Ghost Army of World War II—and New Rochelle Resident Richard Syracuse—the Subject of PBS Documentary “Syracuse”

For 53 years, New Rochelle’s Richard Syracuse kept a secret from everyone he knew. Now 91, and on the heels of a new PBS documentary, Syracuse shares the story of his involvement in a WWII tactical-deception initiative devised by Army intelligence and executed by a small group of highly skilled soldiers.

In June 1943, at the height of World War II, Richard Syracuse was 20 years old and pursuing an engineering degree at City College in New York, when he received a telegram from the Army calling him into active duty. After a year of training in the South, he was assigned to a new, top-secret unit—designed, he would find out, specifically to confuse German forces—stationed at Fort Drum, in upstate New York.

At Fort Drum, he says, “I was really impressed with the quality and leadership of the men,” all of whom were drawn from specialized Army training programs. “They were either college students or outstanding high school students, hand-picked because of their skills in art, science, and engineering.” 

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“The Americans are very strong”: Arthur Shilstone’s painting of two Frenchmen surprised to see four GIs lifting a tank. “The Americans are very strong,” he told them. He was put in command of the Fourth Platoon, which provided reconnaissance and security for other divisions in the Ghost Army tasked with sonic deception, namely blasting recorded sounds out of giant speakers. “We could make it sound like there were thousands of soldiers, tanks, and machine guns moving into the region.”

Another division was in charge of inflating rubber tanks and positioning them along enemy lines. “To planes flying overhead, it looked like an entire platoon was penetrating key entry points, when really it was a bunch of fake tanks, inflated and painted army green.”

As time went on, the act, and its players, became more professional. “I was out in front playing tapes of tanks assembling, all the noises of a big operation—yet there we were with a couple of machine guns and loud speakers,” he says. After a while, even he was confused about what was actual gunfire. “Even though you knew it was fake, the conditions were very stressful. If we ever encountered German troops, we were ordered to get the hell out of there—we needed the deception to be realistic to succeed.”

A 93-pound inflatable tank, of the kind used by The Ghost ArmyDuring its time in Europe, the 1,100-man Ghost Army was involved in most of the major battles of World War II, including the D-Day invasion of France. “What we proved was that you could win battles without killing people, or getting killed,” Syracuse says.

After the war, members were sworn to secrecy. “It was a very effective tactical weapon,” Syracuse explains. “The Army mentality is that, if necessary, they would have to use it again.” Finally, in 1996, the US government declassified the details of the operation, allowing Syracuse, who’d been running a successful building and development firm in New Rochelle for the better part of 50 years, to share the real story of his service with friends and family.

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“We just thought our dad was a soldier in World War II,” daughter Rina Syracuse says. “That was all he ever said about it.”

Recently, Syracuse and 20 members of the Ghost Army were interviewed for a PBS documentary detailing the unit’s formation and its crucial role in defeating German forces. The Ghost Army, which has already received critical acclaim, premieres May 21 on PBS and will be screened at The Nyack Center in Nyack, New York, May 27.

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