Three local World War II veterans will be honored by the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey for their roles in a top-secret mission that used camouflage, decoys, and Hollywood-like special effects to deceive the Nazis.
Seymour Nussenbaum of Monroe Township, Gilbert Seltzer of West Orange, and the late Irving Mayer of Dover were all members of the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops but secretly served among the artists and architects in the “Ghost Army.”
It wasn’t until 1996, more than a half-century after the war ended, that they and some 1,000 American soldiers were permitted to discuss their role in defeating Hitler’s army before and after the Normandy Invasion in June 1944.
Without the knowledge of most others in the military, they designed inflatable camouflage tanks and other decoy weapons, used state-of-the-art audio equipment to simulate the sounds of troop movements, and masqueraded as members of other combat units to deceive the Germans.
“Before D-Day, we were training in England for the decoy mission, which would misdirect German troops away from the actual invasion beaches,” said the 100-year-old Seltzer in an Oct. 15 phone interview. “This was not an easy romp.”
“The whole purpose was deception under the blanket of counter-intelligence,” said Nussenbaum.
On Tuesday, Nov. 11, the historical society will present a screening of a 2013 PBS documentary, The Ghost Army, at 7 p.m. in a conference room at the Aidekman campus in Whippany. One of the Ghost Army’s inflatable rubber tanks will be on display in the building’s atrium.
The program will be open to all free of charge.
Members of the Ghost Army — many of whom worked as artists, architects, and designers before the war — created 93-pound rubber tanks that could be pumped up with air in 20 minutes. “If you went 20 or 30 feet away you couldn’t tell the difference between an inflatable tank and a real one. They were magnificent,” Nussenbaum told NJ Jewish News.
Wire recorders — the forerunners to magnetic tape — mimicked the sounds of real tanks and men and equipment on the move.
“They even staged conversations, like, 'Hey, you got a cigarette over there?’” said Robert Mayer, a Chicago resident whose late father, Irving, later became a mechanical engineer who worked on real weapons.
“I am very proud of Irving, and I am very grateful that what he did is no longer a classified part of our history,” said Irving’s widow, Sandy, who now resides in Morristown.
Other “ghosts” put Third Army insignia on their uniforms and vehicles. “We would wander around in Normandy while the actual troops of the Third Army were training in England. We were decoy troops,” said Seltzer.
Others would walk into the local bars in French towns, start drinking, and spread false rumors.
“We were in lots of danger,” Seltzer told NJJN. “We were located close to the front almost everywhere. One of our missions was to draw fire away from real outfits.
“Why we escaped I don’t know.”
“It was a very proud time in my life,” he added. “I am very happy I went through it, but I wouldn’t do it again for anything.”
“It was all a crap shoot,” said Nussenbaum. “I felt there was a job to be done and that is what fate had for me. If I had been an infantryman I might have gotten killed.”
Their 40 heroic missions remained unheralded during the Cold War “because some military people felt they might be usable again in another situation,” possibly against the Soviet Union, said JHS of NJ executive director Linda Forgosh.