The Ghost Army is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and shortening World War II against Nazi Germany by at least six months — without ever firing a shot.

After keeping their missions a secret for decades, and fighting to be acknowledged, Ghost Army veterans received the Congressional Gold Medal before a crowd of hundreds on Thursday.

And it’s thanks — in part — to one young Utah woman’s efforts that these soldiers are now being recognized.

The “Ghost Army” was a top secret platoon of 1,100 soldiers consisting of painters, actors and sound technicians, who impersonated other U.S. Army units to deceive the Germans. These Army soldiers carried out 21 deception missions using inflatable tanks, sound trucks and fake radio transmissions. Often, the missions of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were akin to giant theater productions, taking place dangerously close to the frontlines.

The soldiers were in Normandy, during the Battle of the Bulge, and at the crossing of the Rhine River.

To throw German spies off the scent, troops would sew counterfeit patches onto their uniforms, paint false markings on their vehicles, and create fake headquarters staffed by actors posing as generals. Their missions were eventually declassified nearly five decades later, in 1996.

Former Utah Rep. Ben McAdams was the first to show an interest in honoring these veterans. Following McAdams’ exit from Congress, former Utah 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart took the reins and proposed legislation to make it a reality. The Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act passed the House and earned President Joe Biden’s signature in 2022.

Rep. Celeste Maloy, a Republican who now represents Utah’s 2nd District, and Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., endorsed a resolution authorizing an award ceremony to recognize these heroes earlier in February.

“The Ghost Army’s bravery and creativity saved countless lives during World War II. I’m proud to have worked on legislation with my former boss, former congressman Chris Stewart, to recognize them with the highest honor Congress can bestow,” Maloy said. “And I’m honored to be able to present them with this long overdue award.”

One of the soldiers being honored is the late Staff Sgt. Stanley Nance, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 103. The Utah veteran sent 28 deceptive radio messages, one of which helped Gen. George Patton in the Siege of Bastogne, a crucial battle in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

Michelle Christianson, an Orem resident and Nance’s granddaughter-in-law, attended the ceremony inside Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Nance’s honor. “It felt very much like a family reunion,” Michelle said of being among relatives, veterans and military members.

Three of the seven surviving Ghost Army veterans — Seymour Nussenbaum, 100, Bernard Bluestein, 100, and John Christman, 99 — were present at the ceremony.

Michelle Christianson’s daughter and Nance’s great-great-granddaughter, Madeline Christianson, has passionately lobbied for the recognition of these veterans since 2019 at the age of 14, and she did it with a great sense of urgency since she knew most of the surviving members were already in their 90s or over 100. Her journey began when she worked on her project on the surviving Ghost Army men, which earned her the World War II History Award at the National History Competition. This project also led her to forge strong connections with the living veterans.

Michelle said Nance was very proud of his great-granddaughter, Madeline. The pair filmed many YouTube videos together, like one from three years ago, where Nance said he was “very happy” to witness Madeline helping the Ghost Army receive “the highest medal of the rank.”

Madeline couldn’t be in Washington for the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony Thursday since she is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Houston, Texas.

“I remember sitting there thinking grandpa’s not here either. But maybe it’s appropriate that the two of them aren’t here in person, but they are here in spirit,” said Michelle.

Michelle forwarded the Deseret News a message from Madeline.

“The Ghost Army’s story has become part of my story, and I am amazed at the beautiful moment and celebration that came together,” she said.

“This is a moment I have envisioned for the past six years. Every time I lobbied, I would plead with representatives and senators, ‘Please let this be done while there are still veterans living!’ And there are veterans living!” she added. “I am sad to not be there in person, but I know I am where I am needed right now.”

Before enlisting in the Army, Nance learned how to transmit via Morse code at a remarkable speed. Instead of using his pointer finger, like everyone else, Nance used his thumbs, leaning on his ability to strum the ukulele, a skill he picked up as a missionary in Tahiti.

The late Staff Sgt. Stanley Nance kissing his great-granddaughter, Madeline Christianson, at Nance’s home in Millcreek in September, 2021, months before his passing. | Michelle Christianson

Nance’s job was to learn the different dialects other units used and mimic them. He often operated solo, driving through France, Germany, Belgium and Holland, with his equipment — a powerful radio set, antenna, and a generator — hidden in the back of his assigned weapon carrier truck.

“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,” he told the Deseret News in 2019. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quoted this very remark during his speech at the ceremony.

McConnell said the Ghost Army’s work was an “incredible psychological operation and one of the most successful counterintelligence operations in human history.”

“Today, the veil of secrecy is gone,” he said.

The Ghost Army soldiers honored the confidential nature of their jobs. Nance’s wife died before learning about his life as a 23rd Headquarters Special Troop, and this was the case for many veterans and their families, said Michelle.

These men “could never take pride in their military service,” she said. “They literally took off the uniform and put it in a box under their bed. ... People assumed that it was so horrific that that’s why they didn’t talk about it. But they didn’t have a unit. They didn’t have a patch. Their patches were impersonations of other units,” Nance’s granddaughter-in-law said. Michelle added that the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops didn’t even exist according to the U.S. government until recently.

Story of Utahn in the Ghost Army is secret no more

Stewart returned to his former stomping grounds for the ceremony, and in his remarks he credited Madeline for leading the charge on the legislation by earning the support of 30 lawmakers as a teenager, before paying his respect to the veterans.

“Our bodies get old but our souls do not,” said Stewart, adding the veterans “are still the same brave young men who are willing to sacrifice anything to serve their country.”

Michelle Christianson said her grandfather “had very positive experiences” in the Army.

“The war was horrendous, awful and ugly,” Michelle said. “But the Ghost Army was a very nonviolent solution to warfare. They didn’t shoot anyone. They didn’t kill anyone. Most of it was all nonlethal deception.”

Michelle acknowledged the long effort it took for lawmakers to approve a Congressional Gold Medal for the Ghost Army soldiers.

But, she added, while these veterans “were ghosts” they have now become a “tangible fixture” of American history.