The director of a new PBS documentar y tells the once-secret stor y of how phantom US troops, inflatable tanks, and Hollywood sound effects fooled the Wehrmacht.
Rubling out of Paris late on September 14, 1944, a convoy of troop-filled American half-tracks, trucks, and jeeps left the City of Light behind and rolled east. By noon the next day the US Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops had travelled 250 miles and were moving into position along the Moselle River, near Metz, France. Inside their vehicles, GIs were edgy; German lines were reportedly less than two miles to the east, just across the river. “We’re the only outfit on this part of the front except for one cavalry squadron spread very thinly,” wrote Sergeant Bob Tompkins in his diary. “No one knows where front is.” The Americans had rushed here to carry out a vital and dangerous mission dubbed Operation Bettembourg. Their job was to put on a show before an unknowing audience of German soldiers. With a roster of just 1,100 men, the tiny 23rd was going to plug a hole in the winding lines of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army by impersonating the 6th Armored Division—with no weapon bigger than a .50-caliber machine gun.
Technically not even a combat unit, the 23rd existed strictly to deceive the enemy, and it did so with a remarkable arsenal of rubber dummies, air-filled tanks and trucks, sound effects, and all the illusions its GIs could conjure. Its men understood that their lives depended on the quality of their performance. “There was nothing but our hopes and prayers that separated us from a panzer division,” veteran Bob Conrad recalled. But thousands of other lives were at stake as well. If the Germans realized how thinly held the American sector was, they could smash through it and attack Patton’s army from the rear. It was just another day in the life of the unit that would become known as the Ghost Army... (download or view this article here)