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'Ghost Army' soldiers awarded Congressional Gold Medal for little-known heroism in WWII

With the so-called "Ghost Army," its World War II mission of fooling the enemy was so secret because most of the people who knew about it took it to the grave.

A secret no more and nearly 80 years after the end of the war, the Ghost Army on Thursday was recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal and credited with helping American troops achieve key victories in Germany and Italy during the conflict.

The Ghost Army -- comprised of 1,300 U.S. soldiers -- helped trick the Third Reich with deceptive battlefield shenanigans that protected their fellow Americans and helped defeat Nazi Germany. Some of those tactics included using inflatable tanks, camouflage and innovative acoustic sound effects to misdirect German forces, according to details of their actions that were finally declassified in 1996, more than 50 years after they happened.

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PHOTO: A rubber tank (decoy) is seen during Wrld War II in England, circa 1939.   (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
PHOTO: A rubber tank (decoy) is seen during Wrld War II in England, circa 1939. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

"The soldiers included technicians and artists from around the country and they used their talents to deceive and divert the Nazis," Speaker Mike Johnson said during the event Thursday. "Some of them paid the ultimate price, but because of the courageous work of this group, it is estimated that 15,000 to 30,000 lives were saved."

Three surviving veterans from the "Ghost Army" were in attendance at the Capitol to participate in the ceremony: John Christman, Seymour Nussenbaum and Bernie Bluestein.

PHOTO: Ghost Army members join military and congressional officials as members of their secretive WWII-era unit are presented with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
PHOTO: Ghost Army members join military and congressional officials as members of their secretive WWII-era unit are presented with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Author Rick Beyer, who has dedicated a career to telling the Ghost Army's story and advocating for its members to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, said that many of the veterans who have passed away since he began researching the unit would be surprised to learn of the recognition bestowed upon its members Thursday. Four soldiers from the operation were killed in action.

"No soldier who served in this unit considers himself a hero. I have talked to many veterans of the Ghost Army and each told me that the real heroes were the infantrymen and the tankers who bore the brunt of the frightening," Beyer said. "But it has always struck me that the Ghost Army's deception mission demanded a special kind of courage: to protect strength when you have none, [and] to purposely draw any fire to keep it from falling on others. A dangerous business, not for the faint of heart."

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell credited the unit's efforts for having a lasting impact on post-war counterintelligence operations.

"They weren't just helping win a World War," McConnell said. "Whether they knew it or not, they were developing top secret ways to help preserve a hard-won peace through the Cold War."

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a ceremony to honor members of the Ghost Army, a secretive WWII-era unit, with the Congressional Gold Medal on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a ceremony to honor members of the Ghost Army, a secretive WWII-era unit, with the Congressional Gold Medal on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

That sentiment was echoed by Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, who said current Army planners are taught that the basis of military deception is storytelling -- and the Ghost Army was made up of master storytellers, whose techniques can still be found on the battlefield.

"Even though technology has changed quite a bit since 1944, our modern techniques build on a lot of what the Ghost Army did and we are still learning from your legacy," she said. "Our experience observing the war in Ukraine has shown us that even with an increasingly transparent battlefield, military deception can still have a significant impact on military operations."

Johnson read from a now-declassified report, which summed up the contributions of the unit, quipping "This would be recommended reading if you can get your hands on it."

"Rarely, if ever, has there existed a group of such few men, which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign," Johnson said, quoting the report. "That's really something."

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor that Congress can bestow on any group or individual. The Ghost Army soldiers are the 185th entity to receive the award. George Washington was the first recipient in 1776.

'Ghost Army' soldiers awarded Congressional Gold Medal for little-known heroism in WWII originally appeared on abcnews.go.com