DOVER — As a member of a top secret, first-of-its kind U.S. Army unit in World War II, Dover resident James “Tom” Anderson and his colleagues were experts at the art of deception.
It was the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops that used various methods of trickery in aiding the Allies as they fooled and distracted the enemy on the battlefields of Europe, saving thousands of lives in the process.
Though it sounds more like episodes from the old TV comedy “Ho-gan’s Heroes,” Mr. Anderson and his fellow soldiers’ expertise at such “combat con artistry” often kept the Axis powers confused — in real life.
It was such bravery and heroism that led to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — Mr. Anderson’s unit — to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
A ceremony was held in Mr. Anderson’s honor before a packed house Thursday afternoon at Dover’s Modern Maturity Center.
The Congressional Gold Medal is an honor reserved for a select few recipients that represents Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals and institutions.
The honor for the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was passed by both houses of the Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on Feb. 1, one day before Mr. Anderson celebrated his 99th birthday.
Perhaps the biggest honor Mr. Anderson received Thursday was a letter and photo from President Biden congratulating him on his accomplishments.
“It was a very good day,” Mr. Anderson said, after receiving several tributes and presentations from state and local dignitaries. “I’m just trying to keep on going.”
He also received tributes and presentations from Sen. Trey Paradee and Rep. William Carson; Commissioner Alan Angel of Kent County Levy Court; Dover City Councilman Bill Hare and Mayor Robin Christiansen; and Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long.
One remarkable life
Rick Beyer, of the Ghost Army Legacy Project and director of the award-winning PBS documentary “The Ghost Army,” reflected on Mr. Anderson’s remarkable life.
He was the son of a ship captain who dropped out of school in the Great Depression and went to work at age 12 to support his family.
Mr. Anderson was drafted into the U.S. Army when he was 18 and ended up in the 406th Combat Engineers, who provided perimeter security for the Ghost Army on their missions, but they also played an important role in the deception operations.
Mr. Anderson landed on the beach at Normandy on the second day of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, as a member of the prestigious 23rd Special Headquarters Troops.
“Specifically, one of Tom’s jobs was to use bulldozers to create phony tank tracks away from the inflatable tanks, so that they looked real,” Mr. Beyer said. “Guys in the 406th also impersonated MPs from other units as part of what they call their ‘special effects deceptions’ to fool enemy spies who had been left behind.”
It was their bravery that led to the survival of thousands of other troops.
“Congress has awarded just 182 gold medals over the last 250 years,” Mr. Beyer said. “The first one went to George Washington – General George Washington then in 1776 – and others have gone to the Wright Brothers, Sir Winston Churchill, boxer Joe Louis and Rosa Parks.
“So, Tom, you are in pretty good company.”
Mr. Beyer added that the first group of World War II soldiers to be honored with the gold medal was the Navajo Code Talkers in 2000.
Since then, gold medals have been awarded to 17 other World War II units or groups, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the WASP – Women Air Force Service Pilots – the Doolittle Raiders, the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services and now finally, the World War II deception unit known as the Ghost Army.
“The United States is eternally grateful to the soldiers of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 31/33rd Signal Company, for their proficient use of innovative tactics during World War II, which saved lives and made significant contributions to the defeat of the Axis powers,” said Mr. Beyer.
The unique group of deception artists used such tactics as putting up inflatable tanks and vehicles to confuse the enemy, to creating fake radio traffic and sound effects.
Together, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops – Mr. Anderson’s unit – conducted 22 battlefield deceptions, playing an important role in securing an Allied victory.
However, for decades, few knew of their heroic exploits since the records of their WWII activity remained classified until the mid-90s.
Maj. General Michael R. Berry, adjutant general for the Delaware National Guard, discussed Mr. Anderson’s unit’s final mission – Operation Viersen at the end of March in 1945 – which he said led to the survival of an estimated 30,000 Allied troops.
“Today is a very proud day for all of us in uniform,” Gen. Berry said. “This is just a tremendous day for all of us as Delawareans.”
The deceptions schemed up by the 1,100 soldiers in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in Operation Viersen saved the lives of those 30,000 members of the 9th as they crossed the Rhine River into Düsseldorf, Germany.
“And 77 years ago last month, Tom and his comrades finished up on their final deception mission, which is ‘Operation Vierson,’ Mr. Beyer said. “All I will say Tom is that you guys in your unit, with a great sense of drama, saved the best for last.”
Things were never easy for Mr. Anderson in World War II. In fact, he had to fight to stay in action on two separate occasions.
“I gave up two Purple Hearts,” Mr. Anderson said. “I got a piece of shrapnel in an arm, and I wouldn’t go to the hospital. They wanted me to go to the hospital and I finally talked my medic into pulling it out of there. Let me tell you, that was hard. Tears rolled down my cheek.
“I also got frostbitten feet (in the Battle of the Bulge) and I stayed in the hospital for two days before I could get to where I could walk. I told the major that was in charge at that time, I said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, you can’t go. You can’t go.’
“So, I explained the outfit that I was with, and he looked down at the desk and he said, ‘OK, I’m not going to write you up for disobeying an order.’ He said if anything happens don’t blame me, I didn’t do it.”
Fortunately, nothing tragic ever happened and Mr. Anderson, upon returning home, went to work for the now-defunct Bolan Motors in the shop for more than 35 years, while also working at Trader Funeral Home on nights and weekends for more than 60 years, until the pandemic forced him to stay at home.
Carolyn Fredricks, executive director of the Modern Maturity Center, said Mr. Anderson is a regular visitor to the center every morning and Pastor Amy Yarnall of Wesley United Methodist Church said he is always there for the church.
“Tom is the kind of person who is a faithful man. He is at church every Sunday and is our head usher,” Pastor Yarnall said. “He at one point filled every leadership role in the life of the church.
“He’s a man who has remarkable stories if you can get him to talk. He’s a very quiet soul.”
Mr. Anderson didn’t have to do much speaking on Thursday — others did it for him.
“There’s a lot of people, myself included, that can say, ‘Thank you,” Dover Councilman Hare said, before offering up a salute to the war hero. “Because if it wasn’t for you, I, and others, might not be here.”
No medal, but plenty of love
While there was no physical Gold Medal ready to be shared at Thursday’s ceremony, there was plenty of love shared for a hero.
The Gold Medal actually takes about a year and a half for the U.S. Mint to complete.
“We are thrilled to be able to honor Tom Anderson as one of the nine surviving members of this extraordinary deception unit awarded the Congressional Gold Medal,” Mr. Beyer said.
“So, we have no medal in hand, but that is not going to stop us from honoring Tom today.”
Perhaps the most fitting description of Mr. Anderson’s unit’s contributions to WWII came in the words of an analysis done after the war, saying, ‘Rarely has there been a group of such a few men which had so great an influence on the outcome of a major military campaign.”