Anthony Young grew up on Chicago’s South Side, graduated from Lindblom High School in 1940 and was thrilled to receive a scholarship to study at the Art Institute.
But times were tough, so he shelved his dreams and went to work for People’s Gas. Then World War II happened. Young heard the Army needed artists and enlisted in October 1942. He won assignment to a camouflage battalion that disguised airplane factories and artillery emplacements from prying enemy eyes.
One day, out of the blue, Young and his fellow camoufleurs were transferred to one of the most extraordinary units of that or any other war: The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, better known as The Ghost Army.
Their bizarre mission was to use inflatable tanks and artillery, sound effects, phony radio transmissions and play-acting to hoodwink Hitler’s legions on the battlefields of Europe. They landed on Omaha and Utah Beaches shortly after D-Day and went on to conduct 21 different tactical deceptions against the Germans.
Time after time, their expert trickery kept the Germans in the dark about the true strength and location of American forces.
In September 1944, they helped hold a perilously thin spot in General George Patton’s line near Metz. During the Battle of the Bulge, they diverted German attention from the Allied effort to relieve Bastogne. As the war neared its end, the 1,100 men in this traveling road show of deception pretended to be two full infantry divisions, 30,000 soldiers, allowing the U.S. Ninth Army to cross with minimal casualties and maximum effectiveness.
It took a rare and audacious brand of courage to operate on or near the front lines without heavy weapons. They took dozens of casualties as they drew enemy fire in order to keep it from falling on other GIs.
Was it worth the cost? By some estimates, their carefully staged ploys saved 15,000 to 25,000 lives. A top-secret U.S. Army report on the Ghost Army – written decades after the war – categorized their exploits this way: “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.”
The Allies marked Victory in Europe on May 8, 1945, VE Day, and the men of this top-secret unit went home. They were told to keep their battlefield theatrics to themselves. No parades, no bouquets, for these soldiers. Just pretend it never happened.
Tony Young returned to Chicago and his job at People’s Gas. He retired as advertising manager in 1984. “He was very proud of his military service,” recalls his daughter Erika Vrabel, of Hollywood Park, “but never shared specifics about it until later in his life.”
Because what they did was so highly prized, it was kept top secret until the end of the Cold War. That secrecy precluded any public honors. Seventy-five years later, they still have not had their due.
Tony Young died in 2009 at age 87. Of the 1,100 men who served in The Ghost Army, fewer than 25 remain. They include 95-year-old Bernie Bluestein of Palatine and 93-year-old Harold Flinn from Maquon, downstate near Galesburg.
It is time for these men and the families of their fallen comrades to receive the belated recognition they so richly deserve.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to award the men of the Ghost Army a Congressional Gold Medal “for their proficient use of innovative tactics during World War II, which saved lives and made significant contributions to the defeat of the Axis powers.” The bill has bipartisan support but requires two-thirds of the House and Senate to co-sponsor in order for it to be considered.
Now is the moment to honor these soldiers – while some of them are still here to bear witness.
Five hundred years ago, the brilliant and cunning political philosopher Machiavelli wrote these words: “Though fraud in all other actions be odious, yet in matters of war it is laudable and glorious.” The men of the Ghost Army were not textbook soldiers or heroes, yet they served with ingenuity, courage and honor. By fooling the enemy, they sought to lessen the number of men destined to die too young, trembling, in a muddy field so very far from home.
Ghost Army veteran Stanley Nance summed it up: “If one mother, or one new bride, was spared the agony of putting a gold star in their front window, that’s what the 23rd Headquarters was all about.”
That certainly qualifies as something laudable and glorious. To pay tribute to their efforts, please ask your congressman and senators to award the men of the Ghost Army this long overdue honor from a grateful nation.
Rick Beyer produced and directed the PBS documentary The Ghost Army. He is president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project, a non-profit dedicated to remembering and honoring the unit.
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