Long before Argo, the U.S. Army used artistic sleight-of-hand to help defeat Hitler’s army in WWII.
This is the astonishing true story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, nicknamed the Ghost Army, a group of 1,100 handpicked American G.I.s who tricked the German army with rubber artillery, sound effects, fake radio transmissions, and psychological illusions during the summer of 1944. Many of these young soldiers were art students who would go on to illustrious careers in art, design, and fashion—including fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane. But during quiet moments, they would often sketch and paint their surroundings, offering a fine-art chronicling of the mission.
The still partially classified initiative is the subject of the PBS documentary, The Ghost Army, premiering May 21 on PBS (check local listings). It also spawned an art exhibit at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York, through June 9.
"The story involves deception, art, and the personal experiences of the soldiers, so one of the biggest challenges was melding all these elements into a single story that still captured the nuance and detail," says filmmaker Rick Beyer. "My editor, Jon Neuburger, made a huge contribution in shaping the story in a way that brought these things together in a single narrative line."
Beyer first heard the story in a Lexington, Massachusetts, coffee shop from one veteran’s niece, who punctuated its telling with an armload of her uncle’s wartime watercolors. He then crafted the film over eight years through interviews with 19 Ghost Army veterans. Sadly, seven of those men have since passed away. "Finding the men and getting the interviews as quickly as possible was critical, while they were still alive and able to tell their stories," he adds.
The secret mission created a traveling road show of deception across occupied France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany—often dangerously close to the front lines—by using inflatable tanks, trucks, and airplanes (imperfectly camouflaged for "accidental" spotting by enemy reconnaissance), sound effects records, and fake radio transmissions and headquarters.
The Ghost Army devised more than 20 deceptive operations, phony convoys, and phantom divisions—each impersonating a different (and vastly larger) U.S. unit—to fool the enemy about the strength and ubiquity of American units. Soldiers even hung out at local cafés, spinning yarns for eavesdropping spies. The effort culminated along the Rhine in the final days of the war, in which thousands of lives depended on a convincing performance.
"When I began working on this, it was just an interesting story that I wanted to tell," says Beyer. "But somewhere along the way, it became a quest to make sure that this amazing group of guys and the astonishing, almost unbelievable, things they did are not forgotten. I knew that if I didn’t do this documentary, they would be gone, and their stories with them."
Slideshow Credits: 01 / National Archives; 02 / Arthur Shilstone; 03 / National Archives; 04 / Courtesy Erika Vrabel; 05 / National Archives; 06 / Bob Tompkins; 08 / John Jarvie; 09 / John Jarvie;