After decades of secrecy, 'Ghost Army' soldiers of WWII recognized with Congressional Gold Medal

Lawmakers participate in the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony Thursday honoring the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army, who used inflatable tanks, sound effects,and other fake equipment to lure the German Army away from Allied troops in World War II. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

March 21 (UPI) -- Sworn to secrecy for eight decades, the last surviving members of America's fabled "Ghost Army" finally got their recognition Thursday with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Bernard Bluestein, 100, John Christman, 99, and Seymour Nussenbaum, 100, were the distinguished guests at Thursday's event honoring the secret soldiers whose deception and shenanigans fooled German soldiers in World War II and possibly saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.

Some of those tactics included inflatable tanks, fake uniforms, camouflage and innovative acoustic sound effects.

"The soldiers included technicians and artists from around the country and they used their talents to deceive and divert the Nazis," House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said during the event. "Some of them paid the ultimate price, but because of the courageous work of this group, it is estimated that 15,000 to 30,000 lives were saved."

Bluestein, the only veteran who spoke at the ceremony, offered his thanks on behalf of all surviving veterans, saying "I am very proud and happy to be here."

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the Ghost Army of World War II. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the Ghost Army of World War II. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Men were recruited from creative fields, such as sound engineers, artists, set designers and architects to misdirect Nazi forces into believing U.S. military actions where happening in specific places rather than others. The details of the unit's actions were classified until 1996.

Shortly after D-Day, the unit deployed inflatable tanks and sent fake radio messages to convince Nazis occupying the French city of Brest that Americans would attack from the east and west, when in fact they were planning an attack from the north.

President of the Ghost Army Legacy Project Rick Beyer speaks during the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the Ghost Army on Thursday. Beyer directed a 2013 documentary about the Ghost Army, which led to a push to have their actions formally recognized after eight decades of secrecy. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
President of the Ghost Army Legacy Project Rick Beyer speaks during the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the Ghost Army on Thursday. Beyer directed a 2013 documentary about the Ghost Army, which led to a push to have their actions formally recognized after eight decades of secrecy. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said the Ghost Army's techniques of deception are still found on the battlefield.

"Even though technology has changed quite a bit since 1944, our modern techniques build on a lot of what the Ghost Army did and we are still learning from your legacy," she said. "Our experience observing the war in Ukraine has shown us that even with an increasingly transparent battlefield, military deception can still have a significant impact on military operations."

House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kenn., and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., look on during the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Most Ghost Army soldiers took their secrets to the grave. Wormuth said immediately after the war, soldiers of the unit received a letter of thanks from then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, with the sign-off, "If you tell anyone, I'll see that you hang."

The campaign to honor the soldiers of the Ghost Army came from a 2013 documentary of the same name, leading to the foundation of a nonprofit dedicated to their legacy in 2016.

People attend a Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army, who used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and other fake equipment to lure the German Army away from Allied troops in World War II. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
People attend a Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony honoring the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army, who used inflatable tanks, sound effects, and other fake equipment to lure the German Army away from Allied troops in World War II. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., the bill's first sponsor, was recruited to the effort by the documentary's director Rick Beyer.

Kuster, who's own father was a WWII pilot and a German POW, noted veterans rarely liked to talk about their service, but the Ghost Army especially had to keep quiet due to the clandestine nature of its operations.

"One of my favorite lines was one gentleman who would only tell his family, 'I blew up tanks,' without saying they were inflatable," she said at the event.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who introduced the act authorizing the medal, said he had worked alongside a Ghost Army vet, John McGlynn, in the Massachusetts state legislature. McGlynn died in 2016.

Beyer said many of the soldiers who have since passed away would be surprised to hear of the recognition bestowed on their unit Thursday.

"No soldier who served in this unit considers himself a hero," Beyer said. "I have talked to many veterans of the Ghost Army and each told me that the real heroes were the infantrymen and the tankers who bore the brunt of the fighting."

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor Congress can bestow on a person. The Ghost Army soldiers are the 185th entity to receive the award.

There are just seven surviving members of the Ghost Army in the United States.