Before he became an acclaimed fashion designer, Bill Blass created deliberately bad camouflage during World War II as a member of the so-called “Ghost Army.” Along with painter Ellsworth Kelly, Harlem 58 photographer Art Kane and some 1,100 other artists, designers, and technicians, the Ghost Army faked out Nazi forces with a hastily assembled assortment of inflatable tanks, dummy airplanes, make-believe command posts, phony patches, bogus radio signals, and thunderous sound effects.
Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles document the strange saga in The Ghost Army of World War II. “The Ghost Army was the first mobile multi-media deception unit in history,” says Beyer. “They operated like a traveling road show, setting up a deception for a few days in the middle of a battlefield, then packing everything up and taking it someplace else.”
Spearheaded by garrulous ex-New Yorker editor Ralph Ingersoll and buttoned-up West Point graduate Billy Harris, the Ghost Army formed in January 1944 and coalesced with astonishing speed. Eight days after the Allies’ D-Day invasion of France, the soldiers pulled off their first ruse. Working with intelligence gathered by Imitation Game code-breaker Alan Turing, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops executed 17 decoy operations that helped pave the way to victory in Europe 70 years ago on May 8, 1945.
Check out the slide show for an illustrated guide to harmless military equipment and read on for a primer in Ghost Army misdirection.
To distract enemy forces from actual troop movements, the Ghost Army created 17 blow-up trucks, tanks, and artillery pieces that looked fearsome from a distance. Fred Patten, a designer at the U.S. Rubber factory in Rhode Island, came up with the specs. “The inflatables were built around a framework of inflatable tubes that could be blown up on the battle field with a simple gasoline-fueled air compressor,” Beyer says. To complete the illusion, soldiers covered the skeletal tube structure with rubberized canvas. Beyer says, “They needed to look real from about a quarter-mile away.”
Army technicians worked with Bell Laboratories to record tank movements at a training camp in upstate New York. “They basically created a library of sound effects using 16-inch glass transcription discs,” Beyer says. On the battlefield, trucks equipped with massive 500-pound loudspeakers blasted custom-mixed audio to mimic the sound of attacking tanks. “To make the enemy believe there’s an armored column moving up a hill and across a bridge, for example, they gathered specific sounds to create a virtual audio tank column,” says Beyer. The high-decibel rumbling prompted hallucinations in at least one war-weary soldier, Beyer says. “The sound was so realistic, he started to ‘see’ tanks even though he knew they weren’t there.”
Ghost Army members walked into French taverns wearing counterfeit arm patches from other divisions. They’d talk loudly about fictitious exploits, figuring the lies would find their way back to the Nazis by way of local spies. Fred Fox, who’d produced baby food radio commercials during peacetime, championed these charades, Beyer says. “Fred believed in more showmanship and less military. If you impersonate an infantry division, then you need someone posing as a general roaring up to the fake command post in a jeep. You’re not supposed to impersonate high-ranking officers in the army, but Fox persuaded his superiors to go along with it.”
One team of Ghost Army specialists made camouflage that looked good, but not too good. Beyer explains, “You didn’t want to camouflage the object so well that the enemy couldn’t see it. On the other hand, you couldn’t make the camouflage so easy to detect that the Nazis say, ‘Wait a minute, they obviously want us to see this.’ So the artists would leave out a piece here and there to make the camouflage visible from one direction.”
As World War II wound down in Europe, the Ghost Army eliminated all evidence of its handiwork. “They burned all the inflatables in a big bonfire somewhere in France,” says Beyer. Today, 27 known Ghost Army veterans live to tell the tale, all in their ’90s. Beyer keeps a spreadsheet of the survivors. “Last month,” He says ruefully, “There were 28.”
New legislation, if passed, would award each Ghost Army veteran with a Congressional Gold Medal. “The soldiers did most of their deceptions close to the front lines,” Beyer says. “They took artillery fire. Two dozen were wounded. Three guys were killed. So the Ghost Army is a surreal story in many ways, but it’s also deadly serious.”