The University of Michgan's Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library is presenting a "Ghost Army" exhibit through April 30, 2010. It consists of photographs, drawings, and paintings, along with quotations from the soldiers who created them. An accompanying narrative text was written by Exhibits and Outreach Librarian Karen Jordan, and based on research conducted by University of Michigan Art History Ph.D. student Diana Mankowski.
And if you're expecting amateurish pencil sketches by doodling G.I.'s, think again. There's a reason an art history student spent time researching The Ghost Army: the 23rd was an elite unit made up of artists, designers, sound technicians, press agents, makeup artists, and professional photographers. And if you think that description sounds more like a film crew than an army, you're on the right track. The Ghost Army was the brainchild of a movie star, who knew a thing or two about fooling an audience with optical illusions and special effects.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. lobbied the Navy brass (he was serving in the United States Naval Reserve) to create a unit based on deception after he completed a tour of England and its special forces installations. Fairbanks had friends in high places, up to and including Franklin D. Roosevelt. The unit ended up as part of the Army in 1944, but the original idea remained unchanged: the 23rd's mission was to deceive the German Army into believing that the Allies possessed more troops and material than they actually did and, even more heroically, to draw enemy fire on themselves, allowing regular combat units to advance with fewer casualties.
The deceptions of The Ghost Army used every theatrical tool at their command. Sound engineers created elaborate, multi-layered recordings of the noises made by infantry, tank, and artillery units in all kinds of weather and from a variety of distances. A few sound trucks armed with nothing more than loud speakers could "impersonate" a battalion of tanks or an entire infantry division. A radio deception section of the unit contributed fake transmissions so convincing they fooled the notorious German radio propagandist, Axis Sally, into reporting an entire Allied division was gearing up for battle in a location where there were no troops at all.
(Image Courtesy Of Rick Beyer/Hatcher Graduate Library.)
(Image Courtesy of Rick Beyer.)
Michigan librarian Karen Jordan agrees: "this is a story that is rarely known... I know that the children of Ghost Army veterans want to get it out. I also think we at the library know that this is an important story to tell. We have books about it in our stacks, but people don't really know about it." Documentarian, author, and journalist Rick Beyer is also determined to tell the Ghost Army' s story. Beyer, whose films have been shown on the History Channel, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and at Mount Vernon, contributed most of the materials featured in the Ghost Army exhibition. He has spent nearly five years working on producing a documentary film on the 23rd, aided along the way by Martha Gavin, whose uncle, John Jarvie served with the unit. A rough cut of the film, The Ghost Army, will be screened on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 7 pm at the University of Michigan's Room 100 Gallery. Beyer has also created an extensive and beautifully detailed gallery devoted to the Ghost Army, which includes roughly 800 digitized photographs, letters, and works of art.
He kept it in a tiny address book, as it was completely illegal for him to have it.
Entry For August 21, 1944:
"Pulled out at 8:10 AM. 158 miles. Drove most of the way with top and windshield down in driving rain. Would give my right arm to sit in front of a cozy fire with my little darling in my arms. Oh Adolph, you son of a Bitch. I feel like a frozen drowned rat. "
(Image Courtesy Of Rick Beyer.)
As incredible as the exploits of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops are, Rick Beyer correctly points out they are "only half the story." The other half is the personal journies of the men who made up the unit. The Ghost Army, says Beyer, was made up of "soldier-artists [who] went on to have a major influence on postwar art and design in America." These young men were recruited from the finest art and engineering schools in the country, and the unit "became an incubator for young artists who literally sketched and painted their way through Europe," according to Beyer.
Many of these men achieved great fame after the war. I'm not going to name drop here, but I'll leave you with a few hints. One Ghost Army veteran built a $700 million fashion empire based on impeccably tailored sportswear. Another is a world renowned minimalist painter and sculptor whose works grace The Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Still another was a photographer who captured the most famous image of jazz musicians ever taken. The lives of these three men, and of others equally accomplished in their own artistic fields, were shaped by their combat experiences in the most unusual unit of America's World War II Army.