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Richard Matthies recalls his historic theatrical role in WWII’s ‘Ghost Army’

At 18 years old, Richard G. “Dick” Matthies was drafted into the Army’s 17th Airborne Division. He regularly flew training missions in gliders that relied on the winds to stay aloft.

“When you’re 18, we thought we were indestructible, and we could rule the world,” Matthies said of gliding in the canvas-made aircraft.

In truth, he says, he was putting up a brave front, and perhaps it was this pretending that prepared him, in a sense, for stepping onto a grand historical stage – the European Theater of Operations in World War II. It was a dramatic acting troupe like none other; they called themselves the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as the “Ghost Army.”

They could have won an Academy Award.

Their job was to pretend to be a fully outfitted combat unit.

“We had inflatable tanks, artillery, vehicles and a complete outfit of rubber dummies that we inflated and looked like soldiers,” the 90-year-old veteran recalls.

To give this charade even more credibility, another company of ghost soldiers operated recording devices and speakers that blared out the sounds of tanks and trucks starting up and moving amid the recorded voices of men shouting to create the sound of an army on the move.

The fake unit was often situated right on the front lines so that the enemy could see and hear it.

It was so believable, Matthies says, that the Germans often responded with artillery fire.

And while Matthies and his buddies succeeded in their trickery, death was ever present.

“There was one time when our company commander and his assistant officer were riding in a jeep, and I was in the second jeep behind them,” Matthies recalls. “We were out reconnoitering, and we caught mortar fire from the enemy. There was a tree burst right above the commander’s head, and he was hit with shrapnel.”

Matthies and another soldier raced to find a medic, but by the time they returned with first aid, the commander had died.

“We were devastated,” he says. “It was bad. It was unnerving.”

But the Ghost Army’s secret mission continued.

“We couldn’t tell anyone what we were doing,” he says. “If we did, we would have been court-martialed.”

Matthies says that his unofficial main job was to serve as a shield for his lieutenant colonel: “He was afraid of being shot in the back when he was riding around in his jeep. So he had me sit behind him in the jeep.”

Fortunately, his unofficial role as a human backstop was never put to the ultimate test.

His official job, he said, was to help the lieutenant colonel read maps to determine the placement of the inflatable artillery pieces.

When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, Matthies says, he was overjoyed to leave behind both his official and unofficial duties and return in July to Pine Camp in upstate New York.

“It’s a funny thing. My whole unit was sent from Pine Camp to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and I was discharged from there on my 21st birthday,” he says, “but I could have been discharged from Pine Camp, which was fairly close to Buffalo.”

Having completed a course in photography at Seneca Vocational High School, Matthies pursued a career as a professional photographer.

“I started out in a portrait studio in East Aurora,” he says, “and later I went to work for a company named Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory that became Calspan. I took high-speed motion pictures of automobile crashes (for tests at Calspan), among other things.”

One of the benefits of seeing staged crashes, says the former soldier who created staged combat outfits, was being inspired to drive safely.

“It kind of woke you up seeing those crashes,” said Matthies, who over the years spent many happy summers with his wife, the former Lydia Becker, on their boat in Chautauqua Lake.

As for his war service, Matthies says, he was spared “bad memories,” and attributes that to the resilience of youth.

Richard G. Matthies, 90

Hometown: Orchard Park

Residence: East Aurora

Branch: Army

Rank: Corporal

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five battle stars, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Planning and operations