Artist-soldier in WWII ploy lives qui­etly in Schaum­burg

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Wil­liam Lee

Art is the thread that has run through 95-year-old Bernie Bluestein’s life.

It has stretched from his youth sketch­ing news­pa­per comic strips and pinup girls in Cleve­land to his golden years rack­ing up 30 years’ ten­ure as an emer­i­tus art stu­dent at Harper Col­lege in Pala­tine.

His tidy four-room apart­ment in Schaum­burg is a tes­ta­ment to his life­long de­vo­tion, nearly ev­ery inch filled with paint­ings, etch­ings, sketches, carv­ings, stand­ing sculp­tures and hand­made fur­ni­ture.

But it was in the role of soldier where he cre­ated per­haps his most re­mark­able work.

A life­time ago, on the edge of man­hood, a 19-yearold Bluestein chose a path of sub­ver­sion and trick­ery on be­half of the U.S. mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II in an as­sign­ment so se­cre­tive the de­tails were only de­clas­si­fied in 1996.

“Our out­fit was a top se­cret out­fit. No­body knew about it,” Bluestein said plainly of his stealthy work with the 603rd Cam­ou­flage Engi­neers bat­tal­ion more than 70 years ago.

“When I wrote home, (Army of­fi­cials) deleted any­thing that in­di­cated where we were, or what we were do­ing or any­thing. No­body knew about this: my par­ents, my

friends, no­body knew about what I did, or where I was.”

What he and other mem­bers of the clan­des­tine, 1,100-man 23rd Head­quar­ters Spe­cial Troops unit did was seem­ingly cre­ate their own army, but with life­size in­flat­able tanks and planes, and hol­low wooden struc­tures meant to re­sem­ble brick-and-mor­tar mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions. The props were specif­i­cally de­signed to trick Adolf Hitler’s army into be­liev­ing the Amer­i­cans were amass­ing a ma­jor mil­i­tary re­sponse.

Even as peo­ple around the coun­try re­mem­ber on Vet­er­ans Day those who have served, Bluestein said he doesn’t dwell on his mil­i­tary past.

Be­cause of its covert mis­sion, lit­tle recog­ni­tion has been given to the unit, known as the “Ghost Army,” though it has been the sub­ject of books and a PBS doc­u­men­tary.

Bluestein is among an ever-shrink­ing hand­ful of mem­bers still alive to tell the story, and in Septem­ber he trav­eled to Lux­em­bourg to at­tend the ded­i­ca­tion of the first Ghost Army me­mo­rial. The his­tor­i­cal marker tells the tale of one of the longest and most im­por­tant op­er­a­tions.

In the U.S., leg­is­la­tion was in­tro­duced ear­lier this year to award the men of the Ghost Army a Con­gres­sional Gold Medal “for their pro­fi­cient use of in­no­va­tive tac­tics dur­ing World War II, which saved lives and made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the de­feat of the Axis pow­ers.” But the bill can’t be con­sid­ered un­til two-thirds of the House and Se­nate sign on as co-spon­sors.

A ‘new type of unit’

The Cleve­land-born son of a tai­lor and seam­stress never had de­signs on be­ing a soldier. “I was a very in­se­cure kid, and I was happy to be in art school be­cause I wanted to get into my pro­fes­sion. I wanted to be an in­dus­trial de­signer. I made up my mind in high school,” he re­called.

Want­ing to avoid the draft and pos­si­bly be­ing put on the front lines, Bluestein de­cided to ap­ply for an Army-spon­sored art course posted on the school’s bul­letin board ad­ver­tis­ing a new type of unit, he re­called.

“They didn’t ex­plain what it was. It was a new kind of unit, and they were look­ing for artists. And they said it wasn’t go­ing to be any sort of in­fantry-type fight­ing.”

After pass­ing the course, he en­listed in the Army and left home for the first time, trav­el­ing to Fort Ge­orge Meade Army base in Mary­land for ba­sic and cam­ou­flage train­ing. Sey­mour Nussen­baum, a friend and unit mate of Bluestein’s, was sim­i­larly brought into the unit from the hush-hush Army art course.

“Most of (the re­cruits) were our age,” Nussen­baum, also 95, told the Tri­bune from his home in Mon­roe Town­ship, N.J. “A lot of them came out of the schools, a few of them were older. We didn’t dis­cuss art much; we did our own sketches.”

