Ghost army used arts of illusion, deception to defeat the Nazis

[From The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Book Patrol reader blog]

Ghost Army Haunts Michigan Library

Posted by Nancy Mattoon at March 12, 2010 1:44 a.m.

An invisible army, operating in obscurity, mastering the arts of illusion, deception, and disinformation to defeat the Nazis in World War II. This could be a description of the French Resistance fighters, the band of brothers who operated in utmost secrecy under the noses of the German occupation forces, and have been called “The Army of Shadows.” But it also describes an amazing division of American troops stationed in the European Theatre: the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, AKA “The Ghost Army.” This top-secret unit, so highly classified that its very existence was denied by the Pentagon for 50 years, is finally being not just exposed but placed in the spotlight, by a Michigan Library and an award-winning documentary filmmaker.

The University of Michgan’s Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library is presenting a “Ghost Army” exhibit through April 30, 2010. It consists of photographs, drawings, and paintings, along with quotations from the soldiers who created them. An accompanying narrative text was written by Exhibits and Outreach Librarian Karen Jordan, and based on research conducted by University of Michigan Art History Ph.D. student Diana Mankowski.

And if you’re expecting amateurish pencil sketches by doodling G.I.’s, think again. There’s a reason an art history student spent time researching The Ghost Army: the 23rd was an elite unit made up of artists, designers, sound technicians, press agents, makeup artists, and professional photographers. And if you think that description sounds more like a film crew than an army, you’re on the right track. The Ghost Army was the brainchild of a movie star, who knew a thing or two about fooling an audience with optical illusions and special effects.

Swashbuckling action star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. lobbied the Navy brass (he was serving in the United States Naval Reserve) to create a unit based on deception after he completed a tour of England and its special forces installations. Fairbanks had friends in high places, up to and including Franklin D. Roosevelt. The unit ended up as part of the Army in 1944, but the original idea remained unchanged: the 23rd’s mission was to deceive the German Army into believing that the Allies possessed more troops and material than they actually did and, even more heroically, to draw enemy fire on themselves, allowing regular combat units to advance with fewer casualties.

The deceptions of The Ghost Army used every theatrical tool at their command. Sound engineers created elaborate, multi-layered recordings of the noises made by infantry, tank, and artillery units in all kinds of weather and from a variety of distances. A few sound trucks armed with nothing more than loud speakers could “impersonate” a battalion of tanks or an entire infantry division. A radio deception section of the unit contributed fake transmissions so convincing they fooled the notorious German radio propagandist, Axis Sally, into reporting an entire Allied division was gearing up for battle in a location where there were no troops at all.

Another tool of trickery involved visual deceptions, created using life-size mock-ups of artillery, trucks, planes, tanks, and even buildings. Jack Masey, who was drafted into the 23rd at age 18, recalled: “We were told we were going to be using inflatable equipment to try and fool the Germans into thinking that we were a real army, when we were in effect, I suppose, a rubber army.” The rubber “big boys,” as they were known, were covered with deliberately ineffective camouflage by the artists of the unit, the better to be noticed, reported, and attacked by the Germans, while real weapons were left alone. Mississippi-born soldier A.B. Wilson said maintaining secrecy and the illusion of realism were the keys to these full-of-hot-air operations: “We had one occasion in France where a fellow decided his tank would look better on the other side of the road, it would be a more natural place for it. So these four guys pick up this tank and go walking across the road with it. And there was a Frenchman coming down the road that sees it, and he thought he was hallucinating to see four men pick up a tank. But the MP’s got him right quick, and I’m sure he was never able to tell anyone what he saw for the rest of the war.”

