. Army was busy planning its D-Day operation, the battle that would change the course of World War II, and military officials wanted a way to spread disinformation to the German army on a recurring basis. If they could convince the Nazis that armies existed where they didn't, or that invasions and movements might be occurring somewhere else, they could save an incalculable number of lives.
Rather than employ one of its tried-and-true tactics, the Army decided to do something different. They created the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, otherwise known as "The Ghost Army." This unique unit, created for the sole purpose of wartime deception, recruited more than 1,000 artists, actors, audio technicians, advertising professionals and other creative types. Trained at Camp Forrest in Tennessee, they were quickly moved to Great Britain where they would travel to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion. The first wave of the Ghost Army landed on Omaha Beach on June 14, 1944, and consisted of just 15 men.
Over the next two months, the rest of the Ghost Army arrived in France, and they eventually perpetrated every fraud they could think of, from creating fake airfields full of dummy equipment to posing as drunk soldiers "accidentally" giving away misinformation in bars.
Their first major deception was called Operation Elephant. They took on the guise of the Army's 2nd Armored Division. This was where the sound technicians and painters came in. The creative minds of the Ghost Army crafted together the sounds of an army, both in person with giant loudspeakers and over the radios. In concert with inflatable tanks, jeeps, aircraft and actors playing parts, their goal was to convince German high command that there was an army of 30,000 troops in one spot while the real 2nd Armored went into battle. They succeeded.
An assignment of deception in enemy territory wasn't cushy. It did put them in harm's way numerous times, and the Ghost Army did suffer its share of casualties, though very few. Their costliest engagement came during the spring of 1945 when they drew German artillery fire. Two of their men died, and another 15 were wounded.
With modern warfare and satellite technology, it might seem as though these techniques might be impossible to pull off today, but Yuri Cataldo, an art professor, told HowStuffWorks by email that these techniques could all still work. A modern edge would be needed, though and he suggested that computer scientists and hackers would need to be added into the mix of creative professionals.
"On the modern battlefield, there is still the need for camouflage, reconnaissance and confusing the other side,” Cataldo said. “Now it would require very realistic looking fake physical objects with realistic sounds, planted news stories, and a way of interfering with their communications, just like they did during World War II."
Over the course of the war, the Ghost Army took part in 20 major deceptions and saved an estimated 10,000 to 30,0000 lives. And although their heroics helped, in part, win the war against the Nazis, the soldiers of the Ghost Army were forbidden from telling the stories of their top-secret work until their accounts were finally declassified in 1996.
Listen to a more detailed account of their exploits in the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast embedded here or grab it on your favorite podcasting service.