When I think of the heroes of World War II, Winston Churchill, General Patton, and Oskar Schindler come to mind. But I recently came across an unlikely outfit of skilled graphic designers, artists, architects, and illustrators that staged more than 20 “battles” after D-Day, when they landed in France, until the end of the war.
Known as “The Ghost Army,” officially the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, they were a 1,100-man tactical deception unit with a unique mission: to impersonate Allied Army units to deceive the enemy. They put on traveling road shows using inflatable vehicles, fake radio transmissions, and theatrical effects, often operating very close to the front lines.
One example from The New York Times: “In March 1945, in one of their most elaborate feats of trickery — during the critical Rhine River campaign, designed to finally crush Germany — the 23rd set up 10 miles south of the spot where two American Ninth Army divisions were to cross the river. To simulate a buildup of those divisions at their decoy location, the Ghost Army used inflated tanks, cannons, planes and trucks; sent out misleading radio messages about the American troops’ movements; and used loudspeakers to simulate the sound of soldiers building pontoon boats. The Germans fell for the ruse, firing on the 23rd’s divisions, while Ninth Army troops crossed the Rhine with nominal resistance.”
Their story was kept secret for more than 40 years after the war, until it was declassified in 1996. Several of the soldier-artists would go on to work in advertising, design, art, fashion, architecture and illustration, including Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, Arthur Singer, and Art Kane.
One of the last survivors of the band of Army con artists was Gilbert Seltzer, an architect, who died last month at 106. His obituary was in The New York Times.
The work of the 23rd was recalled in a 2013 PBS documentary, “The Ghost Army.”
Photos from The George William Curtis Collection, The Airborne and Special Operations Museum, and Air & Space Magazine.
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