Book details Schaumburg artist's experience in World War II's famed 'Ghost Army'
Bernie Bluestein of Schaumburg finds himself increasingly in demand. Just last month, he was the subject of a piece that ran on the NBC Nightly News and last fall for Veterans Day he was interviewed by multiple news outlets.
It's not just because he's 95 and a World War II survivor. He's also something of a legend at Harper College, where he has taken art courses for nearly 30 years and his sculptures are featured throughout the college.
Now it comes to light that Bluestein is an increasingly rare member of the so-called Ghost Army, whose covert mission was to trick the Germans into believing the Allies were staging a major military response.
Bluestein's firsthand account is featured in a new book published this month, by Arlington Heights authors, Gerry and Janet Souter, called "The Ghost Army: Conning the Third Reich."
"Although there are other books about the Ghost Army, ours contains stories that aren't found in the others," Gerry Souter says. "Bernie's story is one."
Bluestein describes himself as one of the youngest in the division of 1,100 men, called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Of those, less than 30 are still alive.
"I was 19 and in art school in Chicago when I saw a bulletin on the wall that the Army was looking for artists for a special division," Bluestein says of that day, back in 1943. "My draft number was getting close and I knew I didn't want to be drafted into the infantry, so I applied.
"All I knew," he adds, "was that it was a noncombat unit."
Bluestein would join an eclectic unit made up of other artists, actors, fashion designers, architects, magicians, musicians, film directors, sculptors and sound engineers whose deceptive work was sent into a top-secret file that only could be opened 50 years later.
It started out traditionally enough, when Bluestein shipped out to boot camp at Fort George G. Meade near Baltimore.
"We learned the basics of putting together decoys out of wood and canvas," Bluestein recalls, "painting them in camouflage. I thought it was kind of unusual, but we had no idea what the mission was."
Eventually, a rubber company in Akron began producing convoys of fake tanks and trucks from portable materials like inflatable rubber, so that they were more easily maneuverable by the troops.
These decoy units, which were enhanced by fake radio signals and sound effects, were designed to "con" the Germans into thinking the Allies were approaching, allowing actual units time to maneuver.
The Souters explain that they performed 21 missions, from just after D-Day in 1944 to the Rhine River crossing in 1945. It was in that last "Operation Viersen" that Bluestein participated, allowing the 9th Army to cross further down the river.
"When I enlisted, I had no idea I'd be waving my arms to the Germans, trying to get them to shoot me," Bluestein says. "But it was all part of the mission and it was our most successful one."
Bluestein was able to share photos of the unit with the Souters, bringing to 30 the number of valuable artifacts featured in their book.
"We were commissioned to write it by the publisher (Arcturus Publishing in London)," Janet Souter says. "It sounded like an exciting project, since up until a couple of decades ago, the fascinating story of the Ghost Army was relatively unknown.
"And," she adds, "we love history."
The couple have written more than 50 books together. What started out with writing histories of local municipalities, evolved into a treasure trove of American and military histories, as well as books about pop culture and biographies.
The Souters will be featured from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 9 at the Chicago Writers' Association booth at the Printers' Row Lit Fest in Chicago. They're also giving a presentation about the Ghost Army at 7 p.m. Aug. 14 at the Wood Dale Public Library.
In the meantime, copies of the book may be preordered now at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.