There are many reasons that the US and Allied troops won World War II. One of the more obscure ones may be the 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army.
The Ghost Army was basically what it sounds like — an invisible shadow army of the larger one. Its job was to stage elaborate deceptions to trick the Germans and lure them off track, doing so with three units: the 603rd Camouflage Engineers (visual); the 3132 Signal Service Company Special (sonic); and the Signal Company Special (radio). All together, the groups used dummy inflatable tanks and airplanes, sound effects of tanks rolling and troops marching, fake radio transmissions, and more to carry out 21 missions, each time attempting to convince the Germans of the false presence of tens of thousands of US troops. They didn’t always succeed, and they had casualties along the way (they were never armed beyond their fake weapons, which seems crazy), but their last mission, Operation Viersen in March 1945, was by all accounts their most successful. The Ghost Army managed to redirect German soldiers preparing for an American attack across the Rhine, allowing the actual American soldiers to advance with relative ease.
The deception of the Ghost Army came about through an impressive combination of skill and artistry, and in fact, many of the men in the visual unit were artists themselves, plucked directly from art schools. Ellsworth Kelly was among them, as were fashion designer Bill Blass and wildlife artist Arthur Singer.
The existence and history of the army are fascinating, and not a story that’s been widely told. (The project was classified until 1996.) Author and film producer Rick Beyer has spent seven years tracking down documents, interviewing veterans, and piecing together the tale of the Ghost Army; his documentary premieres tomorrow night on PBS. I emailed to ask him a few questions.
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Jillian Steinhauer: How did you first hear about the Ghost Army? What made you want to explore and tell this story?
Rick Beyer: I first learned about the Ghost Army eight years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Martha Gavin, a woman in the Boston area whose uncle was in the unit. Martha was passionate in her belief that this little-known story needed to be told in a documentary. Her enthusiasm was the spark that started the whole project.
I have always loved quirky history stories, the strange, “can you believe it?” stuff. In fact, I’ve written an entire book series, The Greatest Stories Never Told, that focuses on exactly those types of stories. The idea that there were American soldiers in World War II going into battle with inflatable tanks and sound-effects records was so bizarre, so contrary to every image from every war movie I’ve ever seen, that it immediately attracted my attention.
On top of that was the fact that many of the soldiers in the unit were artists, who used their spare time to paint and sketch what they saw on the battlefield. The first time I met Martha Gavin, at a Starbucks in Lexington, she was carrying an armload of three-ring binders filled with her uncle’s wartime artworks. I was captivated with the way they presented such a unique and intimate perspective of the war. And that’s how I got hooked.
JS: How were the men recruited into the Ghost Army?
RB: The US Army decided to create this deception unit, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops (aka the Ghost Army) , in January 1944. Because they were in a hurry, they drew on existing units to put it together. To handle visual deception, they selected the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. This unit had originally been formed in 1942, and many of the people in it were established artists or art students. According to the official US Army history of the unit, “It was composed mainly of artists from New York and Philadelphia with an average IQ of 119.” Recruiting was done through art schools such as Pratt and Cooper Union, as well as by word of mouth. In some cases, it was the soldiers, looking for a way to put their art skills to work, who found the camouflage unit. Of course it wasn’t secret at that point — the secrecy didn’t come until later when the 603rd became part of the Ghost Army.
JS: The film touches on this briefly, but can you explain a bit more about the visual deceptions and stunts that the 603rd Camouflage Engineers pulled off in the US, before they were deployed to Europe?
RB: The camouflage unit was involved in a number of projects before it became part of the Ghost Army. They camouflaged the plant in Baltimore where B-26 bombers were made, as well as large railroad guns near Amagansett, NY. In addition, in 1943, the 603rd took part in large scale maneuvers in Tennessee and Louisiana (along with hundreds of thousands of other soldiers.) They were camouflaging artillery, headquarters, etc.
JS: The film paints a very positive picture of the Ghost Army, but I’ve read that their results were somewhat mixed. Is there an accepted opinion on how successful they really were at deceiving the Germans?
RB: The Ghost Army carried out 21 different deception missions on the battlefields of Europe, and it is clear that some were more successful than others. In the case of Operation Bettembourg, where they filled a hole in Patton’s line for a week in September, 1944, and Operation Viersen, where they deceived the Germans about where two American divisions would cross the Rhine in March, 1945, there is good evidence of success. In other deceptions, the evidence is not as definitive. In a few cases its clear that they did not have the hoped-for impact. So I think describing their results as mixed is pretty accurate.
One interesting point is that there is absolutely no evidence that the Germans ever discovered that there was a deception unit operating against them.
JS: My first reaction while watching was that these missions were basically suicide. Luckily, it didn’t play out that way, and in the end the Ghost Army suffered only a small number of casualties. But did the men, when you interviewed them, talk about this aspect of the project? Were they terrified? (Did anyone defect?)
RB: I think it takes a special kind of braveness to operate on or at the front when your goal is to draw enemy fire and you don’t have any heavy weapons with which to defend yourself. Many admit that they were scared, and they count their blessings that they made it home alive. Of course not everyone did … a handful of people in the unit were killed, and a couple of dozen wounded, mostly by artillery. I don’t know of anybody who deserted.
JS: The Ghost Army project was classified until 1996. Do you have any thoughts on why it was kept quiet for so long, and/or do you know any of the circumstances behind the decision to declassify it?
RB: The experts I have talked to suggest that it was kept secret so that if the Cold War turned hot, we could use the deception techniques in fighting the Russians. Fred Fox, an officer in the unit who went on to work in the Eisenhower White House, tried in the ’50s and ’60s to get the official army history of the unit declassified, so he could write about it, but the Pentagon refused.
I’ve heard tantalizing hints that there may be parts of the story that are still considered secret, but of course it is hard to nail that down.
JS: Was WWII the first time the US used this type of military deception? Did we go on to use it in other conflicts, and do we still?
RB: Military deception has been around for a long time, at least since the Trojan Horse, and probably well before then. What made the Ghost Army unique is that it was specific unit dedicated only to deception, that it was mobile (like a traveling road show) and multimedia (visual, sonic, radio, and “special effects.”) Certainly some of those techniques have been used since then … for example, in the first Gulf War, I know the US used both sonic deception and inflatable tanks, and I am sure that radio deception is a very active field. But for some reason the US Army is not anxious to share with me the details of how it conducts deceptions in the present day!
The Ghost Army premieres on PBS tomorrow night, May 21, at 8 pm EST.