The Ghost Army of World War II

A dummy artillery piece created by the World War II Ghost Army (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

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.

Inflatable tank instructions (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press) (click to enlarge)

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.”

Inflatable dummy tank (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Camouflage lesson (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Joseph Mack, “GI Sketching” (1943) (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Arthur Singer, “Trévières Church, Interior” (1944) (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Map created in 1945 showing Operation Brest, with both real units and the 23rd (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Cleo Hovel, “Sunday Letter” (1945) (courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles is published by Princeton Architectural Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “Honoring the Long-Classified Ghost Army of World War II”

  1. By chance I caught the documentary when it aired on PBS, I almost missed it because it didn’t seem to have been promoted a whole lot prior. It’s available now, though, to stream on Amazon Prime and Netflix (the only ones I have access to).

    The book will add height to my already tall TBR pile.

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