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Last living members of secret Ghost Army see medal for WWII battlefield deception

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on men who have been called combat con artists. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports on a long-secret Army unit that helped win World War II with battlefield deception.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The story of what's become known as the Ghost Army plays like a good caper movie. Its soldiers impersonated American generals, deployed formations of fake inflatable trucks and tanks and drunkenly spread disinformation in bars across Europe.

ED BURLEY: The Ghost Army was unique in that they integrated all these techniques into a process that was highly believable.

PRICE: Retired Brigadier General Ed Burley was a senior commander in Army psychological operations, where he says the Ghost Army's basic approach is still used to deceive enemies.

BURLEY: They integrated visual things like inflatable tanks and cannons and jeeps and airplanes so that there would be visual proof to, say, a German airplane that there was an enemy unit there. But they reinforced it with the loudspeakers, making it so that there was something that they could hear that said, OK, it sounds like trucks and things moving around. They then added fake radio traffic.

PRICE: The Ghost Army's goal was to confuse the Germans about the movements and locations of real combat units. Its work was so secretive, most of the 1,100 soldiers in the unit weren't given the big picture. Ninety-nine-year-old George Dramis of Raleigh, N.C., was a Ghost Army radio operator. He says the men would compare notes and scratch their heads.

GEORGE DRAMIS: Why did we do this? Why did we do that? We guessed at it, pretty much.

PRICE: Dramis' job was to send fake radio transmissions by Morse code, that mix of dots and dashes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEGRAPH BEEPING)

PRICE: German intelligence intercepted American radio traffic, so Ghost Army radio operators carefully mimicked the Morse code transmissions of real American unit, even using names and fake personal news.

DRAMIS: Things like so-and-so got another stripe today, sergeant so-and-so.

PRICE: Experienced radio operators can often identify each other by their so-called fist, their style of hitting those dots and dashes. So Dramis had to impersonate that, too.

DRAMIS: It wasn't hard. Most guys were choppers with the hand key.

PRICE: Choppers with the hand key, their wrists too stiff to sound smooth. In addition to the inflatable props, sound effects and fake radio traffic, the Ghost Army later added a fourth element it called special effects, physically impersonating soldiers and other U.S. units.

RICK BEYER: So they're putting on phony patches. They're painting on phony markings on their trucks. They have, you know, some lieutenant or some captain who's portraying a colonel or a general in order to fool any enemy spies that are left behind.

PRICE: Rick Beyer directed a PBS documentary and co-authored a book about the Ghost Army.

BEYER: In one deception, the officer and his sergeant went into 19 bars and basically had a drink at each one and announced that the Sixth Armored Division was coming through. And they said that by the end of the evening, they might have been pretty drunk. But every single person in the town of Rennes believed that the Sixth Armored Division was coming in because of what they had done.

PRICE: The culmination of their work, their masterpiece, was successfully impersonating two full army divisions so those units could sneak over the Rhine River into Germany's industrial heart, 1,100 men trying to seem like 30,000. The Ghost Army got a commendation letter for that, but it doesn't say what they did. It was a secret then, and even decades after the war ended, their exploits remained classified in case the military had to do the same things again. And so the Ghost Army vanished in a new way.

BEYER: Ironically, because it was so deeply classified, the army kind of forgot about it until the late '80s, when they suddenly rediscovered this and started bringing Ghost Army soldiers to the Pentagon for briefings on what they had done and picked it up again.

PRICE: Beyer and others fought for years to finally get the Ghost Army its Congressional Medal. Just seven men from the unit are still alive to appreciate the honor. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price
Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.