Thousands of history books, novels, movies and TV shows depict the many conflicts and battles of World War II. It sometimes seems there are no stories left untold. Yet there are examples of tactical daring, personal courage and sacrifice that have never received the full recognition and honor they deserve. One of them is the Ghost Army.
The Ghost Army was made up of small units of U.S. soldiers on the battlefields of Europe that used clever tactics to fool enemy troops and divert them away from actual advancing Allied forces. Their creative techniques included the positioning of fake, inflatable tanks and armored vehicles, loudspeakers on top of trucks blasting the ominous sounds of marching troops, and bogus radio chatter with false intelligence to confuse nearby Germans. These illusions were often designed to convince the enemy they were outnumbered, or confuse them about where American attacks were likely to take place.
The Ghost Army, which included the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in Germany, France, Belgium and Luxemburg, and the 3133rd Signal Company Special in Italy, staged more than 20 deception operations, often operating dangerously close to the front lines. They have been called “a traveling road show of deception,” with a unit of only 1,100 troops looking and sounding like as many as 30,000.
Because it was all done in secret, their intrepid exploits were classified for nearly 50 years after the war. They were unknown to the public and unheralded for their battlefield ingenuity.
But that has begun to change.
The House of Representatives recently passed a bill to award these units a Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation’s highest expressions of appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions. This bipartisan legislation had overwhelming support in the House — more than 298 Representatives co-sponsored the bill, including three-quarters of Missouri’s House delegation. Now a companion bill awaits action in the Senate.
As daughters of Ghost Army veterans, we urge the Senate to act on this bill. Our fathers, Ed Boccia and Joe Spence, served in the camouflage battalion that handled those inflatable tanks. Both were talented artists who went on to long careers as art educators after the war: Spence in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Ohio, and Boccia right here in Missouri at Washington University. Both were proud of their contributions to the war effort.. Both were proud of their contributions to the war effort. As Spence, told an interviewer in 2005, “We saved a lot of lives, and history will certainly bear that out.”
Sadly, neither of them is with us today. There are only 11 veterans of the Ghost Army still alive. We know how much this honor would mean to them, and to the families of all the men who served alongside our fathers in these units. But more than that, it will help this secret unit find its rightful place in history.
The Ghost Army is credited with saving over 30,000 lives, with one military analyst saying, “Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.” Many of its members went on to successful and notable careers in the creative arts and entertainment fields, continuing their contributions to society. Yet these men have never been officially honored for the significant role they played in the Allied victory over Adolf Hitler in World War II.
We are proud that Missouri has designated June 6 as “Ghost Army Recognition Day.” An exhibit at the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City will highlight the Ghost Army’s history and connections with the state, and a commemoration in Branson, Missouri, will feature an exhibit, a tribute and a screening of a documentary on the deception units. A special program already has been held at Fort Leonard Wood as well.
We hope that through these events, people who have never heard this story will encounter this incredible piece of history that has been such a big part of our lives. We also hope that these celebrations will prompt Missourians to contact their Senators, Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, and encourage them to co-sponsor Senate Bill 1404, the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal bill, so that it can move forward.
The time has come to honor these brave, unsung heroes of World War II.
Carolyn Spence Cagle, of Lampe, Missouri, is the daughter of Ghost Army veteran Joseph R. Spence Jr. Alice Boccia, of St. Louis, is the daughter of Ghost Army veteran Edward E. Boccia. Both Joe and Ed were artists who served in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the visual deception arm of the Ghost Army, and both went on to careers in the arts following the war.