An actor’s skills were often required of members of the 23rd, too. This part of the job ranged from the pleasurable to the tedious. Play-acting assignments sometimes resembled R&R [Rest & Relaxation]. Jack Masey said sometimes the soldiers would visit villages in an effort to fool informants: “We were to be seen, mill around, go to pubs, have a good time, pick up girls, enjoy.” Having memorized the recent history of the unit they were pretending to be part of, the 23rd’s repertory company convincingly dropped tidbits of information only the real deal would know. Then they offered a sincere recitation of entirely bogus battle plans, revealing the future position of their battle-scarred unit. Oscar-worthy performances were played out in taverns by these careless “drunks” who spilled vital military intelligence more often than their beers. Lucky members of the unit got instantaneous, if temporary, promotions, according to A.B. Wilson: “Sometimes you’d portray a different rank than what you actually were. Sometimes our colonel was a two-star general, you know, a brigadier general.”

But most assignments were far less enjoyable. Soldiers would drive though villages for hours in looping convoys of trucks meant to transport dozens of men. In fact, they held only the driver and two passengers positioned in the rear, wearing the proper uniforms and patches to mimic the “division” arriving to prepare for battle. Members of the Ghost Army impersonated parts of so many different outfits, redesigning uniforms and attaching and removing shoulder patches so often, some became expert tailors by the end of the war. A.B. Wilson remembered: “We wore the same patches other units wore. We didn’t fasten them too tight, because you knew they were going to come off shortly.” (The Ghost Army’s real shoulder insignia was never allowed to be worn. It featured a ghost, and Latin slogans meaning “Let’s simulate those that do not exist,” and “Those that exist should really be disguised.”)

These elaborate theatrics influenced German units to prepare for battles far from where the largest U.S. combat units intended to be. According to Jack M. Kneece, author of Ghost Army of World War II, the Germans thought they were up against a 30,000-man phantom army: “Sometimes a huge German unit would surrender to them.” The entire Ghost Army was never more than 1,100 men.

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, code-named “Blarney,” are credited with saving at least 15,000 American lives. And they did it not with deadly weapons, but with their brains, talents, skills, and courage. From Normandy to the Rhine, they staged 20 all-out battlefield deceptions. They served with four armies in five European countries, and in five major campaigns from D-Day (June 6, 1944) until the end of the war in 1945. As A.B. Wilson puts it: “So many people have never heard of this type unit, and I’d like for people to know that there was a lot of ingenuity put into this thing. There was a lot going on that people didn’t know about, and even the rest of the Army didn’t know about. It was quite a unit.”

Michigan librarian Karen Jordan agrees: “this is a story that is rarely known… I know that the children of Ghost Army veterans want to get it out. I also think we at the library know that this is an important story to tell. We have books about it in our stacks, but people don’t really know about it.” Documentarian, author, and journalist Rick Beyer is also determined to tell the Ghost Army’ s story. Beyer, whose films have been shown on the History Channel, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and at Mount Vernon, contributed most of the materials featured in the Ghost Army exhibition. He has spent nearly five years working on producing a documentary film on the 23rd, aided along the way by Martha Gavin, whose uncle, John Jarvie served with the unit. A rough cut of the film, The Ghost Army, will be screened on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 7 pm at the University of Michigan’s Room 100 Gallery. Beyer has also created an extensive and beautifully detailed gallery devoted to the Ghost Army, which includes roughly 800 digitized photographs, letters, and works of art.

As incredible as the exploits of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops are, Rick Beyer correctly points out they are “only half the story.” The other half is the personal journies of the men who made up the unit. The Ghost Army, says Beyer, was made up of “soldier-artists [who] went on to have a major influence on postwar art and design in America.” These young men were recruited from the finest art and engineering schools in the country, and the unit “became an incubator for young artists who literally sketched and painted their way through Europe,” according to Beyer.

Many of these men achieved great fame after the war. I’m not going to name drop here, but I’ll leave you with a few hints. One Ghost Army veteran built a $700 million fashion empire based on impeccably tailored sportswear. Another is a world renowned minimalist painter and sculptor whose works grace The Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Still another was a photographer who captured the most famous image of jazz musicians ever taken. The lives of these three men, and of others equally accomplished in their own artistic fields, were shaped by their combat experiences in the most unusual unit of America’s World War II Army. To find out how these one-time ghosts became highly visible artists, check out Part 2 of this story, on Monday’s Book Patrol.

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