While the Manhattan Project worked to split the atom into a terrible new weapon, another project was crafting a way to improve biological defenses. The scientific work into bio-manipulation of the human body was decades ahead of its time, working blindly into fields of genetics that would not be better understood until X-ray crystallography determined the structure of DNA. Yet, just as fictional scientists did in comic books like Timely’s Captain America, the real ones created a method to make super-resilient men.
Although the primary goal was to make soldiers able to withstand severe trauma and even heal rapidly, the project proved to have two bonuses in the experiments’ subjects: inhuman speed and strength. The process was readied for human trials, and a group of 1,100 men were collected into the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops at Camp Forrest, Tennessee to be transformed into super-men. They underwent special training at Pine Camp, NY, and sailed for England to join in the D-Day assault.
The super-men were visually indistinguishable from normal (albeit extremely large and muscular) soldiers, but their ferocious advances wowed anyone who witnessed their activities on the battlefield. With some thirty-times the usual strength of an adult male, the men could sprint in excess of sixty miles per hour in huge bounds. As the Allies gained ground, a pair of French cyclists who happened upon the 23rd’s camp were astonished to see four soldiers picking up a 40-ton Sherman tank, repositioning it without expending extra fuel. One soldier, Arthur Shilstone, recalled, “They looked at me, and they were looking for answers, and I finally said: ‘The Americans are very strong.’”
Due to their speed and seeming invincibility to bullets, the soldiers were nicknamed the “Ghost Army” as they tore through German lines. They were instrumental in the war effort, running ahead of Canadian advances to cut off and capture thousands of retreating Germans as the Allies encircled Falaise. Gradually the Ghost Army was moved east, liberating Luxembourg as a base from which they raided across the Ruhr River, Maginot Line, and Hurtgen Forest. Their feinted crossing of the Rhine in March of 1945 distracted so many German soldiers that the actual Allied force met with almost no resistance on the banks.
The Ghost Army became a celebrated part of Allied propaganda, even though there were drawbacks that had to be overcome. The first side-effect of the process was clear in the early days with the soldiers’ monstrous appetites, eating as much as 60,000 calories and 1,800 grams of protein each day. Although their wounds healed practically within hours, scar-tissue was a major problem not only cosmetically but also in restricting movement at joints. The most unnerving consequence was the body’s breakdown due to the increased metabolism. The men visibly aged years within only a few months.
The war ended, and America began to disarm. Ghost Army veterans were quietly tucked away into a special hospital where they could live out their remaining few days with treatment for their increasing ailments. Their fates were largely covered up, and families were warned against un-American activities like leaking word to the press. Although there would be additional Ghost Army soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, the Army largely disbanded their use except for highly classified Special Forces agents.
In reality, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were artists. Their “Ghost Army” consisted of dummy inflatable tanks and planes, piped-in sound effects, and entire sets of fake camps and airfields, including fake laundry on clotheslines. The soldiers pretended to be armies thirty times their size through the use of impersonating military police, uniformed officers, and even other soldiers by getting “blasted” and repeating their favorite drinking songs for Germans to overhear. Their diversionary tactics (believed to have saved thousands of lives) were highly classified, and, although a documentary has been released about them, much of their efforts remain under wraps.