WEST JORDAN — It’s told they helped shorten World War II by at least six months and save tens of thousands of lives.
And they did it without a single bullet.
Their story was kept secret for 50 years after the war ended, classified among the U.S. forces' closely guarded secrets. Today, their story has come to light — but only after most of the 1,100 men have already passed.
They were the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the Ghost Army. Their mission wasn’t to fight on the front lines, and yet there they were — dangerously close, right under the enemy's noses, actually more vulnerable than the Germans thought.
The Ghost Army’s mission was to deceive.
Using truckloads of inflatable tanks, huge speakers, a collection of sound effects records and other tricks, the special unit impersonated radio transmissions and used illusions to create phony forces, fooling the enemy into believing there were large factions of U.S. soldiers stationed on the battlefields of Europe, rather than a single unit of artists and engineers.
The Ghost Army used art, trickery and nonviolence to help win the war.
But their story, kept secret for decades after the war ended, remains little-known.
Still alive among the Ghost Army's ranks is a Utahn — Staff Sgt. Stanley Nance, now 101.
Today, Nance's 14 children and their children know of Nance's heroics — how he used his expertise in Morse code and telegraphing to perfectly mimic Allied forces' radio transmissions, so when they moved out, he'd create the illusion over radio waves that they were still there.
Nance, who now lives in Millcreek, and his fellow tricksters participated in 21 deception missions. The Ghost Army was there, in Normandy, during the Battle of the Bulge, and at the crossing of the Rhine River.
But because the missions were classified, Nance never told his wife in detail the role he played in the war. She died never knowing — before the secret classification lifted in 1996.
"They told me to keep it secret, and I did," he said.
When his children asked what he did in the war, Nance told them he "blew up tanks" — which technically wasn't a lie, when considering that the Ghost Army used inflatable tanks to mimic actual tanks.
To Nance, the secrecy was just part of the job. During the war, keeping the secret was a matter of life and death.
Now able to talk freely, Nance said the Ghost Army did what it was supposed to do: spare lives.
"Of all the transmissions that I made from my radio … if just one of those that I sent changed the tide of battle, where one new wife or one mother was spared putting a gold star in their front window, that's what the 23rd Headquarters was all about. Saving lives."
Nance's family, gathered around his wheelchair, listened as he retold his war tales to Rep. Ben McAdams at the congressman's office in West Jordan this week.
But he wasn't there to just tell stories.
For years, Nance's family and others — including the Ghost Army Legacy Project — have worked to spread the Ghost Army's story, to give the men of the 23rd Headquarters the honor they deserve for lives saved during World War II.
Nance's great-great-granddaughter, Madeline Christenson, recently won the World War II History Award at the National History Competition after she spent months interviewing eight of the surviving Ghost Army men to tell their stories.
Madeline, soon to be a sophomore at Orem High School, told the Deseret News she felt a "sense of urgency" to share the Ghost Army's story, with only 18 surviving men left — all of whom are in their 90s or over 100.
"These men deserve to be recognized because they did so much in the war," she said. "They were never recognized, and that's just super unfair."
When Madeline, 15, showed her medal to her great-grandfather at McAdams' office, he held it in his hand in awe, then kissed her on the top of the head.
McAdams, D-Utah, also had a surprise for Nance.
The congressman told the sergeant he had submitted his and the Ghost Army's story to the Congressional Record, so the 23rd Headquarters' heroics will be forever preserved in history.
McAdams thanked Nance for his "sacrifices that have helped us preserve our freedoms today."
"We don't take that for granted," he said.
McAdams read out loud to Nance from the text he submitted to the Congressional Record, calling the story of the Ghost Army and its soldiers "a heroic tale of young Americans' bold actions to defend freedom."
The congressman also honored Madeline and her history project, calling it an "amazing re-creation of a story of skill, courage and triumph — unique in the annals of history."
"As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day 2019, we honor two extraordinary generations of Utahns — the soldier who helped defeat tyranny during World War II, and his great-granddaughter who is keeping the story of heroism alive," McAdams read.
Nance's family broke out in applause, standing around Nance.
"This is really an honor," Nance said. "I'm glad I'm still alive to see it."
"So are we," McAdams added.
McAdams told the Deseret News he was "moved" and "inspired" by the Ghost Army, Nance and Madeline, and he felt it was "important to pause and say thank you — especially as part of Independence Day celebrations.
"I want the people of Utah to also take a moment and remember," McAdams said. "We live in a time of incredible divisiveness, where it feels like we have nothing in common with our neighbors. I think it's worth just pausing to remember those who have gone before us and the sacrifices they made for the freedoms we enjoy today, and remember, in spite of all the issues that divide us today … there still is more that unites us than divides us."
Michelle Christianson, Madeline's mother and Nance's granddaughter-in-law, said she was extremely proud of her daughter for sharing her great-grandfather's story. Next, she said, Madeline aims to lobby for support for a Congressional Medal of Honor.
"It's really hard for some of these men," Christianson said of the soldiers who have gone decades without the recognition. "And there's not many of them left."