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The Ghost Army

World War II's Artists of Deception

Rick Beyer Memorial Day 2014 Address

rick beyer speaker history WWII
Rick Beyer was the main speaker for the 2014 Memorial Day commemoration on Lexington Common. In his remarks, he talked about just why he thinks it is important to remember the story of The Ghost Army.

What a great honor to speak under this flag, on this spot, where men first gave their lives in the revolution that would breathe life into these United States. I want to salute everyone involved in today’s ceremonies, especially parade marshal Jack Ryan, and all of the other veterans who have joined us today.

Seventy years ago today hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were readying themselves for the Normandy Invasion. On June 6, 1944, along beaches code-named Omaha and Utah, these GIs would begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Among the multitudes gathered for the invasion were the men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the remarkable unit that became known as The Ghost Army. This traveling road show of deception went into action shortly after D-Day, using inflatable tanks, sound effects, illusion and impersonation to deceive Hitler’s legions on the battlefields of Europe.

They did not employ the steel of the bayonet, or the power of artillery, but instead wielded imagination, bravado, and creativity. They staged 21 different battlefield deceptions to keep the Germans guessing about the real strength and location of American forces.

Extraordinary as it is, their story is just one of many from the global cataclysm we call World War II.  So why is it worth remembering today?

It was first of all a marvelous example of leadership and daring. All too often, when the stakes are high, the tendency is to go conservative. But here we see the U.S. Army reaching for something out of the ordinary. Nobody knew if it would really work. Blowing up inflatable tanks on the battlefield? Using sound effects records to conjure up phony troop movements? What a crazy idea. Yet high-ranking generals had the vision and guts to take the risk. They dared to innovate. And it worked.

The Ghost Army also demonstrates the power of America’s most remarkable resource: our diversity. It begins with the mismatched pair of officers who dreamed up this madcap idea: a flamboyant left-wing journalist named Ralph Ingersoll who was drafted under protest, and a buttoned down West Pointer named Billy Harris from a family with a long military tradition. It took the divergent talents of this  odd couple to bring the Ghost Army into existence. They also coordinated its deception missions throughout the war.

And who carried out these missions? High society artists from New York City working alongside truck-drivers from Tennessee. Radio writers from Hollywood and bartenders from Louisiana.  As on soldier told me: “It was a big war. It was a big war and everybody went.” For many it was the first time they had ever been exposed to people so different than themselves. Future fashion designer Bill Blass, one of many artists who served in this unit, recalled that you could hear Beethoven’s Fifth at one end of the barracks, and “Pistol Packin’ Mama” at the other.

These men of staggeringly different backgrounds worked together to pull off their battlefield illusions. Today, when our nation is divided in so many ways, we do well to remember the power of embracing those who look or think or speak differently than us in pursuit of the common good.

No man who served in this unit considered himself a hero. Each would tell you that the real heroes were the infantryman and tankers who bore the brunt of the fighting. But it has always struck me that their deception mission demanded a special kind of courage. To operate on or near the front with no heavy weapons…to project strength when you have none…to purposely draw enemy fire, in order to keep it from falling on others? A dangerous business, not for the faint of heart.

And yes, they did take casualties. Men died to carry out these missions. It is fitting and proper to remember them by name. Captain Thomas Wells, Sergeant George Peddle, and Corporal Chester Peliccioni made the ultimate sacrifice, and on this Memorial Day we honor their memory

Many more, of course, have died in the years since. Today the Ghost Army is increasingly an army of ghosts. Most of the men have left us. The youngest surviving veterans are nearly ninety. In another decade or so I fear they will all be gone, along with almost every one of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II.

It will be up to the rest of us to make sure they are not forgotten.

Five hundred years ago, the brilliant and cunning political philosopher Machiavelli wrote these words: “Though fraud in all other actions be odious, yet in matters of war it is laudable and glorious.” The men of the Ghost Army were not textbook soldiers or heroes, yet they served with ingenuity, courage and honor. By fooling the enemy, they sought to lessen the number of men destined to die, young, trembling, in a muddy field so very far from home.

Veteran Stanley Nance summed it up this way: “If one mother, or one new bride, was spared the agony of putting a gold star in their front window. That’s what the 23rd Headquarters was all about.”

Which truly does strike me as something laudable and glorious, worth recalling on this Memorial Day.
Thank you very much.