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WWII veterans to receive Congressional Gold Medal for their role in 'Ghost Army'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Congress today is awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to a top-secret World War II army unit.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Members of what was known as the Ghost Army. They're celebrated today as combat con artists, a tactical deception unit that used actors and artists and costume designers, prop makers and sound engineers to deceive and help defeat German forces in occupied parts of Europe.

MARTIN: After their exploits were declassified, filmmakers brought some of their voices to a documentary for PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GHOST ARMY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We moved on up into this grand deception.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I used to refer to us as the Cecil B. DeMille warriors.

MARTIN: And like the grand-scale productions of Cecil B. DeMille and Hollywood's Golden Age, the Ghost Army relied on the film and theater industry and some art schools for its recruits and techniques.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GILBERT SELTZER: In the Ghost Army, there were 1,100 men. Three arms - one was visual, one was radio and the third was sonic.

INSKEEP: That's Gilbert Seltzer, who was a Ghost Army platoon leader. He was 104 years old when he recorded a StoryCorps interview and talked about leading troops into the woods in the middle of the night with giant loudspeakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SELTZER: We would move 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. Imagination is unbelievable.

MARTIN: Sometimes the unit would fill a field or a road with inflatables that looked like tanks, jeeps and artillery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SELTZER: The goal was to draw fire away from the real battery to us. 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.

MARTIN: Many of the unit's members never told their families about what they did, and the work of the Ghost Army stayed top secret for more than 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SELTZER: It was an experience that can't be translated. It was funny. It was distasteful. It was crazy.

INSKEEP: Even sounds like it was fun. Gilbert Seltzer, who died in 2021 a few weeks short of his 107th birthday. Today, only seven veterans of the Ghost Army are known to be alive.

MARTIN: Three will be in Washington today when congressional leaders present them with the Congressional Gold Medal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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