One of the best-kept secrets of World War II will be shared in Naples.
On Thursday, March 27, at 6:30 p.m., The Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida will honor The Ghost Army.
Armed with truckloads of props such as inflatable tanks, a collection of sound effects records and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, this handpicked group of GIs was known officially as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.
They landed in France to conduct a special mission, deceiving the Germans about U.S. troop strength and location at strategically important sites in France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
Little was known about this unit until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their creativity saved thousands of lives. So realistic were their impersonations of varied, and vastly larger, U.S. Army units, that they misled the Germans into making serious strategic mistakes, and bought time for the U.S. Army until the real men and materials were ready to participate.
The Ghost Army took part in more than 20 operations from 1944 1945. If Japan hadn’t surrendered, the unit would have played a part in the invasion of Japan as well.
Composed of artists and sound technicians, specially recruited and trained, the unit tailored their creations for the mission at hand. They impersonated other units, built phony planes, convoys, gun emplacements and even a fake headquarters. They set up decoy yet realistic-looking radio operations. The aircraft they created were purposely left visible to fool enemy reconnaissance flights.
Many members of The Ghost Army went on to memorable careers in a number of fields, among them artist and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly and designer Bill Blass.
The Ghost Army will be the 2014 National Honoree for the Holocaust Museum’s annual fund-raising event, Triumph 2014 Lives of Purpose.
The Triumph awards acknowledge contributions by individuals and organizations who, having overcome adversity and opposition, positively affect the lives of others. On hand to accept the Triumph Award will be one of the veterans of the unit, Gil Seltzer, from New Jersey.
The museum recently learned a unit veteran lives in Fort Myers, and we will try to invite him as well.
Seltzer was a lieutenant in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the part of The Ghost Army that specialized in visual deception. On one memorable occasion this young soldier was impersonating a full colonel from the 4th Armored Division when he had a near disastrous encounter with a real general from the same division.
He calls his time in The Ghost Army “a fantastic experience,” but hastens to add, “I wouldn’t do it again for anything.”
Seltzer, who was an architect when he entered the unit, is now 99 and continues to work as an architect. Much of his work over an astonishing 78-year career has been designing buildings for colleges and universities, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Also in attendance will be Rick Beyer, the producer of the PBS documentary, “The Ghost Army.”
In addition to honoring the unit at Triumph 2014, in April and May the Museum will present a related exhibit, “Artists of Deception, the Ghost Army of World War II.’’
Meanwhile, the Triumph 2014 local honoree is Schaeffer McHenry, a graduate of Gulf Coast High School and a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. While a student at Gulf Coast, Ms. McHenry created an organization called The Friendship Circle. Its focus was to include those students who were missing out on the social aspects of school life due to their disabilities. The organization made such an impact on all the students involved that Gulf Coast administration made it a permanent club. She will be present to accept the Award and talk about The Friendship Circle.
The museum is very pleased to have as this year’s co-chairs Maureen Lerner and Nancy White, both long-time supporters of the museum and its educational programs.
The honorary chairperson for Triumph 2014 is Peter Thomas, a prior Triumph Award honoree. Thomas, a well-known narrator and Naples resident, is a World War II veteran of the 104th U.S. Infantry Division. As a young soldier, he participated in both the Normandy invasion and the liberation of the Nordhausen Concentration Camp.
Returning as an honored guest is Major Gen. Sidney Shachnow, the 2013 Triumph national honoree.
Appropriately, given the military focus of this year’s honorees, the event will be held at Naples Municipal Airport, which served as an Army Airfield training site during World War II. The event includes a silent auction and small-plate dining provided by some of Naples’ finest chefs. It will be held in the Hertz hangar at the airport. All proceeds benefit The Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s Educational Programs.
Tickets for the event can be purchased through the Holocaust Museum. A patron’s reception, at which “The Ghost Army” documentary will be shown, will immediately precede the Triumph event. For information on tickets, patron levels, sponsorship opportunities and more, please contact the museum at 239-263-9200 or visit our website, www.holocaustmuseumswfl.org.
Editor's note: A Sunday guest commentary in the Daily News' Perspective section listed the wrong last name for the executive director of the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida. She is Amy Snyder.