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Ghost Army

Directed by Rick Beyer. 60 minutes, $24.99. Also airing on PBS and playing at select theaters; information at

The Ghost Army of World War II: Artists of Deception

By Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles. 48 pp. Plate of Peas, 2011. $19.95.

In late June 1944, a unique U.S. Army unit landed in France. Its aim: deceive the Wehrmacht as the Allies finally closed in on victory. Its personnel: 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army, which recruited from American arts schools and included soon-to-be-famous characters like fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelley, and photographer Art Kane. Its methods: creating and manipulating dummy tanks and airplanes and trucks, simulating phantom unit broadcasts, projecting painstakingly recorded noises of units on the move via sound trucks, leaving phony materiel poorly camouflaged so it could be “discovered,” even hanging at watering holes where German spies listened in while they reeled off faked yarns about American plans.

Conceived by Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks Jr., famed magazine publisher Ralph Ingersoll, and Amelia Earhart’s mentor Colonel Hilton Howard Railey, the Ghost Army delivered solid results. Between the army’s Normandy landing and V-E Day, it staged 20 separate operations, often perilously near the front lines. In September, its men impersonated an armored division to plug a perilous hole in Patton’s line near the German border. The surprise enemy onslaught in December nearly nabbed them at the Battle of the Bulge. In March 1945, when the U.S. Ninth Army was poised to cross the Rhine, the Ghost Army distracted the Germans by simulating two full divisions. These extraordinary feats were kept top-secret for half a century.

Now, an eye-opening and entertaining film ushers us inside, using interviews with 19 survivors, striking period footage, and rich and evocative sketches and paintings made during the unit’s odyssey. Don’t miss it. And check out the accompanying glossy paperback— well-written and profusely illustrated.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.