Jack Stanley, now 87, proudly poses with his commendations for his military service in The Ghost Army during World War II. After the war, Stanley went on to marry his wife of 63 years, Bea, and have three children: Janice Blanchard, Jim Stanley and Gail Swift. Staff Photos: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
COVINGTON -- Jack Stanley was a ghost during World War II. He was a master of deception, tricking enemy forces into believing the Allies were places they weren't, spilling secrets that were really misinformation, and saving tens of thousands of lives in the process.
His Army unit didn't officially exist during the war, or indeed, for half a century after. Stanley, of Covington, was a member of The Ghost Army, an elite 1,000-member secret unit of the U.S. Army that used inflatable tanks, sound effects, fake radio broadcasts and good old-fashioned playacting to confound the Nazis. The show they put on was massive in scope.
"Some of that stuff we did would have made old Cecil B. DeMille proud," Stanley said.
But unlike a Hollywood production, their mission had life or death consequences. The Ghost Army staged some 20 battlefield deceptions from June 1944 to March 1945, and was part of the most infamous conflicts in the war, including the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine River.
Stanley was a radio operator, transmitting fake radio messages for interception by the Germans. He and his comrades would imitate different divisions in the field and make it seem as though they were on the move or getting ready to move.
But The Ghost Army's trickery didn't end there. Sound effects specialists would play records of tanks cranking up and moving out. They'd use rubber inflatable tanks, trucks, jeeps and airplanes that "we'd blow up like a balloon," said Stanley. The inflatables looked very realistic, from the ground and the air, and fooled the Germans about troops' locations and where they were headed. They'd put fake bumper markings identifying a specific division and ride through town, pull into a vacant field at night, remove the markings and replace them with those of a different division. They'd also sew patches from various divisions they were portraying onto their uniforms.
"To anybody in these villages, we were one outfit after another moving up to the front line," he said. "Meanwhile, as a radio operator, I'd send fake radio messages identifying me as such and such an outfit and it would all paint a picture."
Sometimes, Ghost Army members would act as if they were drunk and stumble into local bars, pretending to spill classified information about operations.
"We knew the Germans had stool pigeons in these places," Stanley said.
Many of the members of The Ghost Army were make-up artists, engineers, actors, sound technicians and press agents, some recruited from Tinseltown. Famed fashion designer Bill Blass was a member of the unit. Stanley was picked because of his training in radio operations and because he had a high I.Q., a requirement to be in the unit.
Not that he knew any of that when he was first told that he would be leaving his training post with the 42nd Infantry Division at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
One day a superior called him into an office and said, "Get your stuff together Stanley, you've been transferred."
"I said, 'Why? I like it here.' I was in a name outfit, it had been a famous outfit in World War I. I was proud to be in the Rainbow Division," Stanley said.
Once he arrived at Camp Forrest, Tenn., to train with the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, otherwise known as The Ghost Army, and saw all the inflatable vehicles, "I was beginning to wonder what I'd gotten myself into." Though at first skeptical, Stanley admitted that later on, "it got to be kind of fun."
But The Ghost Army was in real peril, often facing heavy fire, though Stanley emerged unscathed despite a few close calls, and the entire unit lost only two soldiers. Their remarkable ability to trick and to keep secrets proved to be life-saving.
"If the Germans had ever caught on they could have come through us like a knife through hot butter," Stanley said.
The Ghost Army's most successful operation was the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. The Ghost Army succeeded in tricking the Germans into believing the crossing was about to take place near the Dutch border, borrowing real tanks and placing the fake ones in fields and covering them with netting "but not too well," so they'd be visible. "We wanted to create the appearance of a large military build up in the north," he said. In fact, the crossing took place at another point a good distance away, and the Ninth Army crossed with much less resistance than expected.
"The Germans had said that when we crossed, the river was going to turn red with blood, and it could very well have been, but they claim we did a real good job. We got a commendation from the Ninth Army commander after it was over," Stanley said.
Estimates are that The Ghost Army saved as many as 40,000 lives during the war. The unit was preparing to head to Japan when the war ended. The Ghost Army was deactivated in September 1945. Upon discharge, members were sworn to secrecy.
"We were told we couldn't talk about any of this, that it was going to be classified information for several years," Stanley said.
In fact, it was the 1990s before it was declassified. Still, the unit didn't get major attention. But that may soon change, with a documentary about The Ghost Army set to air on PBS some time next year.
"They say our operation saved countless American lives as well as countless German lives," Stanley said. "I guess we probably did. Of course, it makes you feel good if we had as big a contribution as they say we did."