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The Ghost Army journeyed from New York to England on May 2, 1944, alongside many American troops crossing the Atlantic ahead of the Normandy invasion. With inflatable tanks, fake artillery, carefully orchestrated sonic illusions, and hand-sewn interchangeable patches for their uniforms, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, as they were officially known, were the Allied front’s secret weapon of deception. Many of the around 1,100 men in the 23rd were enlisted straight from ad agencies and art schools like Pratt Institute and Cooper Union. It wasn’t until four decades after the war that their elaborate exploits were declassified, and now two congressional representatives are introducing bipartisan legislation to formally honor their contributions.
Announced last Friday, Representatives Annie Kuster (D-NH) and Peter King (R-NY) are co-authoring legislation to give the Congressional Gold Medal to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. “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,” Rick Beyer, who produced a PBS documentary on the Ghost Army, told Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer in a 2013 interview.
Beyer is the co-author, with Elizabeth Sayles, of a book called The Ghost Army of World War II, released last month by Princeton Architectural Press. It includes firsthand accounts of the 23rd’s actions, along with art created by the soldiers, much of it never before seen in print. “We were sleeping in hedgerows and foxholes,” Ghost Army member and future art director John Jarvie says in the book, “but nothing kept us away from going someplace to do a watercolor.”
Members of the Ghost Army included numerous artists who would go on to impact US visual culture in their careers, including minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife illustrator Arthur Singer, fashion designer Bill Blass, and photographer Art Kane. Before that, though, they were inflating tanks, dragging fake treads in the earth across Europe, and mimicking a battalion often 10 times their size with visuals, sound, and movement. As Beyers and Sayles write in The Ghost Army of World War II:
What they did was so secret that few of their fellow American soldiers even knew they were there. Yet they pulled off twenty-one different deceptions and are credited with saving thousands of lives through stagecraft and sleight of hand. Like actors in a repertory theater, they would ask themselves: “Who are we this time?” Then they would put on a multimedia show tailored to that particular deception, often operating dangerously close to the front lines.
Because their efforts were long classified, and even when first revealed sounded so absurd as to stretch credulity, it’s only in recent years that the significance of the Ghost Army’s work has been recognized, particularly in the Battle of the Bulge and the forging of the Rhine River. As military historian Jonathan Gawne affirms in the book: “There are German records that show that some of the deceptions were taken — hook, line and sinker. The Twenty-Third did not win the war single-handedly, but I think it would have cost a lot more American casualties had they not been there.”
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