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Birmingham’s Ghost Soldier of WWII

—by: Judy Haise


ce Simpson, 98, knows how to keep secrets. He’s believed to be Alabama’s only member of the elite group "Ghost Soldiers" of World War II.

This top-secret 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was only 1,100 strong, but their "shows" of deceptive strength regularly portrayed thousands of troops. It’s credited with saving thousands of American lives.

Deception has always been the cornerstone of warfare, but the Special Troops was America’s first sanctioned military unit devoted totally to deceiving the enemy. The 23rd had no weapon bigger than a .50 caliber machine gun, but used inflatable Sherman tanks and a repertoire of deceptive messages, sound effects and phony insignias to help America and its allies win the war.

The unit was in action from January, 1944, through August, 1945.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Special Troops directed by Gen. George Patton set up the diversions at Normandy and on Omaha Beach, where Simpson disembarked two weeks later.

Patton and his Third Army utilized the 23rd the most. When Paris was liberated, and he was chasing the Nazis back into Germany, it was reported that the city of Metz had been taken.

This caused 1st Lt. Simpson one memorable close call. As the 23rd’s assistant executive officer for Headquarters Company, he was ordered to Metz to set up a new headquarters. He and his driver and six enlisted men got about 10 miles from Metz, but noticed the villages were closed.

Suspicious, Simpson stopped at a crossroads where two tanks were offside the road. A soldier told him the Germans were just 300 yards down the road. Simpson even now hesitantly recalls, "we just turned around and took off."

The next day, March 12, 1945, Simpson became executive officer of the 23rd Headquarters Co. when his boss Col. Thomas G. Wells was killed by the Germans near Picard. They had served together in Luxembourg, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

The mysteriously hand-picked 23rd included soldiers with purportedly high IQs over 119. Half were already in the Army, and the rest were artistic types recruited to produce the "shows. " They included artists like dress designer Bill Blass and communication and sound effect experts, who joined the four companies of the 23rd just before they sailed to Bristol, England, in May, 1944.

Simpson did no impersonations as Headquarters Company’s assistant executive officer, but he "made things happen"—like providing "real" vehicles with drivers, food, housing and clothing for their 28 officers and 92 enlisted men.

Those picked for the Special Troops included a high number of West Point graduates. All understood they wouldn’t be receiving medals or even recognition back home, as records of the 23rd weren’t declassified until 1996. Simpson has since learned that the scant medals awarded Special Troops included 13 Purple Hearts for the wounded and the three who were killed.

Then and Now, Ace Simpson, WWII secret soldier, pictured with Steerman airplane.

Then and Now, Ace Simpson, WWII secret soldier, pictured
with Steerman airplane.

Special Troops was set to deploy to the South Pacific, but after the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, the 23rd returned stateside. At Simpson’s discharge in December, 1945, he was finally promoted to the captain’s job he’d assumed for months.

Adolphus Clark Simpson Jr., "called Ace since Adolphus was too similar to Adolph," easily recalls his Army beginnings. Before the Japanese’s Pearl Harbor attack, he left his second year at George Washington University, moving out of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house, and signing up for the draft in Atlanta. He was drafted Nov. 7, 1941, and spent the first month administering IQ tests.

He subsequently became an instructor at the Message Center School and then entered Flight School, acquiring more than 200 hours flight time before failing eyesight made him drop out. He applied for Officers Training School, which took him from a corporal to a 2nd lieutenant in 90 days.

Simpson was discharged in December, 1945, came back home to Birmingham and got his first job selling office furniture with the James A. Head Company at First Avenue and 21st Street North. One of his first calls was to the Birmingham Electric Co., which ran the street cars.

"The first person I saw was a beautiful young woman, Dorothy "Dot" Norment, who worked for the boss, Simpson recalls with a big smile. It was love at first sight, I guess you’d say."

The couple married Jan. 7, 1947, at South Highland Presbyterian, church of Dot’s parents, Ed Norment and Mary Bradshaw. Her mother grew up in Highland Avenue’s still-standing Bradshaw House, built by her grandfather Caldwell Bradshaw, a lawyer for Tennessee Coal and Iron, and his wife, Minnie Elizabeth Plosser.

Simpson still drives his 2004 Taurus nearly every Sunday to Independent Presbyterian Church, which he and his late wife joined in 1950. He still lives in their Mountain Brook home he designed in 1955 on Glencoe Drive.

A Woodlawn High School graduate of 1934 and once consummate golfer at Roebuck Golf Course, Simpson now putts only in his living room due to his failing eyesight and arthritis. He won’t say what the secret is to his otherwise good health. Maybe it’s his son Dr. Lloyd Simpson of Mountain Brook, an ENT, daughter Dottie Bennett of Chula Vista or his internist grandson Dr. Daniel Simpson of Crestline Park.

Sources: "Ghost Army of World War II," Jack Kneece (Pelican, 2001); Book and PBS documentary home video "The Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of WWII" (May 2013).


Now And Then
LANDMARK CENTER, 2100 First Avenue, North

Landmark Center, 2013

Landmark Center, 2013.


he building was originally known as Birmingham, Railroad, Light and Power Building; also as the Collateral Insurance Agency Building. The second photo shows it in 1908, the first photo in 2013.

Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Company General Office Corner First Avenue and 21st Street.

Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Company General Office Corner First Avenue and 21st Street.

