At a time when the Nazis were intent on conquering Europe, a secret U.S. Army battalion used fake tanks, sound effects, and phony radio broadcasts to dupe the Germans and set the stage for the successful Allied advance across the continent and the liberation of Paris.
Using illusions they learned as artists, set designers, and architects, the unit operated often under cover of night and at times only several hundred yards from German troops, tricking them into believing a large American military presence was nearby.
The unit was so secretive that upon returning home to Brooklyn, Seymour Nussbaum told family and friends he had served as an engineer — after all, his division was called the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion.
Indeed, the operations of what came to be known as the “Ghost Army” were classified until 1995. The unit and its inflatable rubber tanks and Jeeps had proved so successful there were plans to possibly roll its tactics out again should hostilities break out with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Speaking Oct. 20 at Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge, where he is a founding member, Nussbaum of Monroe said he served in 1943-45, often working with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army as it advanced from Normandy to the Rhine River.
Prior to his talk, a PBS documentary, Ghost Army, which aired in May, was shown. The unit’s exploits have also been documented in the book, Ghost Army of World War II, by Jack Kneece.
While the Germans diverted troops to fight the “war of deception” against the Ghost Army, the real troops marched across Europe, easily overrunning the surprised Germans. According to the declassified records, the military estimates the duplicitous tactics saved the lives of between 15,000 and 30,000 soldiers.
The 1,100 men in the unit, all handpicked, had backgrounds in art, theater, radio, sound, or design. Nussbaum had taken a course in camouflage at the Pratt Institute in New York.
“You had to be transferred into this unit because it had a high priority,” he said. “They didn’t tell us much because it was a slow evolution. They had never tried anything like it before.”
Once drafted, Nussbaum was sent to Camp Kilmer, between Edison and Piscataway, and then to England. Later, he landed in France, coming ashore on Omaha Beach after the Allied invasion began.
The radio transmissions the unit replicated were so authentic they fooled the highly regarded German intelligence.
“Sometimes everything worked like a charm,” recalled Nussbaum. “Sometimes it was like a nightmare. It’s no fun being under fire or getting caught in an air raid.”
However, never were their skills more needed than when Patton found himself with an unprotected 60-70 mile stretch from Germany to Paris along the Moselle River.
In came the Ghost Army, whose soldiers spent the next week filling the air with the sounds of tanks and shouting troops and staging props so convincingly the Germans never even tried to advance. After seven days, the Army’s 83rd Armored Field Artillery Division arrived with real troops. Military records have since revealed the trickery was pivotal in the liberation of Paris.
Ghost Army members left behind a wealth of sketches and paintings of the war zones — the burned-out towns, the countryside, and the fighting itself. Many would go on to successful careers in architecture, design, advertising, illustration, or as artists. They included fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane. Nussbaum himself went back to school and had a long career in package design.
On his service during World War II, Nussbaum said, “I was there to do a job, and stay alive.”