He Led A Platoon Of Artists Who Fooled The Germans: 'Imagination Is Unbelievable'

May 25, 2019

After World War II broke out, 26-year-old Gilbert Seltzer enlisted into the Army.

Soon after, he was told he was being put on a secret mission — and an unconventional one at that.

Seltzer, then an architectural draftsman, was selected to lead a platoon of men within a unit dubbed the "Ghost Army." Made up mostly of artists, creatives and engineers, the unit would go on to play an instrumental role in securing victory in Europe for the U.S. and its allies.

Their mission was deception. From inflatable tanks, to phony convoys, to scripted conversations in bars intended to spread disinformation, they used any and all possible trick to fool the enemy.

In the Ghost Army, a shadow unit of 1,100 American troops, men were tasked to outwit German forces through three specialized arms — visual, radio and sonic.

At 104 years old, Seltzer sat down with his granddaughter, Sarah Seltzer, for a StoryCorps conversation in January to remember this unusual outfit.

Shortly after arriving in Normandy, Seltzer says, his platoon was instructed to take the place of an American anti-aircraft battery that had been set up on the land of a French farmer.

The farmer, who was upset by all the noise the real battery was causing, was delighted when he saw it move out during the night.

The Ghost Army built deceptive technology to thwart the Germans, like this dummy 155 mm gun, pictured sometime between 1943 and 1944.
Photo courtesy of Ghost Army Legacy Project, The George William Curtis Collection

But the following morning, he saw that Seltzer's platoon had set up four rubber guns for the purpose of impersonating the real battery and drawing fire from German troops.

The angry farmer approached Seltzer, the officer in charge.

"He said, 'Encore boom boom?,' and I didn't know how to answer him," Seltzer said.

The farmer then punched the rubber gun with his fist, which naturally bounced back. "He looked at it, and he said, 'Boom boom ha ha!' "

"And in four syllables, it described the mission of our outfit — to fool the German army," Seltzer said.

The soldiers would project the sound of tanks as if they were traveling along the roads of Europe.

"We would move into the woods in the middle of the night going through villages in France, Belgium, Germany," he said. "The natives would say to each other, 'Did you see the tanks moving through town last night?' And they were not lying. They thought they were seeing them! Imagination is unbelievable."

Sarah Seltzer interviews her grandfather, 104-year-old Gilbert Seltzer, in West Orange, N.J., in January for StoryCorps.
Afi Yellow-Duke/StoryCorps

The Ghost Army's arsenal may have been fake, but Seltzer says they saw plenty of combat. The unit saw action in five strategic military campaigns across Northern Europe.

"The goal was to draw fire away from the real battery to us," he said. "For instance, when the Rhine [River] was crossed, we were able to get the German army to assemble opposite us, firing at us. And when the actual crossing was made, about 20 miles to our north, there was practically no resistance."

According to Smithsonian magazine, the unit is believed to have saved as many as 30,000 American lives.

"I don't believe there was 30,000, but if we saved one life, it was worth it," Seltzer said.

Since the mission had been classified top secret for 50 years, Seltzer told his granddaughter that he could only talk about the experience with fellow veterans, most of whom have died.

"It was an experience that can't be translated," he said.

"It was funny, it was distasteful, it was crazy. We did it to overcome a terrible, terrible enemy. And the fact that we did so successfully is probably the biggest source of pride."

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition Saturday by Camila Kerwin.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. This Memorial Day weekend, we hear from a World War II veteran named Gilbert Seltzer. He was an architectural draftsman when the war broke out. Soon after he joined the Army, he was told he was being put on a top-secret mission - and an unconventional one at that. The Army decided to have him lead a platoon of men in a unit dubbed the Ghost Army - mostly made up of artists, creatives and engineers. Their mission was deception - inflatable tanks, phony convoys, misleading conversations in bars intended to spread disinformation, any and every possible trick to fool the enemy. Gilbert Seltzer is now 104. And at StoryCorps, he sat down with his granddaughter, Sarah, to remember.

GILBERT SELTZER: Shortly after we arrived in Normandy, my platoon was directed to take the place of an anti-aircraft battery. And the farmer on whose land this took place - when he got up in the morning, he saw us there. So he took his fist, and he rammed it down on one of our guns, and it was a rubber gun. His fist bounced back, and he looked at it, and he said, boom, boom, ha-ha. And in four syllables, it described the mission of our outfit - to fool the German army.

In the Ghost Army, there were 1,100 men - three arms. One was visual. One was radio. And the third was sonic. We would move into the woods in the middle of the night, going through villages in France, Belgium, Germany. We would turn the sound on so that it sounded like tanks moving on the roads. The natives would say to each other, did you see the tanks moving through town last night? And they were not lying. They thought they were seeing them. Imaginations are unbelievable.

SARAH SELTZER: But you saw actual combat.

G SELTZER: Oh (laughter).

S SELTZER: Can you talk about that? Yeah.

G SELTZER: Yes, indeed. There were five campaigns in Northern Europe. We were in all five of them. The goal was to draw fire away from the real battery to us.

For instance, when the Rhine was crossed, we were able to get the German army to assemble opposite us, firing at us. And when the actual crossing was made about 20 miles to our north, there was practically no resistance. Some people say we saved 30,000 lives. I don't believe there was 30,000. But if we saved one life, it was worth it.

It was classified top secret for 50 years. Practically everyone I knew in those days has died. It was an experience that can't be translated. It was funny. It was distasteful. It was crazy. We did it to overcome a terrible, terrible enemy. And the fact that we did so successfully is probably the biggest source of pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "JOHN STOCKTON SLOW DRAG")

SIMON: Gilbert Seltzer speaking with his granddaughter, Sarah Seltzer, about what it was like to be part of the Ghost Army. And at 104, he is the oldest StoryCorps participant that we've ever had on the air. Their full interview will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. And you can hear more stories from veterans on the StoryCorps podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "JOHN STOCKTON SLOW DRAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.