When most kids Caleb Sinnwell’s age create a website based on their research on a subject of interest, the best they can hope for is an “A” from their teacher.
Sinnwell, 14, now at freshman at Nashua-Plainfield High School, got much, much more.
As an eighth-grader, Sinnwell researched a previously unknown Army unit, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Service Company. Collectively, they were known as the “Ghost Army.”
Sinnwell won first place in the Junior Individual Website category of the National History Day competition for the 2020-21 academic year in June.
He also has been spearheading an effort to give the surviving members of the unit – their actions kept top secret from the end of the war in 1945 until 1996 – their due recognition with a Congressional Gold Medal. Iowa U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst are both behind the measure, along with a bipartisan list of 54 other senators, with 11 more needed to pass it.
All of the work Sinnwell had done to honor some of America’s hidden heroes was given further recognition Tuesday afternoon, as the U.S. Army presented a certificate of achievement to the teen before an assembly in the N-P High School gymnasium.
Grassley and State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, herself a former member of the Marine Corps, also gave their kudos for Sinnwell’s efforts.
Maj. Ashley Holzmann, commander of the Army’s Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Qualifications Course in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, lauded the teen’s efforts to recognize the Ghost Army.
“I would say ‘accomplishments,’ but that emphasizes too much on the past,” Holzmann said. “Caleb is just getting started.”
The major recognized that there were more than a half-million students who were in the National History Day competition, and that Sinnwell spent 10 months on his projects with the support of a wide network, including his mother, Heather, grandfather, Roger Buchholz, and history teacher, Suzy Turner, along with many veterans in the Nashua area.
Holzmann said PSYOP, like the Ghost Army before them, exists mainly in shadows, unlike other special forces units like the Rangers and Green Berets of the Army and the Navy’s SEALs. He added that units like his are “as old as warfare itself,” giving examples of the Trojan Horse and Alexander the Great leaving a larger-than-normal set of armor in the middle of a battlefield that led to an opposing army to surrender.
The major said psychological operations wasn’t his initial goal, instead studying art. But after 9/11, he found himself in PSYOP, and after hearing about how the Ghost Army used implements like inflatable versions of Jeeps and tanks and other military implements, he considered those soldiers kindred spirits.
“The 23rd Special Troops was formed from draftsmen, sculptors, architects, painters and actors,” Holzmann said. “They were not warriors. I think of them as artists, artists of war. They approached warfare as a stage. And they played an amazing part of history.”
He added that the Ghost Army developed audio deception, to make the Nazis think that the Allies’ tanks were advancing where they actually weren’t. Those combined efforts allowed D-Day, June 6, 1944, become a successful mission and turn the tide of the war from the Axis powers.
“The lessons of the past resonate to this day, if we are keen enough to listen,” Holzmann said. “Thanks to young men like Caleb and his efforts, I believe we are on the right path.”
After his remarks, Holzmann presented Sinnwell with the certificate of appreciation from the Army, which was followed by everyone in the gymnasium giving the young man a standing ovation. The major then gave a second token from PSYOP.
“We’re going to keep an eye on you, and you’re going to do great things,” Holzmann told Sinnwell.
Sinnwell addressed the crowd with a personal summary of his research. He also thanked his grandfather, Buchholz, for telling him about his stories from the Vietnam conflict that spurred his interest in history.
“You never get annoyed with however many questions I’ve asked, so I can learn every detail of your service to our country through our most difficult time,” Sinnwell said about Buchholz. “Thank you, Grandpa, for your service.”
He also extended his appreciation to the veterans who were in attendance.
“Without all of you, our country would not be the land of the free, and your support today means so much to me,” he said.
He also acknowledged Turner and principal Karl Smith for their support, and thanked Holzmann and the other Army representatives in attendance for the recognition.
“My award is outstanding, and I will continue to lead with honor,” Sinnwell said.
But there was one other person he needed to thank.
“My mom was my biggest fan, and she was the driving force behind the person that I am today,” he said. “She has taught me from (when I was) little to respect the flag, to respect our veterans, and to respect our country.
“I love you Mom!” he shouted as he turned behind him and to his left, where Heather Sinnwell was sitting.
Grassley, Iowa’s senior senator, said he connected with young Sinnwell through his four-day-per-week calling window that he sets aside to speak with Iowans while he’s in Washington, D.C. It used to be an in-person endeavor until COVID-19 hit nearly two years ago.
Sinnwell lobbied Grassley to support the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act and told the senator about what he learned during his research.
“He made his case to me, and as a result… we have co-sponsored that bill,” Grassley said. “He gave me a figure that he needed about a dozen more co-sponsors for the bill. Maybe I can help you do that.”
He believes he can persuade the 11 more members of the Senate that is needed while in informal communications with them in the well of the chamber during voting times.
“It seems to me that Caleb’s determination to make sure that the sacrifices of these soldiers are recognized is an admirable operation on his part, and he’s been very successful,” Grassley said. “The end result will happen when the president signs the bill.”
Sinnwell felt that the pomp and circumstance he received Tuesday was an honor.
“I’m very overjoyed and very excited to write the next email and call the next senator,” he said. “I think the recognition that I got will help everybody else to see the Ghost Army and the other veterans get the recognition that they deserve, because they went out there and they put their lives on the line and they left their families in order to help the land of the free and the home of the brave to become what it is today.
“They should get all of the recognition that they deserve in that it was a hard thing to do, and that they went out there, they did it, and it was amazing.”
Maj. Holzmann told Waverly Newspapers afterwards that the Army and his unit are proud of what Sinnwell had done to give the Ghost Army their due.
“It’s not every day that the Ghost Army makes headlines,” Holzmann said. “It acknowledges the modern iterations of that, with psychological operations.
“It shows that some people out there still cares about holding the memory. We appreciate it.”
Salmon, the state House member, called Sinnwell “a wonderfully poised young man.”
“It’s a great accomplishment to have researched all that, written it all up, put it in a format that tells the story of the Ghost Army,” Salmon said. “It is really quite an accomplishment.
“There’s great support, family, teachers, other students, I’m sure. I just overheard a relative say that he had a really great teacher (Turner) that helped him along. He’s had great support from this school. It’s a testimony to the school, too.”
While some had lauded that Sinnwell might have a good future as a soldier or a teacher, the 14-year-old has other plans. He wants to be a lineman with the local Rural Electric Cooperative, serve as a volunteer firefighter and farm with his family.
When asked if he would consider serving in the Army to get the training to work in electricity, Sinnwell took a second to think.
“I do not know that,” he said. “I might. I’m still trying to think of stuff.”