The true tale of the Monuments Men saving cherished artworks and literature during World War II is well-known today. Did you also know that, at the same time, the solder artists of the Ghost Army were using all of their talents to stage 21 tactical deceptions, creating crucial battlefield advantages for the Allied Forces during the final years of the war? This true tale is less well-known, but just as fascinating.
The story of the Ghost Army was declassified only in 1996, and in spring of 2013 the documentary The Ghost Army debuted. I discovered it on PBS, and was riveted by the story of what was officially known as 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Charged by the U.S Army to impersonate other U.S. Army units in order to deceive the enemy, its members were recruited from the “creative class” of the day, bringing expertise from advertising, art schools, theater, and engineering. Among the recruits were the painter Ellsworth Kelly, (future) fashion designer Bill Blass, and illustrator Arthur Singer.
Each operation included coordinated plans for visual, radio, and sonic deceptions. These plans worked together to create the impression of an existing unit for anyone flying a plane overhead, traveling by ground within a 15 mile radius, or eavesdropping over the airwaves. In essence, the Ghost Army was building and breaking down a massive “set” with each operation: setting the stage and sourcing the actors, props and script. Executing such complex plans required specifics: for example, instructions on the timing required to inflate a dummy tank.
Careful planning for each operation helped the men of the Ghost Army ensure their “sets” were foolproof from all directions, including the sky. In Operation Viersen, the 1,000 man Ghost Army successfully impersonated two full divisions (40,000 men).
No detail was overlooked. The distinct visual identities of the real units that would be impersonated were carefully recorded and recreated for each operation.
Audio was critical to conjuring a successful deception, both on the radio and on the ground. The Sonic Half Track pictured below was capable of broadcasting the sounds of troops movements up to 15 miles away.
When not enacting deceptions the creative corps of the Ghost Army sketched. In some cases, as with this bombed church in Trévières, Normandy, multiple views were recorded. There at least six different sketches of this scene.
The Ghost Army (4th Platoon, Company D) arrived in Normandy, eight days after D-Day. Arthur Shilstone recorded the experience, sketching his unit digging in after their arrival.
A number of Ghost Army veterans were interviewed for the film and hearing their recollections firsthand makes the successes and challenges of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops all the more vivid. Sadly not all of them lived to see the film made, but how wonderful that the filmmaker, Rick Beyer, was able to record their personal memories about this long classified chapter of American history for us to discover and enjoy.
I can’t encourage you enough to watch this documentary; it is available for purchase (dvd) or rental (stream) on Amazon: