Michael McGlynn, the long-serving mayor of Medford, thought he knew his father, Jack. But in 2005, he received a phone call from a reporter asking about Jack’s involvement in World War II’s Ghost Army, a unit of handpicked G.I.s whose sole function was to deceive the Germans about the strength of America’s military presence. Using rubber tanks, sound effects, and illusions of manpower, this group of young magicians tricked the Germans into believing they knew America’s true plans.
The junior McGlynn had never heard of the unit. He understood that his father had served in the war, but did not press him on specifics. When he asked his father what this was all about, the elder McGlynn initially wondered how his son found out. The unit’s existence had just been declassified; it had been kept a secret for over 65 years. Michael told me that his dad, who had also served as mayor and is now in his 90s, simply replied, “Those were my orders. I never wanted to let anyone know about our tactics that could be used against us in another war.”
There is nothing quaint about the Ghost Army. Hitler threatened world order. And men like McGlynn knew how to keep a secret. The story of the unit, to be aired on PBS on Tuesday night in a documentary by Rick Beyer, is a sad reminder — in this age of leaks and sequestration — of what it once meant to serve this nation.
The story of the Ghost Army is, in all honesty, absurd. The idea was both dangerous and yet so simple: Across France, the 23d Headquarters Special Troops placed completely phony convoys (100-pound inflatable tanks, for example) in places where German reconnaissance planes could spot them, to created the image of strength. In Operation Bettembourg, the Ghost Army rushed to fill a hole in General Patton’s forces on the German border. The Germans knew that Patton had, as Patton put it, “a bad spot in his line.” The Ghost Army plugged the breach until real units could get there, bringing their recorded sounds, fake radio operators reading a script discussing deployments, and inflatable airplanes. The Germans weren’t able to see any gap. The line held, wrote Patton, “by the grace of God and a lot of guts.”
In 1945, the Ghost Army, impersonating the 30th and 79th divisions, lured the Germans into believing that the line of attack across the Rhine River lay where its actors were amassing. The real attack occurred elsewhere, and the Allies faced minimal German opposition.
The Ghost Army’s ingenuity was breathtaking, but the fact that it was able to keep quiet about its work, decades after the end of the war (most of the members had passed away before the unit was declassified), was extraordinary.
Today’s headlines are filled with allegations of government eavesdropping on the Associated Press for its story on a covert counterterrorism operation. The concern over the intrusion into the media has all but silenced any discussion of the true culprit: a person with specific and direct knowledge of an American agent who had infiltrated a terrorist organization. The motives of the person who revealed the information are not those of a whistleblower targeting government wrongdoing. Most likely, the official was seeking credit for his or her own agency in a bureaucratic tug of war.
But once the AP had the story, regardless of whether they published it on that day or any other, the covert operation had to end. The secret agent, and his family, had an agreed-upon 24 hours to get to safety before the AP published its story. Any intelligence about a terrorist plot, or, just as important, future ones, was sacrificed by a US official who had been trusted with America’s secrets.
The leaker clearly never met Jack McGlynn.
Nor could we imagine, in this time of sequestration and big weaponry, that the military could be so creative as it once was, hiring a bunch of professional fakes to help win the war. It isn’t that there are not fresh ideas in the Pentagon, but far too much of the military budget is subject to the patronage whims of Congress; good ideas get stuck behind expensive ones.
One innovative proposal, for example, draws on the language of art. Called “hi-lo mixes,” a Rand study shows how the Pentagon can merge older weaponry such as modified B-1 bombers with modern F-22s to produce an all-purpose airplane, and negate the need for the very expensive F-35s.
It just takes a little bit of imagination.
The Ghost Army isn’t only about one cool unit and the Greatest Generation. It is a reminder that, at one time, we all thought of ourselves as loyal magicians.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.