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June 16, 2022 1:25 pm

New Exhibit at Illinois Holocaust Museum Highlights Nazi-Deceiving ‘Ghost Army’ in World War II

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

Inside the exhibit “Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II.” Photo: National Archives; The National WWII Museum.

A top secret unit of the US Army known as the “Ghost Army,” whose main goal was to deceive and trick Nazi forces in Europe during World War II, is the focus of a new exhibition that opened Thursday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II” shares information about the US Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which was activated on January 20, 1944, and became the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in the history of the American army. The selected group of 82 officers and 1,023 men — consisting of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees — carried out covert operations across Europe that saved thousands of lives and played a crucial role in helping the Allied forces be victorious in World War II.

Under the command of Army veteran Colonel Harry L. Reeder, the top secret unit simulated two whole divisions — approximately 30,000 men — while being armed with nothing heavier than .50 caliber machine guns. They used inflatable tanks and vehicles, false radio traffic and sound effects, and fake generals to dupe German forces.

“’Ghost Army’ explores the bravery, heroics, and creativity of this first-of-its kind military unit,” said Kelley Szany, vice president of education and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “The Museum is proud to highlight their vital contributions that went unrecognized following the war.”

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The exhibit explains 22 large-scale deceptions launched by the special unit in Europe, from Normandy to the Rhine River, between D-Day and the end of the war. Visitors can learn about unit operations, profiles of unit officers, archival photographs, and sketches from unit officers. Artifacts in the exhibit include artwork, uniforms, and inflatable tanks and planes.

After the war, the unit’s soldiers were bound to secrecy and records were classified, according to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which originally curated the exhibit. Aside from one newspaper article published following the war, the Ghost Army was not spoken about publicly until the 1980s.

The army unit was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President Joe Biden earlier this year.

Rick Beyer, Ghost Army Legacy Project president and a consultant for the new exhibit, said, “The Ghost Army soldiers are really the unsung heroes of WWII, who in total secrecy did so much to help bring down Nazi tyranny. They used creativity, performance, illusion, and pure bravura to confound Hitler’s legions and help bring about Allied victory.”

The exhibit features exclusive, original content from the National WWII Museum archives along with historical artifacts curated and donated by Beyer.

The exhibition runs until Jan. 2, 2023.

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