COVINGTON, Ga. — Jack Stanley was a ghost during World War II. He was a master of deception, tricking enemy forces into believing the Allies were places they weren’t, spilling secrets that were really misinformation, and saving tens of thousands of lives.
His Army unit didn’t officially exist during the war, or indeed, for half a century after. Stanley, of Covington, was a member of the Ghost Army, an elite 1,000-member secret unit of the U.S. Army that used inflatable tanks, sound effects, fake radio broadcasts and old-fashioned playacting to confound the Nazis. The show they put on was massive in scope.
“Some of that stuff we did would have made old Cecil B. DeMille proud,” Stanley said.
The Ghost Army staged about 20 battlefield deceptions from June 1944 to March 1945 and was part of some of the most famous conflicts in the war, including the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine River.
Stanley was a radio operator, transmitting fake radio messages for interception by the Germans. He and his comrades would imitate different divisions in the field and make it seem as though they were on the move or getting ready to move.
Sound effects specialists would play records of tanks cranking up and moving out. They would use rubber inflatable tanks, trucks, jeeps and airplanes that “we’d blow up like a balloon,” Stanley said. The inflatables looked realistic, from the ground and the air, and fooled the Germans about troops’ locations and where they were headed. They would put fake bumper markings identifying a specific division and ride through town, pull into a vacant field at night, remove the markings and replace them with those of a different division. They’d also sew patches from various divisions onto their uniforms.
“To anybody in these villages, we were one outfit after another moving up to the front line,” Stanley said. “Meanwhile, as a radio operator, I’d send fake radio messages identifying me as such and such an outfit and it would all paint a picture.”
Sometimes, Ghost Army members would act as if they were drunk and stumble into bars, pretending to spill classified information about operations.
“We knew the Germans had stool pigeons in these places,” Stanley said.
Many of the members of the Ghost Army were makeup artists, engineers, actors, sound technicians and press agents. Stanley was picked because of his training in radio operations and because he had a high IQ, a requirement to be in the unit. Not that he knew any of that when he was first told he would be leaving his training post with the 42nd Infantry Division at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
Once he arrived at Camp Forrest, Tenn., to train with the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, otherwise known as the Ghost Army, and saw all the inflatable vehicles, “I was beginning to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.” Though at first skeptical, Stanley admitted later on, “it got to be kind of fun.”
But the Ghost Army was in real peril, often facing heavy fire. Stanley emerged unscathed despite a few close calls, and the entire unit lost only two soldiers. Their remarkable ability to trick and to keep secrets proved to be life-saving.
The Ghost Army’s most successful operation was the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. It succeeded in tricking the Germans into believing the crossing was about to take place near the Dutch border, borrowing real tanks and placing the fake ones in fields and covering them with netting “but not too well,” so they’d be visible. “We wanted to create the appearance of a large military buildup in the north,” Stanley said.
The crossing took place at another point a good distance away, and the Ninth Army crossed with much less resistance than expected. “The Germans had said that when we crossed, the river was going to turn red with blood, and it could very well have been, but they claim we did a real good job,” Stanley said.
Estimates are that The Ghost Army saved as many as 40,000 lives during the war. The unit was preparing to head to Japan when the war ended. The Ghost Army was deactivated in September 1945, and members were sworn to secrecy.
It was the 1990s before their actions were declassified. Still, the unit didn’t get major attention. But that may soon change, with a documentary about The Ghost Army set to air on PBS some time next year.
“They say our operation saved countless American lives as well as countless German lives,” Stanley said. “I guess we probably did. Of course, it makes you feel good if we had as big a contribution as they say we did.”