One of our recommended books for 2019 is Secret Soldiers by Paul B. Janeczko


What do set design, sound effects, and showmanship have to do with winning World War II? Meet the Ghost Army that played a surprising role in helping to deceive — and defeat — the Nazis.

In his third book about deception during war, Paul B. Janeczko focuses his lens on World War II and the operations carried out by the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army. This remarkable unit included actors, camouflage experts, sound engineers, painters, and set designers who used their skills to secretly and systematically replace fighting units — fooling the Nazi army into believing what their eyes and ears told them,

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What do set design, sound effects, and showmanship have to do with winning World War II? Meet the Ghost Army that played a surprising role in helping to deceive — and defeat — the Nazis.

In his third book about deception during war, Paul B. Janeczko focuses his lens on World War II and the operations carried out by the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army. This remarkable unit included actors, camouflage experts, sound engineers, painters, and set designers who used their skills to secretly and systematically replace fighting units — fooling the Nazi army into believing what their eyes and ears told them, even though the sights and sounds of tanks and war machines and troops were entirely fabricated.

Follow the Twenty-Third into Europe as they play a dangerous game of enticing the German army into making battlefield mistakes by using sonic deceptions, inflatable tanks, pyrotechnics, and camouflage in more than twenty operations. From the Normandy invasion to the crossing of the Rhine River, the men of the Ghost Army — several of whom went on to become famous artists and designers after the war — played an improbable role in the Allied victory.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • April 2019
  • 304 Pages
  • 9780763681531

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About Paul B. Janeczko

Paul Janeczko is the author fo Secret SoldiersPaul B. Janeczko (1945–2019) was a poet and teacher who edited numerous award-winning poetry anthologies for young people, including A Poke in the I, A Kick in the Head, A Foot in the Mouth, and The Death of the Hat, all of which were illustrated by Chris Raschka; Firefly July, illustrated by Melissa Sweet; and The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems, illustrated by Richard Jones. He also wrote Worlds Afire; Requiem: Poems of the Terezín Ghetto; Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing; Double Cross: Deception Techniques in War; The Dark Game: True Spy Stories from Invisible Ink to CIA Moles, a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults; and Secret Soldiers: How the U.S. Twenty-Third Special Troops Fooled the Nazis.


“For those with a mental map of the war, this book will provide delightful details of a very specialized and secret group. Biographical sketches of many of the members of the Twenty-Third Special Troops are included as well as brief sidebars detailing related topics. Plentiful photographs and maps are included throughout…military history lovers will find much to appreciate in this extensive retelling of a skillful deception that helped end World War II.” School Library Journal

“In profiling the 23rd, Janeczko has clearly done prodigious research, and the result is an extraordinarily detailed history that sometimes offers a dramatic account of field operations…for teens who enjoy reading about war, this will be a bountiful gift.” Booklist

“Secret Soldiers is enlightening and intriguing, a must-read for young military buffs.” Shelf Awareness for Readers


Discussion Questions

1. After the war ended, the members of the Twenty-Third were ordered to say nothing about their work, a ban that lasted fifty years. Why was secrecy central to what they did, both in relationship to the enemy and to others in the U.S. military?

2. Some of the early reactions to the creation of the Twenty-Third were negative. The idea was viewed as “sneaky and weird” and “underhanded” (page 26). Why might military officers react like this? What are the arguments against creating a unit like the Twenty-Third? What are the arguments for creating such a unit?

3. Fred Fox described the work of the Twenty-Third as “more theatrical than military . . . like a traveling road show” (page 3). Describe how their work was theatrical, then explain how it was military in nature.

4. Why were artists recruited for the Twenty-Third? Explain how their skills were put to use in specific operations. Discuss the backgrounds of some of the artists and their work after the war. Look at the illustrations by the artists included in the book and talk about what the pictures add to your reading.

5. What did the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. do in the war? What was the role of his unit, the Beach Jumpers? How were they different from the Twenty-Third? Discuss times when members of the Twenty-Third had to deceive locals and Germans through acting.

