Constable: Veteran from Schaumburg who specialized in 'art' of war to receive medal

  • He carried a real gun, but a paint brush might have been Schaumburg resident Bernie Bluestein's most impactful weapon during World War II.

    He carried a real gun, but a paint brush might have been Schaumburg resident Bernie Bluestein's most impactful weapon during World War II. Courtesy of Bernie Bluestein

  • A legend at Harper College, where he has been taking art classes since 1989, Bernie Bluestein of Schaumburg is being honored for his service as a member of the secret U.S. Ghost Army that built fake tanks, planes and other instruments of war to fool the Nazis during World War II.

    A legend at Harper College, where he has been taking art classes since 1989, Bernie Bluestein of Schaumburg is being honored for his service as a member of the secret U.S. Ghost Army that built fake tanks, planes and other instruments of war to fool the Nazis during World War II. Daily Herald file photo

  • A promising art student, Bernie Bluestein left college to join the U.S. Ghost Army during World War II, where he crafted inflatable tanks, fake planes and other phony scenes to trick the Nazis.

    A promising art student, Bernie Bluestein left college to join the U.S. Ghost Army during World War II, where he crafted inflatable tanks, fake planes and other phony scenes to trick the Nazis. Courtesy of Bernie Bluestein

  • Bernie Bluestein of Schaumburg is a prolific sculptor, whose works decorate not only his Schaumburg apartment, but also the halls of Harper College.

    Bernie Bluestein of Schaumburg is a prolific sculptor, whose works decorate not only his Schaumburg apartment, but also the halls of Harper College. Courtesy of Gerry Souter

  • Last week, President Biden signed a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Schaumburg resident Bernie Bluestein, 98, and nine other members of the secret U.S. Ghost Army of World War II.

    Last week, President Biden signed a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Schaumburg resident Bernie Bluestein, 98, and nine other members of the secret U.S. Ghost Army of World War II. Courtesy of GhostArmy.org

  • Officially serving as a member of military police, Bernie Bluestein's most important service during World War II was as an artist crafting phony tanks, planes and buildings to deceive the Nazis.

    Officially serving as a member of military police, Bernie Bluestein's most important service during World War II was as an artist crafting phony tanks, planes and buildings to deceive the Nazis. Courtesy of GhostArmy.org

  • Making inflatable rubber tanks look like the real thing, the artists in the U.S. Ghost Army tricked the Nazis during World War II.

    Making inflatable rubber tanks look like the real thing, the artists in the U.S. Ghost Army tricked the Nazis during World War II. Courtesy of Bob Tompkins

 
 
Updated 2/8/2022 8:19 AM

As a 22-year-old artist assigned to the U.S. Ghost Army during World War II, Bernie Bluestein helped make inflatable rubber tanks, burlap planes and canvas buildings accompanied by realistic sound effects to trick the German army and save American lives. Now the 98-year-old Schaumburg man and nine other surviving members of that Ghost Army are scheduled to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

President Biden signed a bill last week awarding Bluestein's 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, and the sister 3133rd Signal Company Special, the highest congressional honor "in recognition of their unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations in Europe during World War II."

 

"No way in the world did I think of this. Nobody knew about it," says Bluestein, noting his unit operated in secret and its existence remained classified until 1996. "Isn't that something? It's amazing."

The campaign for the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act was led by Rick Beyer, who wrote a book and made a documentary about the Ghost Army.

"I'm thrilled, not only for the families and the surviving members, but our whole nation," says Beyer, who is hosting a ghostarmy.org live online celebration at 1 p.m. Sunday on YouTube. "I want to help these guys understand what a big deal this is. I want them to have that joy, that 'wow' moment."

Born in Cleveland to a tailor and a seamstress, Bluestein began his art career by drawing Popeye and other characters he saw in the Sunday funny pages, and he quickly moved on to nudes found in Esquire magazine. Studying art at Cleveland's East Technical High School, he earned a full scholarship for his freshman year at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), saving his family the $250 annual tuition. He worked as a janitor at the school his sophomore year, when the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II.

"I saw a bulletin on the bulletin board," Bluestein says of the Army's attempt to lure artists to its camouflage unit. "What it did say was no combat. That interested me greatly. I didn't want to shoot at anyone, and I didn't want to be shot at."

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As a member of the top-secret U.S. Ghost Army during World War II, Harper College artist Bernie Bluestein was one of the camouflage experts who used realistic decoys, such as this inflatable rubber tank, to trick the Nazi troops.
As a member of the top-secret U.S. Ghost Army during World War II, Harper College artist Bernie Bluestein was one of the camouflage experts who used realistic decoys, such as this inflatable rubber tank, to trick the Nazi troops. - Courtesy of Bernie Bluestein

Calling himself "a kid among artists," Bluestein said his 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion included fashion designer Bill Blass, revolutionary abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, bird and wildlife painter Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane. Arriving in England just in time to see the sky "filled with airplanes" on their way to the D-Day invasion in France, his battalion was a traveling stage practicing the "art" of war.

In addition to constructing all the fake equipment, which looked identical to the real thing from the air, the unit's giant speakers played the sounds of soldiers hammering and swearing as if they were building bridges. To throw off the Nazis, some men went to local taverns and bragged about 30,000 troops about to roll into town.

"We were 1,100 guys faking it," Bluestein says of the entire Ghost Army unit, which included 80 men in his company and completed 20 campaigns across France and into Germany.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The act was so convincing, the German army often would focus their resources on the artists and miss large movements of U.S. fighting forces.

"Here I am, waving at Germans and saying, 'Shoot at me,'" Bluestein says, noting a few men serving alongside him were wounded by enemy shrapnel.

After the war, Bluestein used the G.I. Bill to pay for his last two years of art school, then worked as an industrial designer on products from Zenith, Schick and Sunbeam. Calling art his "therapy," Bluestein is an icon at Harper College, where he has taken every art class offered since 1989. He draws and sculpts, and many of his more recent works are giant artistic replicas of the needles and threads he remembers his father and mother using.

The process of designing, making and presenting the gold medals generally takes a couple of years, says Beyer, who notes that the remaining Ghost Army veterans are all 97, 98 or 99. Bluestein has reconnected with friend Seymour Nussenbaum, 98, who lives in New Jersey, and they talk on the phone.

"It was unique, what we did," Bluestein says. "I didn't think about it at the time, but I think about it now."

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