One reason 30,000 American soldiers of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops haven’t received their due—despite critical roles in World War II including the Battle of the Bulge—is the fact that most of them never existed. In truth, the so-called Ghost Army consisted of a mere 1,100 deception artists.
In this documentary, which aired on PBS in May and remains available on DVD, producer Rick Beyer examines this special army unit, combining photographs, video footage, and interviews with both historians and members of the Ghost Army.
As General Wesley Clark explains, “the essence of winning is the defeat of the enemy’s plan … and to do that requires creativity and deception.” Who better to deceive the Germans than illustrators, designers, and other creative types from art schools in New York and Philadelphia? And as it turned out, Bill Blass, who later become a fashion icon, and minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly were among many talented artists who volunteered for the unit.
The goal of the Ghost Army was to perpetrate three types of deception: visual, sonic, and radio. Visual deception included disguising airfields, as well as creating the false impression of occupying army units using near-empty trucks and inflatable tanks and guns. (Video of soldiers lifting inflatable Sherman tanks is as entertaining today as the original sight must have been to peasants in the French countryside.) As for sonic deception, trucks with loud speakers played recordings of army movements, while radio operators matched visual and sonic cues with fake radio transmissions.
Beyer doesn’t paint a rich picture of what the men experienced or how war changed them. Instead he traces a narrow time line of their major conflicts, with hints of how they used drawings and watercolors to capture the haunting beauty of battle-torn Europe. While the movie shows little of the carnage of war, several drawings of Parisian harlots are unsuitable for younger viewers. Still, Beyer does bring overdue recognition to these soldiers of World War II who never were—and the artists who so effectively brought them to life.