'That was our mission, to deceive the Germans': Suburban WWII 'Ghost' soldier gets hero's welcome during tour
The art of war acquired a new meaning in 1944, when the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops -- better known today as the Ghost Army -- swept across Europe from Normandy to the Rhine.
Artists like Schaumburg resident Bernie Bluestein were among the recruits for the 1,100-man unit, whose main weapon was deception.
Using inflatable and wooden tanks, trucks, artillery and airplanes, blasting military sound effects over loudspeakers, and sending phony signals to aid their efforts, the Ghost Army acted as decoys, attracting the attention of the enemy while allowing fellow Allied troops to carry out their missions.
In the process, they put themselves in harm's way.
"That was our mission, to deceive the Germans," said Bluestein, who has continued his art studies at Harper College for the past 30 years. "If there was a big unit of Germans that were heading toward Americans, we distracted them with our equipment -- we would set up our dummies -- so they would think that we were the real army. So we were sitting ducks, really."
In September, the 95-year-old Bluestein returned to the scenes of his World War II exploits, as part of a Ghost Army tour. He received a hero's welcome at stops along the way.
At the Luxembourg American Cemetery, he received a medal from the U.S. Veterans Friends Luxembourg. And in Bastogne, Belgium, he was presented a plaque by the Belgian Army soldiers who now man that historic site.
The two-week tour also visited sites in England, France and Germany. Bluestein was the only Ghost Army soldier on the tour, and is one of only about 20 to 30 of its members still alive.
"The entire trip was just a very emotional trip for me. A once-in-a-lifetime trip for me," he said.
Bluestein's son, Keith Bluestein, and Ghost Army historian Rick Beyer also took the tour.
Beyer directed a PBS documentary about the unit and co-authored the book "The Ghost Army of World War II", that brought the anonymous heroes out of the shadows.
"I think the major contribution of the Ghost Army is that they may have saved thousands of lives, because by deceiving the Germans about where an attack would take place or deceiving them about where American forces were weak, they may have prevented battles that might have killed thousands of people," he said.
For Bernie Bluestein, the trip rekindled memories, particularly in Luxembourg, where he visited the seminary where he and fellow soldiers stayed. Now part of the University of Luxembourg, it also was where he saw Marlene Dietrich performed for the troops.
Bluestein's path to the European Theater began as a student at the Cleveland School of Art. After becoming eligible for the draft, he saw a bulletin about a new Army unit that needed artists. He took a required camouflage course and enlisted.
"We built imitation things. We built tanks, jeeps, trucks, guns, everything out of wood," said Bluestein. "And when they took photographs from the air, it looked like the real things."
Later, the wood decoys were replaced with inflatable rubber dummies.
After D-Day, Bluestein headed with the Ghost Army first to Normandy and then across Europe, eventually reaching Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge. He later saw heavy action during Operation Viersen in March 1945. Stationed along the Rhine River, the Ghost Army simulated two divisions to distract the enemy as the 9th Army crossed the river elsewhere.
The distraction included using loudspeakers as they pulled into the German city Viersen at dusk to create the sound of a large number of troops pulling into town.
The German army shelled the town the next morning, an experience Bluestein escaped unharmed but calls "terrifying."
"Here is a guy that didn't want to be shot at, but I'm saying to these guys across the way, my enemies, 'Here I am, shoot at me.' That's exactly what they did," he said. "So our mission was very successful."
During his tour in September, Bluestein visited the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, where he saw the grave of Sgt. George Peddle, a Ghost Army soldier killed in action. Peddle was among three members of the unit killed in action, Beyer said.
Bluestein also helped dedicate the first Ghost Army historical marker, located in the town of Bettembourg, Luxembourg. It marks the spot where the 23rd carried out Operation Bettembourg, helping Gen. George S. Patton defend an undermanned section of his Third Army's front line.
"I think it's good that we are getting recognition," Bluestein said. "We went for so many years where nobody even knew about us.
"All the attention was given to me, which I loved, but I don't think it was very fair," he added. "Other guys were involved and they should have gotten recognition, too. I was the hero of the whole trip. I wasn't a hero. I was one out of 1,100 people."