Nicholas Leo belonged to a U.S. Army unit that fought a different kind of World War II.
Their weapons included inflatable rubber tanks and sound effects. Some in the unit, 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, set up make-believe headquarters and impersonated generals to confuse the enemy as to the location and size of the American units. Others, like Leo, carried out deception over the airwaves, known as “spoof radio,” by setting up phony radio networks and sending fake signals as if they were a real military unit.
They became known as the "Ghost Army." Their mission: to fool the enemy — Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
“We have this vision of what war is. It's the guys in the foxhole or it's the tanks," said Rick Beyer, a filmmaker who made a documentary in 2013 about the Ghost Army that aired on PBS. "We don't think about this idea of this unit doing make-believe. They're doing pretend on the battlefield to psych out the enemy, to confuse and disorient them.”
Leo, 99, of Brentwood, a D-Day veteran, and the last surviving 23rd Headquarters Special Troops member from New York, died May 18 at Stony Brook University Hospital of congestive heart failure, his family said. Nine surviving members live in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey and North Carolina, according to Beyer.
Leo was one of more than 1,100 engineers, artists and other service members who made up the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. The unit, along with the 3133rd Signal Service Company, which operated in Italy, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in February.
For decades, the classified Ghost Army was kept a secret.
Leo didn’t talk about what he did until Beyer approached him in 2014, long after records were officially declassified in the mid-1990s, said his son, John Leo, of Newport News, Virginia.
Beyer said Leo didn’t consider his role in the war heroic.
“Like a lot of the guys, he took it very matter-of-factly,” Beyer said. “For Nick, it's just like 'here's the job I've been given and I'm going to do it.’ ”
Beyer said the group of men, including Leo, remained humble about the extraordinary nature of the tactics they executed in the war.
"They were asked to essentially draw [enemy] fire and carry out the secret mission that nobody can know about and not talk about it for 50 years," he said. "I think they're a pretty spectacular bunch of people.”
At a virtual event two years ago hosted by a Long Island group that promotes Morse code training and education, Leo recalled how he and others jumped out of a boat at night and swam ashore at Normandy on D-Day.
“I could never explain it to anybody how bad it was,” he said at the event by the Long Island CW Club in the fall of 2020. “When we were coming in, we were being bombarded with artillery. You can't believe the artillery.”
Then he became emotional at the recollection of war.
“I don't want the memory, to tell you the truth. I can't talk, to this day. There are certain things I can't,” Leo said, his voice breaking. “Just thinking about it, I can't talk. I don't want to know anymore. Me and my buddy, we talk on the phone all the time. We never mention anything bad, only the good times.”
Another son, Natale Leo, said his father never went to Memorial Day or Veterans Day parades because it would remind him of the war.
Nick Leo met his wife, Pierrette, at a dance toward the end of the war in Homecóurt, her hometown in France. They married on Dec. 22, 1945, in France. Pierrette Leo died in 2020 at age 95.
She also was affected by the war, said Natale Leo, of Brentwood.
“Whenever there were thunderstorms around," he said, "it would remind her of the bombings that they went through."
The oldest of five children, Nicholas Leo was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 24, 1922 to Catherina and Natale Leo, immigrants from Italy. He graduated from Farmingdale High School in 1940 and enlisted in the Army two years later. He studied art and design at Farmingdale State College and earned an associate degree there in 1948. He worked in the art department at Grumman Corporation for five years.
After World War II, Leo joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and because of his prior training, was a radio man on the destroyer, USS Gatling, during the Korean War.
After Grumman, he worked as a musician, an artist, an architect and a builder, his family said.
Leo played accordion since he was a teenager and loved learning. When he was in his 80s, he studied Chinese at Molloy University, then Molloy College, in Rockville Centre, said his daughter, Michele Leo, of Port Jefferson.
In addition to Natale, John and Michele Leo, he is survived by sons Nicholas Leo of Mount Sinai and Andre Leo of Bohemia. He is also survived by 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The family is planning a funeral at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.