The Germans fell into the trap. They fired on the divisions of the 23rd, while the troops of the 9th Army crossed the Rhine with nominal resistance.

During this campaign, Mr. Bluestein and other soldiers visited bars and gathering places and posed as senior officers to create rumors among locals that the Americans were up to something. The hope was that the German spies would eventually be misdirected.

But Mr. Bluestein was an artist at heart. Before the unit started using inflatable tanks, he painted on cloth draped over wooden tanks to give them an authentic look. He designed stenciled badges for members of the 23rd and he produced posters for distribution in towns – all to create an authentic flourish.

“Like, Coca-Cola signs, so they’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, the Americans are here,'” Mr. Bluestein said.

Mr. Bluestein had a long career after the war as an industrial designer for companies that made household appliances like refrigerators and toasters, but in retirement he found himself embracing art again . Today, his favorite objects to carve are pins and needles, a tribute to his father, a tailor, and to his mother, a seamstress.

About half of the soldiers in Mr. Bluestein’s unit, the 603rd Camouflage Engineer Battalion, were artists, said Rick Beyer, a documentarian who told the story of the Phantom Army and pushed for the gold medal.

The Army took existing units and “mixed them up, Frankenstein-style,” to create the 23rd, he said, but it also recruited from art schools like the Cleveland Institute of Art. and the Cooper Union. Some members rose to fame after the war, such as fashion designer Bill Blass and painter Ellsworth Kelly.