Tricking Nazis

How artists in a top-secret U.S. Army unit pulled the ultimate fast ones on Hitler

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4th Platoon, Company D was the first group of Ghost Army deceivers to go to work in Normandy. They arrived eight days after D-Day.

In 1943, the good guys in the Great War needed to start thinking outside-the-box if they were going to beat the Axis powers crawling over Europe and Asia.

Thus the creation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the “Ghost Army,” a top secret U.S. Army special force of 1,100 men. Their mission: stage a bunch of fake but convincing maneuvers to fool the Germans into making bad decisions.

We’re talking about inflatable tanks and rubber weaponry here. Sound effects of gunfire. Flash canisters to mimic artillery. Elaborate stagings of entrenchments that, upon close inspection, were nothing more than collapsible props and P.A. systems. (P.A. systems with a 15-mile reach, yes—but still a giant speaker.) At a distance, however, these scenes appeared to be well-fortified American troops riled and focused for victory. They were distractions from real missions happening elsewhere; they were designed to spread wrong information and confound enemy plans.

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The Ghost Army’s trademark tool of visual illusion was the inflatable M4 Sherman tank. Fully inflated, it was 18’4” long, 8’3” wide, and 7’9 to the top of the turret. It took 20 minutes to inflate.

Often, soldiers in the Ghost Army were tasked to frequent local bars, order food and play “loose lips” to spread false information to spies or Axis informants.

And you know what? It worked.

The reason why such a far-fetched plot to deceive and dis-inform the enemy was so successful resides in the gut, grit, training and talent of the men who pulled off such believable illusions.

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Each halftrack, equipped for sonic deception, carried 800 pounds of audio equipment capable of playing a half hour show from a wire recorder and projecting the sounds as far as 15 miles.

Among those 1,100 soldiers were some of the greatest artists, lighting designers and sound designers trained in American university fine arts programs. Some of the 23rd would become the great marketing masterminds to steer the post-war boom. When America needed people who could break the tactical rulebooks and re-write the art of war, the government called on its most creative citizens. Notable operatives in the Ghost Army included fashion designer Bill Blass, painters Ellsworth Kelly and Art Singer, and photographer Art Kane.

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Two Ghost Army artists sketching inside a bombed out church in Trevieres in August 1944. At least half a dozen Ghost Army artists painted or sketched the badly damaged church.

The only military unit specifically dedicated only to deception, the Ghost Army served a singular, successful purpose in WWII. Their “traveling shows” of military might or of convoys deployed to front lines that didn’t exist threw the Germans off their game. The deceptions saved countless American lives.

The Ghost Army’s last and most successful performance, Operation Viersen, tricked Hitler’s army into thinking two divisions (some 40 thousand men; remember, there are only 1,100 men in the Ghost Army) were at a specific position on the Rhine River. When the Germans advanced on the illusion created by the Ghost Army, the real army of soldiers crossed several miles away, suffering almost no casualties or resistance.

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A hand-drawn map of Operation Viersen, taken from the US Army’s Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special troops, a document that was classified for many years.

To this day, there is no evidence that the Germans ever figured out a deception unit was operating against them.

The missions, by their nature, drew enemy fire though no one in the Ghost Army was ever issued a real weapon. What stood between these men and live rounds from German soldiers were set pieces—usually the cache of inflatable tanks and rubber airplanes. Not all of the soldiers in the Ghost Army survived. Many were wounded. Their status and missions remained classified until 1996 in case the same tactics needed to be deployed against the Russians during the Cold War.

In 2013, a documentary about the dramatic, dangerous stagecraft of the Ghost Army premiered on PBS in honor of Memorial Day.

For all of those who served, and for those who gave their lives, we honor you.