6. One of the Twenty-Third’s main forms of deception had to do with sound. How did they initially create these sounds? What was in their library of sound effects? What equipment did they use to project the sounds on the field? Identify specific times in the war when sounds deceived the enemy.

7. Radio was another weapon of the Twenty-Third. What was spoof radio? What were some of the ways that the Twenty-Third fooled the Germans with radio transmissions? Talk about what telegraph operators contributed, too.

8. How did the Twenty-Third use dummy tanks and weapons and camouflage to deceive the enemy? How did the men move and maintain the dummy equipment? Why wouldn’t they let the locals near them? What are different ways that camouflage was used?

9. What were the duties of the Twenty-Third’s combat engineers? Find examples of when they made a difference in the operations. Why did the manual for combat engineers say their objective was “to change the shape of the ‘battle space’” (page 45)?

10. Why were bridges so important in the war? What are Bailey bridges, and how were they used? What was the importance of bridges in Operation VIERSEN?

11. What were some of the mistakes the Twenty-Third and those they worked with made? What adjustments did they make after the mistakes to get it right the next time?

12. Why was it often difficult to assess the success of the Twenty-Third’s role in a given operation? Point to events and details that show how complicated the operations were and how the work of the Twenty-Third was a small part of a bigger picture.

13. “All the men understood how putting themselves in harm’s way, becoming ‘Nazi bait,’ was dangerous work” (page 28). What made the Twenty-Third unusually vulnerable to the enemy? Why did the men of the Twenty-Third consider their fake sounds of a large Allied force to be “the sounds of a target” during Operation VIERSEN (page 241)? Why is it surprising that they didn’t suffer more casualties?

14. Why was Operation VIERSEN described as the Twenty-Third’s “finest hour,” and why were they commended for it (page 245)? Give a synopsis of their role in the operation and of the overall importance of the operation in the war.

15. War has its own vocabulary, including jargon, slang, nicknames, and operation names. Find examples from these categories in the book and discuss the origin and/or meaning of the words and phrases. Why do you think the military produces so much specialized language?


The Ghost Army is Born

On September 1, 1939, German troops poured into Poland like an angry sea, and World War II in Europe began. By the end of the year, Adolf Hitler’s forces had occupied Hungary and Czechoslovakia as well. Then, after a relatively quiet winter, the war roared back to life in the spring of 1940 as the German army swept through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, Greece, and France. With Hitler’s new conquests, only fifty miles of the English Channel stood between his troops and England. To help make up for what they lacked in soldiers and equipment, the British turned to deception.

The U.S. military establishment, on the other hand, felt a disdain for deception, believing that it somehow ran contrary to the American character, which insisted on “fair play,” even in war. However, a handful of U.S. generals were beginning to reconsider the usefulness of deception in battle.

Some historians say that the U.S. military began to rethink its position after the decisive British defeat of German field marshal Edwin Rommel, known as the “Desert Fox,” in North Africa in October 1942 — a defeat largely made possible by a set of British deception eff orts called Operation BERTRAM (September–October 1942).

When the United States entered the war in Europe in December 1941, it declined to coordinate the Allied deception operations through the London Controlling Section (LCS) of MI5, the British Security Service, and formed its own group to control its deception ops: the Joint Security Committee, later renamed the Joint Security Control (JSC). The JSC included top officers from the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy. Each selected a high-ranking officer as an assistant.

As its name suggests, the main goal of the Joint Security Control was protecting the security of military information, to keep it from falling into enemy hands. In addition, the JSC was to coordinate cover and deception operations of the military and nonmilitary agencies in the United States. With the JSC established, the stage was set for the creation of the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops.

Major Ralph Ingersoll, who worked in London in the operations branch of the army’s headquarters, wasn’t shy about taking credit for originating the concept for a “super secret battalion of specialists in the art of manipulating our antagonists’ decisions.” Ingersoll referred to this unit as “my con artists.” But was Ingersoll really responsible for creating the deception unit that came to be the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops?

