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Ghost Army finally gets congressional honors, 7 decades after deceiving (and defeating) Hitler

Dummy M7 Priest Ghost Army inflatable tank
The Ghost Army Legacy Project
The Ghost Army Legacy Project
A member of the Ghost Army's 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion stands in front of an inflatable tank destroyer designed to trick German soldiers.

This weekend, the brave soldiers who used deception to defeat Hitler are finally getting the Congressional Gold Medal — 78 years after they served in what’s become known as the “Ghost Army.”

The 1,100 men in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops served in the European theater after D-Day, using elaborate props, fake radio broadcasts and good old-fashioned whisper campaigns to mislead Nazi commanders. Some historians believe they helped save the lives of 30,000 Allied troops.

But their work remained classified for decades after the war ended. Many of the troops never even spoke of it to family members.

That changed in 1996, and in the years since, a concerted effort to honor their service gained momentum in Missouri and other states. (Missouri even named June 6 “Ghost Army Recognition Day” in 2020, with an interpretative display about their work coming to the Missouri State Museum Veterans Gallery a year later.)

Last week, President Joe Biden signed the bill giving Ghost Army members the recognition their family members have long sought. The ceremony is scheduled for this coming weekend.

Listen to St. Louis on the Air discuss the Ghost Army

For the World War II veterans and their family members, the recognition is long overdue. Carolyn Spence Cagle of Lampe, Missouri, remembers her father never spoke of his exploits until after his work was declassified. “He was a straight-and-narrow guy for the most part,” she recalled on St. Louis on the Air last spring.

She added: “I remember that my father, when he was allowed to talk about his experience during World War II, went into his study where there was a bureau, and he got out these medals that he had received from the French government for his service. And his eyes were wet.”

She said, “To know our dad was actually doing something that merited governmental gratitude was just phenomenal.”

Cagle later became part of a coterie of Ghost Army family members who helped push for the veterans to be honored by their own government, not just France’s. She worked closely with filmmaker Rick Beyer, who directed the 2013 documentary “The Ghost Army” and later took on the herculean task of lobbying for members to receive a congressional medal through his Ghost Army Legacy Project.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Beyer explained that he got a crash course in the realities of American governance, with 535 elected representatives all facing endless pleas for attention.

“In congressional offices, nothing is a no-brainer,” he observed. “Nobody opposed this on the merits. Nobody said, the Ghost Army doesn't deserve this medal. But it's just hard. It's just hard, hard work.”

Beyer said the honors come too late for all but 10 members of the unit. Every last soldier he interviewed for his documentary is now dead.

“The Ghost Army has become an army of ghosts,” he said.

Even so, he said, Congress’ recognition matters. The families are thrilled by it.

And beyond that, he said, “We owe it to ourselves to honor this unit — to recognize the role of creativity and performance and illusion and creative thinking on the battlefield and say, ‘Well, this is something we want to honor and preserve as an inspiration to us all.’”

Related Event
What: The Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Celebration
When: 1 p.m. Feb. 13
Where: YouTube link for streaming

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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