Guest commentary: A surprise discovery: My father played a key role as a member of the ‘Ghost Army’

File photo
(File photo)

My Normandy guide pointed to a spot on Utah Beach where my father, Technician 5th Grade Philip Edelstein, came ashore June 20, 1944, D-Day +14 days. This moment was the culmination of a nearly three-year journey that began with my accidental discovery that my father played a key role as a member of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops Signal Corps, later called the Ghost Army.

Through an examination of my father’s discharge papers, I learned he was one of 1,100 specially selected men. A minimum IQ of 120 was required, and many had IQs that were even higher, especially members of the Signal Corps. Their mission was to mislead the Germans as to the size and location of Allied forces. Essentially, they were lightly armed decoys. When the nature of their assignment was revealed to them, few expected to survive the war.

The Ghost Army implemented 20 deception campaigns with inflatable tanks, sound trucks and fake radio transmissions. From deceiving the Germans into thinking the initial D-Day assault would come at Pas-de-Calais, to where the Allies would cross the Rhine. It is estimated the Ghost Army saved between 20,000 and 30,000 Allied lives.

I set out to learn everything I could about the Ghost Army, which brought me in contact with historian and filmmaker Rick Beyer, who was leading the Ghost Army Legacy Project. Rick had written a book about the Ghost Army and produced a PBS documentary, narrated by Peter Coyote, about the Ghost Army that streams on Amazon Prime.

Rick had been laboring for six-years, through four congressional terms, to secure a gold medal for the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Isolated during the pandemic, I set upon contacting hundreds of House and Senate members, and sent thousands of emails. Having achieved 2/3 of each chamber’s support, on February 1, 2022, President Biden signed into law the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act. The medal is now in the design stage (I was honored to be asked to review initial medal designs) and we are hoping the medal will be struck by the U.S. Mint in 2023.

My father died of congestive heart failure in 1965 when I was 12 ½ years old, six-months before my bar mitzvah. He was a wonderful father and gentle man who would roll his eyes when I asked him whether he killed anyone in the war. I learned not to ask too many questions. I thought, for whatever reason, my father served as a radioman in North Africa under General Montgomery’s command.

Top-secret Ghost Army activities remained classified until 1996. Thus, my father took his special service with him to the grave, not even telling my mother who passed in 2003. Learning about my father’s service in the Ghost Army brought him closer to me. Perhaps never more so than when the great granddaughter of my father’s sergeant, 102-year-old Stanley Nance, arranged a Zoom call. Sergeant Nance remembered my father, describing him as a “fine man.” I’ve had the good fortune to speak with other centenarian Ghost Army soldiers.

Earlier this year, my wife, Karen, and I traveled to Chicago and the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, which was hosting a Ghost Army exhibit developed by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. It was marvelous and in March 2023 the exhibit will be making its way to the Nevada Museum of Art.

At Le Roosevelt Café, Utah Beach, a restaurant memorializing the events of D-Day and the Normandy Invasion, the owner learned from my guide I was the son of a Ghost Army soldier. He approached me with a Sharpie and asked me to sign the “Wall of Honor.” I did so with tears in my eyes. Looking on was an elderly French woman who asked if I would mind having my photo taken with her. It was my five-minutes of fame.

As I stood on Utah Beach, I tried to visualize the 29-year-old version of my father coming ashore with his radio gear not far behind. What was he thinking and feeling? How did this young man from the Bronx cope with the uncertainly and horror that awaited him?

He was to go on to participate in five major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhineland, culminating in his being awarded a Silver Service Star affixed to his European African Middle Eastern Service Medal.

The Ghost Army experience has been one of the most unexpected and remarkable events in my life. Three-years ago I did not know my father was in the Ghost Army. I could have lived and died unaware just as my father took his special service with him to the grave—not even telling my mother. Instead, I reconnected with my dear father and shared his special service with family members who remember him as warmly and fondly as I. Not to mention endeavoring to have this special unit recognized and awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

— Bertram C. Edelstein, Ph.D. is a Cardiff resident