One unit had perhaps the oddest assignment in the U.S. Army: create a fake force, but make it look and sound real.
BATTLEFIELD DECEPTION—the act of misleading enemy forces—has been used for centuries to gain advantage in combat. During World War II the U.S. 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a carefully selected group of artists, engineers, professional soldiers, and draftees, elevated that deception to an art form. Known as the “Ghost Army,” the top-secret unit waged war using inflatable tanks and weapons, fake radio traffic, sound effects, even phony generals—all to fool the enemy into thinking that the army was bigger, better-armed, or in a different place than it was.
Activated on January 20, 1944, the 23rd was the first mobile, multimedia tactical deception unit in U.S. Army history. Beginning in Normandy two weeks after D-Day, the 23rd conducted 22 deception operations over a nine-month period. The largest came near the end of the war, when, on March 18-24, 1945, the 1,100-man unit mimicked two divisions—more than 30,000 troops—to deceive the Germans about the site and timing of the U.S. Ninth Army’s Rhine River crossing that would take Allied forces deeper into Germany. The deception was a success: when the two actual Ninth Army divisions crossed the river on the night of March 23, they met little resistance.
Soldiers of the Ghost Army were sworn to secrecy. After the war, records were classified and equipment packed away. A smattering of newspaper articles appeared in August 1945, but the Pentagon otherwise succeeded in keeping the story quiet until 1985, when a Ghost Army veteran—artist Arthur Shilstone (creator of the header image above)—illustrated his story for Smithsonian magazine. The unit’s records remained officially classified until 1996.
The story of the mysterious unit that fooled Hitler’s armies, saved thousands of lives, and played an important part in Allied victory in World War II is now the subject of a new exhibit at The National WWII Museum—the source of the images on these pages. Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II will be on display at the museum in New Orleans from March 5 through September 13, 2020, and goes on tour after that; dates and locations to be announced. ✯
—James M. Linn IV, curator, The National WWII Museum
Up close, one of the Ghost Army’s inflatable tanks—a framework of inflatable tubes supporting a rubberized canvas overlay—would fool no one. But from about a quarter-mile away it looked every bit the M4 Sherman. It and other visual deceptions were the work of the 603rd Camouflage Engineering Battalion, consisting of individuals recruited for artistic talent and high IQ.
In the pen-and-ink sketch above, by Ghost Army artist George Vander Sluis, two men ready a paint container while another spray paints fabric for an upcoming deception.
This pair of trucks exemplifies effective work from the artist duo in the previous sketch: the truck on the far left is a standard M35 cargo truck; that on the right, an inflatable fake.
Likewise, these supposed heavy artillery pieces are anything but heavy.
The deceptions weren’t all visual: sound was an important aspect. The Ghost Army’s sonic unit—the 3132 Signal Service Company—prerecorded soundtracks of armored and infantry units in action, which it played through speakers that could project sound as far as 15 miles away. Another unit performed radio deceptions.
Soldiers and sailors were forbidden from carrying diaries during the war; the Ghost Army’s Robert R. Tomkins, an artist and jeep driver, opted to keep one anyway, gambling that its small size—2” by 3” and 56 pages—would make it easier to conceal. An entry from September 16, 1944, when Bob was in Luxembourg near the German border, describes one deception setup: “Last night moved up about 1 1/2 miles and pulled into heavy woods about 3 o’cl. Tanks moving all around us. Woke early. Sewed on patches. Set up tanks. Built fires simulating armored infantry battalion. Truck goes out every hour into village on atmosphere.”
Some of the Ghost Army’s artists went on to worldwide fame—among them photographer Art Kane, abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly, and fashion designer Bill Blass (who re-tailored his uniform so it would fit better), second from right, above. At far left above is Bob Tomkins, author of the pocket-sized diary (previous picture).
Ghost Army artist Jack Masey created the caricature of Blass above—part of a book, "You on K.P.!," Masey had printed during the war for the others in his company. “I learned a lot fooling people, and deceiving people,” Masey joked to author Rick Beyer in 2006. “And it stood me in good stead my whole life.”
When not staging deceptions near the front, the Ghost Army would take their act into towns, wearing insignia of actual fighting units and sometimes impersonating generals, faking command posts, and spreading misinformation.
When Ghost Army members needed unit patches, they’d make their own by using stencils and painting the fabric.
Although the Ghost Army's work didn’t involve combat, attracting the enemy’s attention was inherently dangerous; three men lost their lives. ✯
All images in article body courtesy of: The Ghost Army Collection/The National WWII Museum
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of World War II.