In Maryland’s Hillcrest Memorial Gardens, a fairly simple gravestone marks the resting place of Alvin Louis Shaw. As you can see from the inscription beneath his name, Shaw was a WWII veteran who served with the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.
These few words conceal the unusual role this unit played, one that was strictly kept secret for 50 years after the war. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the classified status was lifted, that the men of the 23rd began to share stories from their time with what came to be called “The Ghost Army.”
The Ghost Army
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were a deception-based unit of around 1100 men who worked together to create elaborate ruses in the final year of WWII. Their job was to help fool German forces about the true numbers and movements of U.S. troops. Though the success of their assignments is hard to quantify, their deceptions are believed to have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
Aside from the HQ staff, four companies made up the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops: The 406th Engineer Combat Company; the Signal Company Special; the 3132nd Signal Service Company; and the company to which Alvin Shaw belonged, the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. Together these “Cecil B. DeMille Warriors,” as veteran Dick Syracuse lovingly called his unit, used their talents for art, sound design, radio, and subterfuge to create one of the most imaginative military deceptions in history.
The 406th Engineer Combat Company
George Rebh, then a captain, led a special unit of 168 trained fighters who became the 406th Engineer Combat Co. In addition to acting as guards for the 23rd —a largely theatrical troop that was dangerously unequipped for actual combat—these men were assigned to the construction and demolition work that helped the troop function. Not that they weren’t also involved in the more artistic side of the missions—their bulldozers created realistic tank tracks, and occasionally they’d use flash artillery expertly coordinated with sound effects to fool those watching from a distance.
Sometimes they’d also take on roles, like parts in a play. Rebh once shared a memorable experience during Operation Viersen when he did just that. He’d been given the task of impersonating a full colonel as part of the ruse and was recognized by several fellow West Point men who had graduated ahead of him. They were mystified by how quickly he’d passed them in rank, and to a full colonel no less! When they asked about it, they were told it was just one of those army things— “Colonel” Rebh had been in the right place at the right time. It was one of several occasions that the members of the 23rd would deceive not just the Germans, but their own allies, to ensure the secrecy of their mission.
George Rebh would later be part of the Korean and Vietnam Wars and eventually retired as a major general in 1975. He lived to the age of 96 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Signal Company Special
The Signal Company Special was charged with radio deception. Fake transmissions, invented dialogues, and entirely fabricated scenarios were created by 288 radio operators who were part of the company.
One of these men was Alfred “Spike” Berry, who called their radio deception work the “stage-setter” for the better-known inflatable tanks and sound recordings done by the other companies. Through transmissions done in both plain English and cleverly crackable codes, the Signal Company Special detailed the movements of the Ghost Army units. German Army listeners would end up using that information to track the 23rd’s fake prop convoys, giving genuine troops the chance to move unseen.
The Signal Company Special’s deceptions breathed life into the elaborate scenes created by the other companies. They were, as Berry said, the “silent orchestra underneath the musical on the stage.”
Spike Berry’s radio work continued after the war ended, this time as a voice personality and later owner of local radio stations in North and South Dakota, California, and Hawaii. He passed away in 2014 at age 89 and was buried in the town where he grew up—Jamestown, North Dakota.
The 3132 Signal Service Company
While misdirection had the Germans tracking fake army units, the 3132 Signal Service Company had the job of making those fake units sound real. The 150 men in the company created what they called “concerts,” which included the noises of tanks driving and shifting gears, banging and hammering and other bustling activity, and even voices shouting orders and cursing. Al Albrecht, who worked with the 3132nd, said “the back of my half-track…was the biggest boom box you ever saw. But it played sounds of tanks and activity.”
Some of the 3132nd’s deceptions believably simulated a full corps, which usually number around 20,000 to 45,000 men. The effect was incredibly convincing, sometimes fooling even nearby friendly units.
Like many in the 23rd, those in the 3132nd would also take on personas to impersonate real officers or units. While a real outfit quietly moved unnoticed miles away, the “dummy” versions wore their insignias and patches, decorated their vehicles, and let themselves be noticed just enough to make civilians (and spies) believe they were legitimate.
After the war, Al Albrecht returned home to Milwaukee, married his wife, Doris, and worked as a salesman. Once the Ghost Army’s true nature was released from confidentiality, he became a natural speaker about his experiences.
He died from pancreatic cancer in 2010, but not before being shown a special early screening of the PBS documentary “The Ghost Army” in which he was one of 20 veterans interviewed. He was buried in West Granville Cemetery in Granville, Wisconsin.
The 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion
At around 380 men, the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion was the largest company in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. They created the more well-known sights of the Ghost Army’s deceptions, using their incredible artistic talents to make fake tanks, howitzers, trucks, and other vehicles out of wood, fabric, and inflatables. On a smaller scale, they’d simulate the kind of trash, bullet casings, and similar debris that a real contingent of men might leave behind—anything to bring that sense of life and realism to a “scene.”
The battalion had been previously trained in camouflage, and used those skills to expose just enough that their creations would be noticed without being too obvious. Attention to detail and a strong understanding of art, shadow, and human nature all came together in creating tableaus so realistic they’d make German reconnaissance believe they’d photographed a real army.
Many of the men in the 603rd went on to have successful art careers. Arthur Singer, who became a well-known illustrator for books like Birds of America, was known to leave any blank walls at their camps splashed with his art. Edward Boccia, who sent home rolls of the art he created in cafes and foxholes, produced more than 1400 artworks throughout his life, some of which can be seen in museums across the county. Ellsworth Kelly became a famous painter and sculptor and is now considered one of the most prominent American artists of the 20th century.
Alvin Shaw, whose grave was shared at the start of this post, was also part of the 603rd. An artist like many of the others, his sketches during his time in Europe capture the unit’s movements through England, France, and Germany. He was discharged with the rank of corporal and returned home to his wife, Margaret, in Annapolis, Maryland, where they both worked at the Naval Experimental Station. He passed away in 2005 at age 96.
There are countless stories that could be told about the 23rd Special Headquarters Troops, both broadly and within the men’s own personal lives. Many of these can be found on ghostarmy.org and in the 2013 documentary The Ghost Army, where you can hear some of the Ghost Army veterans themselves share memories and experiences from the war and beyond.
Thank you to those of the 23rd Special Headquarters Troops, and to all who have served and sacrificed for their country. We hope this has inspired an interest in learning more about the Ghost Army, or perhaps about a veteran in your own family! And next time you come across an epitaph, why not see where it leads you? There may be more to the story than meets the eye.
Visit our news blog to read more about a recent update on Find a Grave and how you can indicate someone’s service as a veteran on their memorial.