Andrew M. Mead has often wondered about his father’s role in World War II, but it wasn’t until Mead was in his twenties that his father, Donald C. Mead, finally began to share details of his secret mission.
For many years, Mead believed his father was a tank commander. But Donald Mead, who died in 1981 aged 58, was actually a member of the Ghost Army, a group of soldiers assigned to a top-secret army unit that used deceptive warfare tactics to give American troops an advantage on the battlefield.
Shadow Army soldiers were instructed to use their brains to mislead and deceive the German military, including pretending to be a much larger and better equipped fighting force. After the war ended, soldiers in the unit were sworn to secrecy, records were filed, and their equipment was stored.
Accounts of the Shadow Army’s infiltration role began to circulate more openly in the 1970s, and the United States officially declassified their mission in 1996, although it remained a little-known part of the history of the Second World War.
Today, members of the Shadow Army receive Congressional Gold Medals recognizing the risks they took and the lives they saved. Only a small number of soldiers are still alive, but medals will also be presented to the families of those who have since died, including Donald Mead.
Andrew Mead, who lives in Bangor and is an associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, provided the Press Herald with a copy of a letter written by his father and published by the Armed Forces Journal in 1981. The title of his letter read, “The sonic deception facet of electronic warfare.”
In the letter, Donald Mead describes his unit’s role in weakening Nazi defenses in northern Italy by persuading the German commander, through deceptive sounds, to draw German troops away from the main axis of the attack of the allied forces. This allowed the Allies to break through the German lines, cross the Po River, and successfully win the Italian campaign.
“Nowhere in history or official records has this contribution to the Allied victory been told,” wrote Donald Mead. “Believing that this part of World War II history should not be forgotten, I would be happy to make available to any serious researcher any information I have.”
In a separate letter to the National Records and Records Section, dated February 1976, Mead requested a copy of his unit’s combat log. He describes in even more detail his unit’s sonic deception mission, which involved the use of powerful amplifiers and loudspeakers mounted on tank destroyer vehicles. During the night the sound devices played recordings of moving armored vehicles, “to deceive the enemy into believing” that a large attack by the United States armored truck force was in progress.
“When … my father told us that his service in WWII involved inflatable rubber tanks, I have to admit that as a young man I was unimpressed and perhaps amused,” Andrew wrote. Mead in an email. “But several years later, as I started to put the pieces together, I realized how amazing it really was. But, by then, he had passed away and it was too late to have the conversations I wish I had had sooner. The Shadow Army’s Congressional Gold Medal Project provided a welcome – albeit long after the fact – opportunity to honor him and the other brave and creative men whose exploits might otherwise have disappeared into a vacuum over the years.
Ghost Army soldiers used air compressors to inflate rubberized tanks and trucks fitted with piercing sound units designed to mimic troop movements to mislead the Nazis about size and location real US troops. They also sent false radio communications to confuse German intelligence. The army’s objective was to deceive the Germans into believing that the size of the American troops was much larger than it actually was, a diversionary tactic that gave the American troops the time they had need to bring their real forces into position.
The National WWII Museum in New Orleans perhaps best described the Ghost Army when it hosted a special exhibit from March 2020 through January 2021 titled: “Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II”.
There were two branches of the Shadow Army – the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which served mainly in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. It was the largest unit with 1,100 soldiers. Mead was a sergeant in the 3133rd Signal Corps Special Command, which served in Italy. More than 200 soldiers served in Mead’s unit.
A total of eight Ghost Army soldiers were born in Maine, according to the Ghost Army Legacy Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the efforts of these soldiers are recognized. None of the nine surviving members are in Maine.
Andrew Mead said he wanted to honor his father’s memory by making the Shadow Army’s efforts more public. He reached out to Maine Senator Susan Collins, whom Mead described as “very supportive.” Collins has agreed to co-sponsor legislation that will allow surviving members of the Shadow Army and their families to receive the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, DN.H., joined Collins in sponsoring the bicameral legislation. President Biden signed the bill on February 1. The nine surviving members of the Shadow Army who live across the United States and relatives of other deceased members will receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
“Our nation will always be grateful to the members of the Ghost Army, the top-secret army units who served with distinction during World War II. I am pleased that our bipartisan legislation has been enacted which will recognize these soldiers as bestowing Congress’s highest civilian honor,” Collins said in a statement. “Their courage and ingenuity played a pivotal role in the European theater and likely saved many American lives.”
The units of the Shadow Army “were instrumental in the Allied successes at the Battle of the Bulge and in the final battles in Italy’s Po Valley”, the lawmakers pointed out. Collins’ own father, Don Collins, was a World War II veteran who was wounded twice in the Battle of the Bulge. He earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for his service. Collins, Markey, and Kuster estimate that 15,000 to 30,000 American soldier lives were saved through the efforts of the Shadow Army.
Donald Mead grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts. In his youth he ran a private radio station and was an accomplished telegrapher. In 1941, he enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono, where he studied electrical engineering.
Andrew Mead said his father’s military career began in 1943 during his sophomore year at the University of Maine. Donald Mead joined a “large group” of friends who traveled to Bangor to enlist in the US Army.
Mead said his father received his basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey before being invited for an interview at some nondescript office building in New York. He was fired after the interview and did not fully understand the interviewer’s intentions until he was ordered to report to a secret training facility at Pine Camp in northern Utah. New York State. Pine Camp was renamed Fort Drum in 1974. Mead said his father deployed to Italy in 1943 as a member of the 3133rd Signal Corps Special Command.
Rick Beyer is president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project. Beyer is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, bestselling author and history buff. He produced and directed the PBS documentary “The Ghost Army” and is the co-writer of “The Ghost Army of World War II”.
Beyer said the 3133rd’s mission was to create sound deceptions created by mounting sound units on tanks, including speakers that could be heard for miles. A platoon of British engineers equipped with inflatable tanks was also attached to the unit, giving the 3133rd the means to perform limited visual deception as well.
Beyer said the 3133rd was in action for 19 days. They carried out two successful missions in Italy. Soldiers of the 3133rd created their own unofficial uniform patch which showed the devil thumbing his nose.
Another unit of the Shadow Army, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, saw much more action in Europe. The 23rd used inflatable tanks, fake sound effects, radio deception and illusions to trick the Germans into thinking they were facing much larger enemy units than they actually were on the ground of fight. The 23rd operated in northern Europe, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany, and flew 20 missions, according to Beyer.
Beyer said a gold medal will be produced by the US Mint and presented to the Smithsonian Museum. It will contain 300 grams of gold, with an estimated value of $20,000. It will take two years to create the design and strike the medal. Bronze duplicates will be given to surviving veterans and their families.
An official presentation ceremony will be organized by members of Congress in two years. Beyer said the Congressional Gold Medal dates back to the American Revolution and is the highest honor Congress can bestow.
The nine surviving Phantom Army soldiers are all in their late 90s, according to Beyer. They live in Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, and New York.
After the war ended, Donald Mead returned to the University of Maine, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he was hired by Western Electric, where he became involved in a number of Department of Defense projects, his son said.
He died in August 1981, the same year his letter was publicly released, offering to share his story in the hope “that this part of World War II history will not be forgotten”. Four decades later, he helped make sure that was never the case.
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