It has undergone several makeovers but was last renovated in 1989. It is currently rented as prime downtown office space by the Barber Companies.


First Iron Bowl at Legion Field


ith all the hype surrounding the Iron Bowl in November, consider the first time Alabama and Auburn met in the annual classic at Legion Field in 1948.

It was a game of firsts.

It marked the renewal of the series since 1907. It was the first Alabama-Auburn game played at Legion Field and it holds the record for the largest margin in the score.

Legion Field was selected because at the time it was the largest football stadium in the state holding 44,000.

Sterling Slappey, a sports writer for The Montgomery Advertiser, would write the day before the game: "They will take the bandages off a 41-year-old football wound tomorrow to see if the scar has healed".

Alabama and Auburn bury the hatchet

Then-Auburn University SGA
president Gillis Cammack, left,
and Alabama SGA president
Willie Johns prepare a hole
in 1948 to ‘bury the hatchet’
in what was then Woodrow
Wilson Park in Birmingham
–now Linn Park (Special).

Team members also held a "Bury the Hatchet" ceremony that was photographed by The Birmingham News. The series had ended because the coaches could not agree on travel allowances or who would officiate.

Alabama would go on to beat Auburn 55-0.

Is the hatchet still buried?

Slossfield Community Center, 1940s

Slossfield Community Center, 1940s
(Naaman Fletcher, Birmingham Public Library).

Slossfield Community Center, 2009. It is a ghostly relic.

Slossfield Community Center, 2009. It is a ghostly relic.


That Yellow Building Off 1-65 Near Acipco


ver wonder what that rapidly-deteriorating yellow building just off I-65, North before you get to ACIPCO was? Some thought it was a school although the Lewis Slossfield School building is nearby. It is actually the old Slossfield Community Center which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

That may have something to do with it still standing. The center is in a serious state of disrepair.

The Community Center was a complex of buildings built in the 1930s by the American Cast Iron Pipe Company with sizable public funding as an extension of its industrial health program for workers and their families. It served African-American residents of the neighborhood. It lasted more than 30 years ultimately closing in 1977. It was said that the Center no longer met federal Health, Education and Welfare Department regulations.

It is located between 19th and 20th Streets and between 25th Avenue North and 25th Court North in the Slossfield neighborhood between North Birmingham and Acipco-Finley. The site, which formerly housed Birmingham’s municipal stables, was donated in exchange for the cost of relocating the stables. It now abuts the right of way for I-65, just north of the Finley Boulevard exit.

The art-deco styled poured concrete structures were designed by E. B. Van Keuren and constructed by the Works Progress Administration between 1936 and 1939. The complex consists of several buildings, originally housing a health and maternity clinic, an education building and a recreation center. It also had a mental health facility for children.

The health clinic, which opened on July 1, 1939 and expanded in 1941 from 28 to 39 rooms, was built and staffed with assistance from the Jefferson County Board of Health, the Jefferson County Anti- Tuberculosis Association (through its Birmingham Health Association, a subsidiary serving the black community), the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the Alabama State Department of Health, and the Children’s Bureau. Patients had to demonstrate an inability to afford private health care. The clinic provided prenatal care and obstetrics (in clinic delivery rooms or by house call), general pediatrics, dental care, tuberculosis treatment, and venereal disease detection and treatment. The clinic’s diagnostic facilities were focused entirely on the detection of syphilis, and patients with other conditions were referred to other medical facilities.

The clinic served as a training center for graduate students and also provided health education to the public. It stood out as a national example of a quality community health-care facility and as a key component of a publicly-funded system for preserving public health.

Programming for the education and recreation centers was provided by the National Youth Administration. Additional support came from the local Community Chest.

A key advocate of improved medical delivery at Slossfield was Dr. Thomas Boulware, a Birmingham practitioner accused of promoting "socialized medicine" who brought modern obstetrics to the city’s most blighted black census tracts. He was also the same doctor who established the first indigent maternity clinic at Hillman Hospital in 1935. Later in life he was affectionately referred to as the "Old Stork" for delivering so many babies.

Waiting for the doctor at Slossfield

Waiting for the doctor at Slossfield (UAB Archives)

Sources: BhamWiki; Walter H. Maddux (October 8, 1940) "The Slossfield Health Center". Paper delivered to the American Public Health Association’s 66th Annual Meeting in Detroit, Michigan. Reprinted May 1941 in the American Journal of Public Health. Vol. 31, pp. 481-6; "For Supporting the Public Good" (May 2007) Birmingham Historical Society Newsletter. p. 4; Jennifer Nelson (Fall 2007) "Healthcare Reconsidered: Forging Community Wellness among African Americans in the South." Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 594-624.


Powell School May Get New Life

Powell School burning

he historic Powell School, Birmingham’s oldest existing school building, may get new life as an apartment complex if a HUD grant is approved. The building was nearly destroyed by a fire last year.

An Atlanta development firm is interested in restoring and converting it into 24 loft apartments.

Although Powell School was constructed in 1888, the school’s history stretches back to the first school constructed on the site, the southwest corner of 24th Street and sixth Avenue North, in 1874.

Efforts will be made to retain the school’s original architectural features. The Atlanta group already manages Park Place, the mixed-income Hope VI development that surrounds Powell School.

Sources: Birmingham News, Bhamwiki.



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