The Ghost Army of World War II

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

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 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.


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  1. 🫡 Fantastic read! I’d love to have met them! 🇺🇸

  2. Wow, I had no idea about this unit and the jobs they did. Thank you for publishing this I found it so enlightening. I will share with others so they to will learn more about our incredible veterans.

  3. It never fails to amaze me the extent to which the warriors went to make sure WWII was won! Just unbelievable. Yet true. Thank you, soldiers!

  4. This actually one of my ancestors, so great to hear about this!

  5. May God bless these brave U. S, servicemen for what they did for us.

  6. So many stories and true heroism we hear about from time to time . Some wonderful….some heart wrenching…..some that went to the grave….

  7. American people, brave. Creative, artistic and super strong in spirit! God bless our service people.

  8. It all seems to far in the past now. My father’s been dead now for 32 years. He was a merchant sailor for most of the war. His generation was a great one.

  9. I read the book and would highly recommend it. Kudos to these brave, creative folks who did so much for their country!

  10. I had never heard of the Ghost Army before. This was a great read. Such interesting information. Would like to see the documentary.

  11. What an incredibly interesting story! God bless these brave individuals for their dedication to our great country!

  12. With the dangers of AI scamming thee days, it’s great to read about these creative ‘scammers’ who used those techniques for defeating the Nazi war machine. Thanks!

  13. I would like to mention my friend John Kucera, who passed away at 94 yrs. He was an artist, and from his accounts to me, did art for the US Army medical texts, then was with a specialized unit, painting glass eyes to match a wounded soldier’s eye. He was then transferred to a special camoflage unit to deceive the Germans. (after reading this, I believe it was probably this one). When the war was over, he put the together the Natural History displays at U of Penn, and also had a studio in NYC teaching art. He told me he and his students made the famous Macy Christmas Bells. At some point he lived in Dominican Republic for a time, then ended up on the coast of Maine, where I got to know him when he was carving birds (usually shore birds, Loons, Canada Geese, Swans, Herons, etc.) of which I have quite a few. He ended up on his son’s (Ret. Col.) plantation on the James river. Quite a person, quite a friend, I feel blessed and honored to have known him.

  14. “Secret Soldiers” by Philip Gerard tells the story of the 23rd HQ special troops in what he calls “The Story of World War II’s Heroic Army of Deception”. It is very well written and describes the secret war in an interesting and often humorous way.

    • Try also the following two books on the topic: Ghosts of the ETO by Jonathan Gawne and The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles.

  15. In the UK we have servicemen and woman who have not been recognised for their service due to the official secrets act: many have limits of 70 + plus years before the files can be open… wife’s great grandfather served in WW1 but during WW2 he worked on the land as a farmer, only recently we found out from notes in a diary he kept in the 80’s he was one of Churchills secret arm who would defend England if the Germans invaded, he never spoke about it to anyone and never received a medal, there was thousands of others men and women in Churchills secret all forgotten it will be another 50 yrs before the files are open. SHAME !!

  16. So amazing and appreciate all their strategic moves plus services for us and our country. They will all be remembered in our hearts & minds.💖

  17. Wonderful history lesson. Thank you. God bless all who served.

  18. Thank you for publishing this incredible true life story of our brave and amazing military troops… it gave me goose bumps as well as a smile on my face imagining the magnificent spoofs they pulled off during that war!

  19. My son in law’s grandfather Marion Pastorcich served on this unit. He was enrolled as an art major at Syracuse University and was recruited for his skills.

  20. This was amazing! I’ll definitely be looking in to the documentary.

  21. Very interesting. However ALL allied deception during WWII was run by the British under an organization known as the London Controlling Section. Therefore the 23rd would have operated under their direction on behalf of the US military. I have the brief outline on the LCS released after the 70s which includes the overall chain of command and who controlled this or that. The US aspect of deception for Patten’s fictitious army in the UK actually had insignia made for its non-existent units which was referred to as a “ghost” army.

    • My Grandpa was in this unit and it was very much part of the US Military. It was a highly classified until until 1996 that’s why no one knows about it

  22. Some of this information was used in Ken Follett’s excellent book and following movie, “Eye of the Needle.” Fascinating!!!

  23. This was great information, it is a group almost Like the SEA BEEs, Those that are out front doing everyday jobs with Building, clearing and communicating with the public and still working in the Service of the United States of America’s branches of service.

  24. Thank you for your story! You made the men who were involved more real than the other story, I had read or seen.

  25. i thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. i have always been a fan of hollywood war movies and cheer on the every day guy turned hero. who knew these brave souls were living a real life drama day after day. my dad was in the navy during WWll in intelligence. after the war he returned to civilian life and as far as i know, never mentioned his work in the service. i am a war baby and so proud of my dad and all the others who banded together and fought so fearlessly and then proudly but quietly returned to their loved ones.

  26. My Uncle was in a paratroopers unit that landed behind the lines in Italy. never allowed to say much about where and what they did.

  27. On 14 December 1944, my uncles were KIA. Lt. Halloran Sowles over Rangoon, Burma shot down in his B-29. PFC Lloyd W. Johnson, KIA Lembach, France. My Faher, SFC Lewis W. Sowles, Combat Medic with the 38th Med Co., 2nd Division, lost at the ‘Gauntlet’ Kunui-ri, North Korea 30 November 1950.

  28. Respect and a sharp snappy salute. Bless these and all veterans who served our country and are no longer with us.

  29. My step-father, Clarke Leigh Bicking (1914-2008) served in the Ghost Army, and it was only in the few days before his death that he ever spoke of it. He had shared other aspects of his Army experience, but not that. He returned to Autocar Trucks after the war, and stayed there, as a designer, until his retirement in about 1968.

  30. Wonderful article of all the things we did not know and the men who did them, My father served in WWII and was a lucky one that returned home. Memorial day we often talked about the friends who did not return.

  31. I did see a tv show awhile back that definitely could have been about The Ghost Army. Was it shown in 2010? Could have been. Time is passing so quickly, I can hardly keep up. The faux landscaping they improvised that hid less beneign military accoutrements from aerial view was also impressive.

  32. I also had not known of the “ghost army”. Grateful for the part they played to help win the war and precious freedom. I had 3uncles who bravely served in that war- army, navy and marines. Also 16 year old cousin who enlisted in navy. Thank you for the telling of this story.

  33. I really enjoyed reading about this great story ,they were so brave and smart . God bless them all and will honor these and all who loved and protected our country.

  34. Although I was very much aware of the unit supposedly headed up by General Patton and served in the US Army for 12 years in position or another, your great research and detail brought more information in 5 minutes of reading than all I knew of the unit before. Bless their souls and thank you for sharing this.

  35. This operation was far from being kept secret for fifty years after the war. I remember my father and and other veterans talking about it. Also heard about it in a high school class.

  36. I never knew of the Ghost Army. It was a wonderful read and how those young men dedicated their lives to protect our Nation. They truly were defenders of the land of the free and home of the brave….our United States of America.
    When you see a military person, please take the time to shake their hand and tell them thank you for their service.

  37. I am only here because my dad came home and I honor those who did not. My dad, Preston Johnson, was one of those “I was only doing my job” guys and although was on a Navy ship in the middle of the Pacific most of the war he would not use any of his VA benefits because – he was only doing his job.

  38. I bet these men got to enjoy the war more than most. They knew they were “liars” and he fact that
    the enemy believed there lies made it “almost fun”.

  39. Sounds like my Dad’s incredible war stories. Thanks for making it real.

  40. Great stories and great men who served.. Had an uncle who served in wwII and was captured by the germans and remained a pow for 2 yrs in a camp.

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