NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The firsthand account of a World War II vet landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day is a thrilling tale, but a 94-year-old Slidell man says his D-day landing account doesn't make the top 10 list of his war stories.
Anderson Wilson kept quiet more than 50 years. He said, "When I first got home from the Army, I joined the VFW and the American Legion, but I soon had to get out of both of them because all the fellas wanted to talk about was their war experience and I couldn't talk about it." Even his wife of now 71 years didn't know what he did during World War II. Wilson said, "They taught us to lie and my wife says I still do."
One of a small but elite secret fighting force. He said, "It was a very exclusive club. Twenty-third Headquarters Special Troops was never in Europe. No one ever knew about it." The unit was top secret until the government declassified its records in 1996. Even today few have ever heard of it. "The Germans named us the Ghost Army," said Wilson. Eleven hundred soldiers spirited their way along the front lines, mimicking mass troop movements of 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. He said, "You know we had make believe." They used props, artwork and sound equipment to confuse the enemy. Wilson said, "They would say we couldn't understand how there could be so many men there in such a short time and the next day they would be gone."
Recordings from the best speaker systems of the time blasted the sounds of camp, allowing the real troops to move on without being detected. Wilson said, "We'd move in at night and start our sound equipment to please the enemy, and those guys would pull out and they had no idea that our unit even existed." Fellow Americans shielded by a secret force they had no clue about provided them cover. He said, "We traveled farther than any unit over there."
With inflatable tanks, guns, jeeps and even airplanes, the Ghost Army fooled Germans flying overhead. The stage was set at night to look like full encampments with tents and equipment all laid out. Wilson said, "These guys decided this tank would look better on the other side of the road." So they moved it. "It happened that there were two Frenchmen walking down the road and they couldn't believe what they saw - these four guys pick up a tank that weighed 40,000 pounds. They carried it across the road and they looked at them and said Americans very strong." A fully inflated tank weighed 91 pounds.
Wilson said, "They created scenes when we were in the field. They would create pictures that looked like a city. It even had the people walking down the walks. It was amazing what they could do." Many of his fellow Ghost Soldiers were chosen for their artistic and technical skills. "I know it sounds a little bit farfetched, but that's the actual truth."
Rick Beyer produced a documentary on the Ghost Army in 2012. He said, "There's a lot of parts of the Ghost Army story that seem humorous at times, what they are doing, and yet they had soldiers that died. They had dozens of soldiers who were wounded carrying out these missions." Wilson said, "I had a piece of shrapnel hit me in this left leg right here. It was just a small piece and we just plucked it out and put a band aid on it." He probably needed more medical attention, but was devoted to his regiment. Wilson said, "I didn't want to get separated from my unit. If I went back to a hospital for treatment, because I was afraid I wouldn't get back with them."
The little known, but effective team was designed to draw German fire and allow the large forces to move on without the enemy knowing. Beyer said, "Hello shoot at us. Focus your attention at us so that American soldiers in other places could live and succeed in their fighting." Actual numbers can never be pinned down, but estimates say the Ghost Army's trickery may have saved tens of thousands of American soldiers and even as many as 10,000 German lives. Beyer said, "They saved American lives by making the Germans not ready for an attack or by holding a section of line that otherwise the Germans might have broken through."
Wilson said, "I was proud of that just to think if you saved that many people and they got to go home and see their families again." Beyer said, "I had a gentleman come up to me a few years ago at a screening and he said I was a tanker under Patton at Metz, and I never heard of the Ghost Army, but I think I just saw a movie about a unit that might have just saved my life."
The 23rd Headquarters completed 21 missions of deception. Wilson said, "One of the fun times about being in the unit was going into the pubs in France and Luxembourg and all these countries and spreading misinformation about troop movements."
They didn't get much recognition at the time. Wilson said, "My daughter and her husband did that for me. We weren't awarded...they wouldn't let us receive any medals over there because it would draw attention to the unit. We didn't exist. We weren't there." A bill in Congress right now is likely to change that if it's passed, awarding the Ghost Army troops a Congressional Gold Medal.
Wilson said, "You just lead people to believe. That's all you do. Just lead them to believe." Even at 94, Mr. Wilson's tale of battling Hitler with giant toys and stereo equipment is his story of a lifetime.
Mr. Wilson's D-Day landing mission was to find hiding spots to transfer the Ghost Army's equipment after the main invasion. Some of his fellow soldiers went on to become famous artists, including fashion designer Bill Blass, painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly and pioneering print maker Jim Steg, who taught at Newcomb College here in New Orleans for more than 40 years.