Former West Orange resident honored for service with Ghost Army

Gilbert Seltzer in his Army uniform during World War II. Seltzer served in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which staged deception operations to trick the enemy into thinking more soldiers and equipment were in the area than actually were..

WEST ORANGE — Long-time West Orange resident Gilbert Seltzer thought he and his comrades had been given a suicide mission.

The collection of artists, architects and engineers in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops unit during World War II in Europe were to take positions with fake tanks and sound equipment to make the German army think they were a much larger, better equipped unit.

“We were a suicide mission,” Gilbert Seltzer once said. “We were a small group of soldiers sent to replace a large group that went elsewhere and they wanted them to shoot at us.”

Seltzer, who died in his home at the age of 106 on Aug. 14, 2021, served in what became known as the “Ghost Army.”

The existence of the Ghost Army was top secret for more than 50 years until it was declassified in 1996. The Ghost Army used creative techniques to fool and distract the enemy about the strength and location of American troops, using inflatable tanks, sound effects, radio trickery and impersonation.

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops staged more than 20 deception operations, often dangerously close to the front, in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

This “traveling road show of deception,” of only 1,100 troops appearing to be more than 20,000, is credited with saving an estimated 30,000 American lives.

“Rarely, if ever, has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign,” said U.S. Army analyst Mark Kronman. ​ A seven-year effort to honor the soldiers culminated in a ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on March 21. The unit was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal.

House Speaker Mike Johnson hosted the event, along with House and Senate leaders and sponsors of the legislation authorizing the award, which is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements by individuals or institutions. It was the first time the Gold Medal, designed and produced by the U.S. Treasury Department, was unveiled.

“It was quite impressive,” said Richard Seltzer, who is the son of Gilbert. “It was probably one of the few non-partisan events to take place lately in Washington. The speaker of the house was there, the minority leader, two senators spoke, one Republican, one Democrat, two House members, one Democrat and one Republican.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke as did the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the secretary of the Army, Seltzer said.

“Many of them spoke about members of the Ghost Army who lived in their district and their personal connections to them,” Seltzer said.

Three of the seven living veterans of the Ghost Army were among those in attendance.

“There were hundreds of people like me, families of the deceased there,” Seltzer said. “It made me feel extremely proud of my father and his service in World War II. And it reminded me of the unique makeup of this unit, which was largely composed of artists, architects, engineers, people in the arts.”

The soldiers in the unit included painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass.

Gilbert Seltzer didn’t talk much about his experiences in the war but he wasn’t allowed to.

“For many decades after the war, veterans were told not to talk about it because it was top secret,” Richard Seltzer said. “I knew my father was in some strange unit but I didn’t know the facts until 10 or 15 years ago when it was declassified.”

After the war, Seltzer worked as an architect, designing many buildings around New Jersey, including some on the campus of William Paterson University and the original Newark campus of the University of Medicine and Dentistry.

“He also designed the East Coast War Memorial in Battery Park” in New York City, Richard Seltzer said.

After the unit’s existence was declassified, Gilbert Seltzer was interviewed several times about his experiences.

“He said it was somewhat strange, that 75 years after the fact, to have this focus on something that took place so long ago,” Richard said. “He did tell this story about a Frenchman coming out to complain about a tank on his property and leaning on it and realizing it was rubber and laughing, saying ‘boom, boom, ha ha.’”

The quote became a kind of motto for the unit, he said.

Gilbert Seltzer in his later years when he was a resident of West Orange.