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Dr. Bertram Edelstein

How One Man Discovered his Father Was Part of America’s Ghost Army in WWII



From time to time Dr. Bertram Edelstein would glance at a file tucked away in a drawer. It contained his father’s release papers from World War ll. Philip Edelstein had passed away in 1965, a victim of congestive heart failure at the age of 50. As a child, Bertram knew little about his father’s service to his country other than the fact that he had been a “radio man.” When pressed to reveal more, such as whether he had ever killed anyone during the war, his father would respond by rolling his eyes, which taught young Bertram not to ask too many questions. The closest the two of them came to sharing anything concrete about the war was when together they watched “The Twentieth Century,” a television series with Walter Cronkite in the early 1960’s that often focused on World War ll.

Bertram noted that his family had been close knit. He offered that his father was “fantastic” and his mother, who survived her husband by nearly 40 years, was a “wonderful woman.” When Philip was taken away from them just six months before Bertram’s bar mitzvah, it had been devastating for the entire family. It was particularly significant since he viewed his father as a very observant man who had been so looking forward to that important milestone in his son’s life.

Philip Edelstein during his time in the U.S. army.

It wasn’t until 2020 that Edelstein learned the truth about his father’s military service. During a phone conversation with his cousin, a retired librarian, the topic of the release papers was brought up. She asked if she could review them. Not long after she called him back with the news that his father had been part of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, better known as “The Ghost Army.” Neither Edelstein nor his mother had known anything about this secret that his father had taken to the grave. As Edelstein began to delve into the remarkable activities of the Ghost Army, he was shocked, commentating to his cousin, “I can’t believe he didn’t tell me.” She wasn’t at all surprised, reminding him that his father had been a man of the highest integrity and understandably would have kept mum about a unit deemed classified by the government – that is until it was made public in 1996.

So what exactly was the Ghost Army, what were its tactics and how successful was it? In a nutshell, it was a camouflage unit using an ingenious brand of magic to simulate a large army battalion. Its goal was to divert and mislead the German Army as to the activities and location of real U.S. forces. It took part in 20 major operations and was credited with saving 20,000 to 30,000 Allied lives.

The unit, which was activated in January 1944, was comprised of 1,100 men, many of whom were recruited from art schools. Also included were future architects and engineers, as well as military professionals. Perhaps its most famous member was the fashion designer Bill Blass.

There were three components to the overall package of deception; visual, sonic and radio. The visual team, known as the 603rd, was tasked with building fake army equipment, including full-sized tanks, jeeps, trucks, ammunition and even airplanes. They were made out of rubber and were inflatable to allow for easy transport. The artists on the team added intricate detail to the items to make them appear realistic, especially to a German airplane flying overhead. The deception included partially camouflaging the equipment, such as the rubber planes on a makeshift airfield, so it appeared as if the Allies were truly trying to hide their assets.

An amusing incident shared by a Ghost Army veteran was the time two French bicyclists saw what appeared to be four soldiers lifting a 40-ton Sherman tank, that was in fact inflatable. Seeing their look of astonishment, he explained that “The Americans are very strong.”

Then there was the sonic brigade, which used sound trucks and huge speakers to mimic the sounds of a large division on the move in preparation for battle. Locals would hear it and were convinced they had seen a brigade of tanks moving through their town. Finally, there was the radio team or Signal Corps, which Philip Edelstein belonged to, whose job it was to mimic the cadence of telegraph operators that actual Allied divisions used. The Germans were known to frequently intercept such signals, so the deception in the form of misleading radio transmissions needed to be spot on.

As Edelstein shared, the men in the 23rd were essentially lightly armed decoys, most of whom didn’t expect to survive the war when the nature of their assignment was revealed. While most of the earlier deceptions did not result in any casualties, one major mission did. It occurred in March of 1945, when Allied forces needed to cross the heavily guarded Rhine River from France into Germany for a pivotal push. The 23rd positioned themselves ten miles south from where the American Ninth Army division was planning to cross the River, and did their thing, mimicking the looks and sounds of a major force. While Nazi troops trained their guns on the Ghost Army, four American divisions were able to cross the Rhine in one of the largest operations since D-Day. A handful of members of the Ghost Army were killed.

When not fronting for an actual battalion, members of the Ghost Army would sometimes take on the role of actors. They would frequent European cafes and pubs and spread rumors about a large American military presence in the area. Edelstein learned that they would even construct a makeshift bar in a town, appear to be tipsy, then share false information with locals who potentially were Nazi sympathizers or even actual spies.

Besides Philip Edelstein, there were other Jewish members of the Ghost Army. Among them was Lt. Gilbert Seltzer, who went on to become a renowned architect. In 2021, he passed away at the ripe old age of 106. Edelstein explained that once he learned of his father’s participation in the unit, he set out to learn as much about it as he could. That led him to Rick Beyer, who produced a 2013 PBS documentary “The Ghost Army.” Beyer had attempted to garner recognition from congress for the work of the secret group, but with congressional membership shifting every two years, could not get the required number of votes. Edelstein pitched in, sending 1500 emails to members of congress during pandemic downtime. The measure passed and was signed by President Biden on February 1, 2022.

Later this month, on March 21, the 1,100 members of the Ghost Army will be officially recognized and receive the Congressional Gold Medal, congress’s highest expression of achievement. Only seven of the original members remain alive, all aged 100 or above, with three expected to attend the U.S. Capital ceremony. For Edelstein, who will be there with his wife, Karen, it is the culmination of a journey that in a sense brought his father back to him and made their relationship closer.


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Robert Isler is a media research professional and freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected].