History’s Headlines: The ghost army at war | History’s Headlines

“In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Winston Churchill to Josef Stalin, Tehran Conference (November 28-December 1,1943)

Howard James Breisch (1917-1993) was a mid-20th century Bethlehem boy. He grew up in the 1920s and in 1935 graduated from Liberty High School where in 1934 he played football on the team that won the state championship. After graduation he went to work at Bethlehem Steel in those hard Depression years, doing laboring jobs that included wielding a sledgehammer several hours a day.

In 1942, like many of his contemporaries, Breisch joined the Army, served overseas in Europe and eventually came home. He married his wife, Elizabeth, raised a family, and from 1945 until his retirement in 1978 worked for Bethlehem Steel and taught Sunday School at Salem Lutheran Church. He died in 1993.

But what made Howard Breisch different was how he served Uncle Sam in the war. For he was one of the select few, 1,100 to be exact, who was a member of what became known as the Ghost Army. This special top-secret outfit, whose doings were classified until 1996, after Breisch had died, was to create a diversion to keep the Nazi’s high command guessing as to where the Allied forces would land on the D-Day invasion of Europe. By use of inflatable tanks, bogus military regiments and false radio transmissions they threw off the plans of Hitler and his Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the so-called Desert Fox.

On March 20th a significant and long overdue event related to the Ghost Army took place in Washington, D.C. Speaker of the House of Representatives Micheal Johnson presented a Congressional Gold Medal to the seven surviving members (three were able to be present: Bernie Bluestein, of Hoffman Estates, Illinois; Seymour Nussenbaum, of Monroe Township, New Jersey, both 100; and John Christman of Leesburg, New Jersey, 99 ) of the Ghost Army. This unit’s mission was primarily to confuse and baffle the German Army in Europe as to the size and location of Allied forces in Europe.

Group-Photo of award

The units, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Company, carried out 25 battlefield deceptions in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and Italy. According to the Ghost Army Legacy Project, whose role is to preserve and honor the legacy of these men, most of the recruits were creative types of young men who would need to use their imagination to develop ways to confuse the enemy.

The Allies were fortunate in that they had managed to crack the German code at the start of the war. Known as Ultra or Enigma, Churchill called it “my most secret source.” But they needed something that could distract the Germans, most particularly when they were planning the invasion of France in the spring of 1944. Under the direction of Rommel, a line of fortifications had been erected that went from Scandinavia down the Atlantic coast of France. The most heavily defended area was at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point of the English Channel separating Britan from France. When they heard that General George Patton, whom they considered the best American general, had been appointed to the Pas de Calais they were convinced more than even that the invasion would take place there.

“What we did was we attracted the Germans attention so the real units could do whatever they had to do elsewhere,” said Bluestein who was serving as a private first class in the 603rd Camouflage Unit along with Breisch.

Activated on January 20, 1944, the Ghost Army arrived in Europe in May of that year. It was created by Army planners Ralph Ingersoll and Billy Harris and led be a Colonel Harry L. Leeder. The inspiration came from a British unit who had adopted similar deceptions during the battle of El Alamein in North Africa. They trained at Camp Forrest, Tennessee and Camp Pine, New York, now Fort Drum. Many were recruited from art schools, advertising schools and advertising agencies. Among them were later major figures in the U.S. art scene like Bill Blass and Ellsworth Kelly. Some were actors, set designers and engineers. Once in Britain they were based near Stratford-upon-Avon, where William Shakespeare had once lived.

Dummy Tanks on Rhine

Patches were made up for nonexistent units and broadcasts of commands were made over loudspeakers for regiments that did not exist. Luftwaffe flyers would swoop down and take pictures of fields full of “tanks” that supposedly were on maneuvers below. In the area around the Pas de Calais it was assumed by the Germans that a 30,000-man army was below. Records playing contemporary swing music like Glenn Miller and particularly one called “Six Lessons From Madame La Zonga” interpreted by Helen O’ Connell and Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra from the movie of the same name were among the selections.

The Ghost Army operated as close as a quarter mile from the front lines. Rick Beyer, who has written a recent book on the Ghost Army and was a producer and director of a 2013 documentary on them notes:

“It’s the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in the history of warfare…They are capable of projecting their deception – visual, sound, radio special effects-through all these different means, and they are essentially another arrow in the quiver of a battlefield commander to maneuver the enemy.”

The U.S. Army’s report credited the Ghost Army with saving the lives of between 15,000 and 30,000 servicemen. The officers encouraged the men to be theatrical. “There is too much MILITARY and not enough SHOWMANSHIP,” Lt. Fred Fox wrote in a memo. “We must remember that we are playing to a very critical and attentive radio, ground and aerial audience. They must all be convinced.”

Some sources give the Ghost Army’s final performance as the best. It mimicked two Ninth Army divisions -a 40,000-man force- set to make the difficult crossing of the Rhine River in March, 1945. Under cover of darkness, they set up an operation 10 miles south of the intended attack location. Here they inflated 200 decoy trucks and tanks, blaring sounds of rumbling vehicles, hammering and even soldiers swearing. “I guess we were successful because the Germans fired on us” recalled Bluestein.


A last word on Briesch was noted by one source:

“In 1984 Bethlehem Steel hired him back two days a week as a plant artist and graphic designer making signs, posters and flipcharts. Interestingly enough, one of the things I noticed on his Veterans Compensation Application was his artistic printing-when I looked at the document, I was surprised he wasn’t an artist or an architect, but it turned out he actually was!”

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