Interview with historian Rick Beyer on Top Secret WWII Ghost Army

Ghost Army TroopsThis Q&A with historian Rick Beyer about the fascinating 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as The Ghost Army of WWII, was originally published in Unbeige. The magazine takes “a colorful look at art, design, and visual culture,” oddly a good fit for an interview about this top secret U.S. Army unit that had a surprising number of the artists serving, including fashion designer, Bill Blass, and Ellsworth Kelly, a celebrated minimalist painter. 

First, what was the Ghost Army?

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also known as The Ghost Army, was an extraordinary US Army unit that used inflatable tanks, sound effects, impersonation and illusion to fool the Germans on the battlefields of Europe during World War II. They conducted 21 different deceptions, often operating within a few hundred yards of enemy lines. Their story was hushed up for more than 40 years.

How did you become interested/first learn about the story of this secret WWII unit?

I first learned about it eight years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Martha Gavin, whose uncle, John Jarvie, served in the unit. Her enthusiasm was the spark that started the whole project.

I have always loved quirky history stories, the strange, “can you believe it?” stuff. In fact, I’ve written an entire book series, The Greatest Stories Never Told, that focuses on just that. The idea that American soldiers in World War II went into battle with inflatable tanks and sound effects records was so bizarre, so contrary to every image from every war movie I’ve ever seen, that it immediately attracted my attention.

On top of that was the fact that many of the soldiers in the unit were artists, who used their spare time to paint and sketch what they saw on the battlefield. In fact, the first time I met Martha at a Boston area coffee shop, she was carrying an armload of three-ring binders filled with uncle’s wartime artworks. I was captivated with the way they presented such a unique and intimate perspective of the war. And that’s how I got hooked.

How were GIs selected to serve in this unit?

The Army threw the 23rd together in a hurry, in January 1944, so they assembled it from four pre-existing units. One was the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, which had been formed more than 18 months earlier. The Army had loaded the 603rd with artists, because their initial mission was camouflage. Some were recruited from art schools such as Pratt and Cooper Union. Word quickly spread to other artists interested in finding a way to put their art skills to use in war effort. (Or interested in finding a way to avoid ending up in the infantry!)

Similarly, the Army took a pre-existing radio unit and assigned it to The Ghost Army to handle radio deception. But because they wanted only the very best radio operators to carry out convincing deceptions, they pruned about 100 soldiers from the radio unit, and then plucked skilled men from other units around the country.

In general, once it was formed, The Ghost Army had a very high priority status, and could have whatever soldiers it wanted.

Tell us about the critical deception operation that occurred in the final days of the war — what was involved

This was the final performance of The Ghost Army, and the most dramatic.

In March of 1945, as the 9th Army prepared to cross the Rhine into Germany, the deceivers were called upon to fake a crossing ten miles away to draw German units away from the point of the real attack. The effort required the 1100 men of the 23rd to use every resource at their disposal as they impersonated two full divisions, some 40 thousand men.

The stakes were incredibly high, because if they weren’t successful, it could imperil the entire crossing.

Was it difficult to locate surviving members of the Ghost Army and to convince them to speak with you?

I got a great head start when I was invited to attend a reunion they held in Washington, DC, in 2005. It’s a good thing I went, because it turned out to be the very last one. We interviewed six veterans in two days. They gave me the names of other veterans to contact, and we started building up a list. Over the last eight years I’ve probably spoken to 40 or 50 veterans of the unit, although I only interviewed 21 of them on camera.

Some men, especially those in the sonic deception unit, were told not to talk about it for 50 years after the war, and they took that very seriously. Having kept their mouths shut for so long, they were very happy to have a chance to talk freely about their experiences. For some of them it was the first time. I was blown away when a veteran named John Walker told me that his wife had died after they had been married for 40 years, and she never knew what he did during the war.

I regret to say that eight of the 21 veterans I interviewed have passed away. I’m grateful we were able to record their stories while they were here with us, so that they are not lost forever.

What kinds of careers did members of the Ghost Army go on to have following the war?

Considering the small size of the unit, a surprising number of the artists who served in The Ghost Army had a notable impact post-war pop culture. Bill Blass became fashion superstar. Another Ghost Army veteran, George Nardiello, designed dresses for Marilyn Munroe. Ellsworth Kelly is still going strong as a celebrated minimalist painter. Arthur Singer became a world-famous wildlife artist, illustrating the best-selling Birds of North America and later creating Birds and Flowers of the 50 States postage stamps with his son Alan. Art Kane’s photograph of 57 musicians on a stoop in Harlem remains a jazz icon.

Other Ghost Army artists were involved in creating the Seattle Space Needle, the packaging for Dentyne, and the Munsters TV show! Still others went on to distinguished post-war careers as architects, designers, illustrators, and sculptors. Even today, I’m still learning new things about what some of these men accomplished.

One of the veterans, Jack Masey is going to be at the FIT screening. Jack designed international exhibitions for the US Government, including the 1959 Moscow Exhibition that was the site of the famous Kitchen Debate between Khrushchev and Nixon. After the film, I’m going to talk a little bit about his involvement in creating the American Pavillion at Expo 67 on Montreal, and how he involved Blass, Kelley, and Kane.

And finally, what are you working on now?

Believe it or not there is still a lot going on with The Ghost Army, including screenings, overseas broadcasts, a possible book deal, magazine articles, a Ghost Army/Secret War tour of Europe, and some things that I can’t talk about at this time. (We all have our secrets!) So I’m not quite ready to move on from this project yet!

Travel with Rick Beyer on the Ghost Army of WWII Tour>>

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