The art of war takes on new meaning in Rick Beyer’s mesmerizing documentary The Ghost Army, premiering Tuesday on PBS.
Put simply, the film tells the story of a group of American soldiers who were hand-picked to deceive the Germans by impersonating entire platoons of GIs.
The 1,100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were chosen because of their skills as artists, designers and sound experts and landed in France in the summer of 1944. They designed 90-pound inflatable tanks, recorded the sounds of trucks and other vehicles of war thundering over bridges and through the countryside, and recorded scripted radio “messages” with misinformation about troop movements.
You could call it a kind of World War II version of Argo, and it makes for a documentary that is almost as gripping as Ben Affleck’s film.
We hear about how the magic was made from surviving members of the Ghost Army, as they were called, as well as Jonathan Gawne, author of Ghosts of the ETO, and Roy Eichhorn, the former director of research and development at the US Army Combined Arms Center. His dad was a member of the Ghost Army.
The story of the Ghost Army was kept under wraps for nearly 50 years, out of fear that if the U.S. ever went to war with the Soviet Union, we’d probably want to resurrect some of the techniques masterminded during World War II.
The testimony of the surviving members is every bit as vivid as the astonishing archival film footage, much of it in color, and the exquisite charcoal drawings and watercolors created by the soldiers when they weren’t painting fake insignia for their uniforms or using bulldozers to mess up a fake encampment dotted with those inflatable M-4 tanks.
The sonics experts made early use of multi-leveled mixing to replicate the sounds of a massive military unit on the move. They didn’t have tape at their disposal, so everything was recorded on wire.
At times, the Ghost Army would go drinking in local bars and talk audibly about completely invented troop movements, knowing the information would be picked up and forwarded to the Germans.
Several members of the Ghost Army went on to careers in art, illustration and design after the war, including the minimalist artist Ellsworth Kelly and designer Bill Blass, who busied himself making fashion sketches even during the war. Photographer Art Kane was also part of the Ghost Army, long before he took that famous photograph of jazz greats on a Harlem stoop in 1958.
The Ghost Army was “looked on as kind of nut cases,” recalls former Cpl. Jack Masey, who went on to a career designing exhibits all over the world, including the site of the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Nikita Khruschev and then Vice President Richard Nixon in 1959.
Over just a couple of years, the Ghost Army staged more than 20 deceptive operations, many of them key to subsequent Allied victories in battles in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
Masey jokes that he and the others were considered “nut cases,” but they were also considered heroes, despite the fact that for almost half a century, no one knew about their heroism.