Dur­ing camo train­ing, the artist-sol­diers learned and per­fected tech­niques to cre­ate fake tanks, air­craft and struc­tures us­ing sim­ple ma­te­ri­als that would fool en­e­mies on land or by air near Ger­man po­si­tions.

Even with dan­ger lurk­ing, Bluestein said his art ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ued. “There were other peo­ple there much older than I. They were sea­soned artists, and they were re­ally good. And I used to watch how they did things, how they painted, how they drew, made sculp­tures. I learned a lot from them. They never left me. It was an ed­u­ca­tion for me.”

The de­cep­tion unit was the brain­child of celebrity jour­nal­ist Ralph Inger­soll, who was drafted into the war, and his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Col. Billy Har­ris. They were in­spired by pre­vi­ous suc­cess­ful Bri­tish de­cep­tion op­er­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to Rick Beyer, a for­mer ra­dio and TV pro­ducer in Chicago who spent eight years do­ing re­search, comb­ing through doc­u­ments and track­ing down sur­vivors for his 2013 PBS doc­u­men­tary and a 2015 book co-writ­ten with El­iz­a­beth Sayles.

“(The Army was) look­ing for ways to give the Amer­i­cans an ad­van­tage once they hit the beach,” Beyer said. “We’re go­ing to be there, we’re go­ing to be fight­ing in Eu­rope and we’re go­ing up against the Nazis, and they’re re­ally great sol­diers and what can we do to give our men ev­ery ad­van­tage?” The an­swer was a mul­ti­me­dia tac­ti­cal de­cep­tion unit set up to fool the eyes and ears of Nazis and their sym­pa­thiz­ers.

They cre­ated fake head­quar­ters and air­fields; mas­quer­aded as real com­bat units, down to the uni­forms and ve­hi­cles; and played the rum­bling sounds of hun­dreds of tanks and mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles on por­ta­ble loud­speak­ers as ra­dio op­er­a­tors staged fake Army broad­casts to draw the Ger­mans away from ac­tual Al­lied op­er­a­tions.

The ruse worked too well, Bluestein learned on his last mis­sion of the war, when his en­tire unit moved into the Ger­man town Viersen im­per­son­at­ing two com­bat di­vi­sions, hop­ing to draw Ger­man at­ten­tion so that the 9th Army could cross the Rhine river into Ger­man ter­ri­tory.

The next morn­ing, he said he nar­rowly missed be­ing struck by fly­ing shrap­nel when Ger­mans shelled their out­post. “I lucked out; I didn’t get in­jured at all,” he re­called. “But the fact of the mat­ter was, we all looked across and said, ‘My God! It worked,’ ” he laughed. “Our mis­sion was suc­cess­ful.”

The unit went on about 20 op­er­a­tions in France, Bel­gium, Lux­em­bourg and Ger­many, with three unit mem­bers killed and oth­ers in­jured in Ger­man shelling, ac­cord­ing to Beyer. The Ghost Army’s story has be­come a la­bor of love for Beyer, who hosts Euro­pean tours of sites of in­ter­est in­volv­ing the unit, as well as lec­tures. He was also present for Bluestein’s Lux­em­bourg visit.

“The more I find out about it, the more amaz­ing it seems be­cause it’s hap­pen­ing on the bat­tle­field, of­ten within fir­ing dis­tance of the en­emy that you’re try­ing to carry out these de­cep­tions,” Beyer said.

“I learned a lot from them. They never left me. It was an ed­u­ca­tion for me.” — World War II Army vet­eran Bernie Bluestein, 95, of Schaum­burg, about artist-sol­diers in his unit

‘I never thought it was a heroic thing’

After the war, Bluestein re­turned to the States and, with the help of the GI Bill, re­turned to art school to com­plete his dreams of be­com­ing an in­dus­trial de­signer. He never men­tioned his work, not even to his fam­ily, and his me­mories of war slowly faded with each


Bernie Bluestein sits with a large self-por­trait and a smaller photo of him­self from his Army days.


A dummy tank from the World War II “Ghost Army.”


Bernie Bluestein holds a photo of him­self as a soldier. He was part of the unit that cre­ated props to fool Ger­many about the size of Amer­ica’s army.


A con­voy in the so-called Ghost Army, po­si­tioned in France in 1945, in­cludes in­flat­able dum­mies made to re­sem­ble tanks.


The tac­tic also in­cluded por­ta­ble speak­ers that played the sounds of mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles.

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