CHICAGO — One of nine surviving members of a top-secret World War II military unit was awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in Palatine to honor the “Ghost Army.”  

Bernie Bluestein, 98, was honored at a special ceremony at Harper College, where he has taken art classes for the last three decades. 

Art is what distinguished Bluestein’s service in World War II. He joined the U.S. Army as a 19-year-old college art student — after he saw a bulletin outside of his classroom.  

“I saw a notice on the bulletin board that said the army was looking for young artists for a new unit that was being formed, and they would be doing camouflage,” Bluestein said.

The Army was recruiting artists for a special top-secret unit that would have one mission: create battlefield illusions to trick the Nazis. 

“We learned how to camouflage equipment, how to make fake equipment — guns, tanks, trucks,” he said.  

The unit simulated legions of U.S. troops using camouflage, inflatable tanks, trucks, and equipment. A team of engineers even made use of “sonic deception,” by playing loud audio recordings that sounded as if troops were rolling in.  

The unit was officially called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, but became known by its nickname, the “Ghost Army.” They pulled off more than 20 deception missions that distracted the Germans — and allowed American troops to move unchecked by the enemy. It’s estimated they saved between 15,000 and 30,000 American lives.  

“I like to refer to them as a traveling roadshow of deception,” said Rick Beyer, a filmmaker and author who produced, wrote, and directed a 2013 documentary on the unit, and heads the Ghost Army Legacy Project. “But this road show has as its audience — the enemy, a bunch of people who want to kill you so you better be convincing because they’re paying attention, and if you get it wrong it could mean your life, or thousands of other lives.”

The records of the Ghost Army were unsealed in 1996. After nearly a quarter century of campaigning, advocates like Beyer finally pushed Congress to bestow upon the unit some overdue recognition, and in February President Joe Biden signed the Congressional Gold medal Act into law.  

“I’m highly honored,” Bluestein said. “I feel humble about all the attraction it’s getting – I am really sorry about one thing. That I’m the lone person. There are eight more of us that I know of that are still living. I wish the rest of the 1,100 men in our outfit could have gotten this recognition.”