Since Ingersoll had a “reputation for exaggerating his accomplishments,” Rick Beyer, a Ghost Army authority, believes that Ingersoll “certainly didn’t conceive of the Ghost Army all on his own.” He worked with Colonel William “Billy” Harris, at the orders of General Jake Devers, commander of the headquarters of the American army in Europe (ETOUSA), who insisted that the time was right to appoint a permanent cover and deception officer for the European Theater of Operations.

Harris’s first task was to assess the role that deception should play in the ETO. Harris issued a report that recommended formation of a deception unit “capable of simulating one corps [about fi fty thousand men], consisting of one infantry division and one armored division, by means of prefabricated portable dummies together with the appropriate radio communications.” In the end, it was Devers who endorsed the idea and sent his approval in a memo to the War Department on December 24, 1943. Military historian Jonathan Gawne notes, “Lots of people suggest things, but it was Devers that had his name at the bottom of the memo” that went to Washington. Despite the endorsement from Devers, it was still nearly two years before the U.S. deception unit was fully operational. The U.S. military simply did not have the manpower it needed at that point to quickly move the operation forward. Oddly enough, it was the work of two others — neither a career military man but each with strong social connections with people in high places in Washington, D.C. — that laid the foundation for what was to become the Ghost Army.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was a man of action. The dashing and popular movie star was known for his portrayal of intrepid and swashbuckling heroes who were always at the ready to protect merchant ships from marauding pirates. So with a second world war looming, Fairbanks wanted to be part of it. His interest in joining the armed forces was no gimmick to boost ticket sales of his movies. He wanted to serve his country.

Fairbanks explained in The Salad Days, an autobiography covering his early life and his activities in World War II, that he had actually wanted to join the navy before the war started. “All my life,” he wrote, “I had loved the lure of the sea . . . and almost everything to do with ships.” He rejected service in the other branches for practical reasons. The Army Air Corps wasn’t a good fi t for him because he admitted that he knew “next to nothing about flying and wasn’t particularly anxious to learn.” Thanks to his family’s connections in Washington, he could have taken “some relatively easy-to-get commissions in the Army,” but Fairbanks knew that the army required lots of marching, and he hated to walk!

Having chosen the navy, Fairbanks set his sights on commissioning as an officer. However, because he didn’t have the formal education that the navy required of its officers, that door was closed to him. But a family friend did let him in on a secret: men interested in becoming naval intelligence officers didn’t need that education. The movie star enlisted immediately and was commissioned on April 10, 1941, as a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Once in the navy, Fairbanks let it be known that he wished to be “of service in any capacity.” His family’s political connections came in handy again when Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles reported Fairbanks’s intense interest in serving President Roosevelt, a friend of Fairbanks’s parents. Welles believed that Fairbanks might be an ideal person for the State Department to send on what could be billed as a fact-finding trip to a number of South American countries. According to Fairbanks, the “official line” was that he could go to South America to “further develop cultural relations” on behalf of the United States and “meet and exchange views with painters, sculptors, writers, theater and fi lm people.”

However, since, as Fairbanks was informed, “nearly two million people in South America . . . had recently come from Germany,” the real reason for his trip was more clandestine. He was to find out, “in whatever off hand manner” he could, whether the countries he visited would be sympathetic to the United States if the country were attacked or became actively involved in the war. And “most important,” he recalled, “I was to find out if we would be welcome in that country if we needed to use its ports as possible emergency repair bases for our navy.”

Fairbanks visited Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru during his trip that lasted ten weeks, from mid-April to the end of June 1941. Back in the United States, he fi led a report to Welles, who shared it with the president. According to Fairbanks, he received “nothing but praise” from the administration for his clandestine work. “I was very pleased indeed,” he recalled, “and wondered, ‘What next?’” The answer was not long in coming.


© 2019 by Paul B. Janeczko