When the pen, brush, and record were mightier than the sword
October 5, 2007 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Ellsworth Kelley, Bill Blass, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and a host of lesser known but equally talented painters, designers, sound engineers and actors served together during World War II in the Ghost Army – the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a unit whose existence remained an official secret until 1996. German soldiers referred to them as the "Phantom Army," because one moment they were in one place, and the next, they were attacking their flanks or from the rear. Together, they made rubber tanks and fake Jeeps; their changing unit insignia were designed to fool spies and allied units alike. They recorded the sounds of Allied units building bridges or moving troops and broadcast them from special sound trucks, leading the Germans to conclude that the U.S. Army had more troops in more places than it did. "Guys drew, or painted, all the time," documenting their lives, the lives of their fellow soldiers, and that of the local populations in wartime Europe.
posted by rtha (23 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

This is a great post. This caricature of Bill Blass is fabulous.
posted by OmieWise at 11:46 AM on October 5, 2007

For those who are interested in this sort of thing, there's also the story of Jasper Maskelyne, a magician who went to war.
posted by Jughead at 11:52 AM on October 5, 2007

Nice stuff, thanks rtha!
posted by carter at 12:07 PM on October 5, 2007

This is really great. Thanks.

I'm intrigued by the idea of using sound to solve social problems -- something I don't think most designers take into consideration...visual design, industrial design and architecture generally come first to mind when it comes to making the world a better place. Here's a unique and compelling exception.
posted by diastematic at 12:25 PM on October 5, 2007

This is a great post. Thanks so much for getting this together.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:26 PM on October 5, 2007

I heard this story on NPR the other day (and the link to the NPR story is the "official secret" link above, spikelee), and it was a classic driveway moment (except I don't have a driveway, so it was a parking-space-on-the-street moment). It's an amazing piece of pretty much unknown until now history, and I hope the documentary makers interview as many of the surviving soldiers as quickly as they can, since they're all at least in their 80s by now. I'm continuing to root around online to see what else is out there.
posted by rtha at 12:38 PM on October 5, 2007

posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 12:52 PM on October 5, 2007

This is pretty fucking sweet.
posted by klangklangston at 1:00 PM on October 5, 2007

Omie, hee!

I was going to post wondering if maybe any of this battalion's (or whatever) members could be found living quietly in pairs 40 years on.
posted by kavasa at 1:03 PM on October 5, 2007

They always had their guns drawn!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:04 PM on October 5, 2007

I strongly recommend Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard" to anyone interested in this post - the title character is part of an artist's unit in WW2.
posted by raevyne at 1:34 PM on October 5, 2007

"Sonic Deception HalfTrack" would be a great name for as noise band ...
posted by carter at 2:04 PM on October 5, 2007

-Masey says the special troops would act as decoys. They would go to various towns and were told to "be seen, mill around, go to pubs, have a good time, pick up girls, enjoy."-

No wonder they were called the rubber army. Great post, thanks rtha!
posted by peacay at 3:25 PM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cool post, thanks. The first part of this NPR series, about the 10th Mountain Division 'ski troops', was excellent too.
posted by Bron at 3:50 PM on October 5, 2007

For anyone interested in this stuff, you might like the book "The War Magician" by David Fisher about Jasper Maskelyne. The account of how he made the entire port of Alexandria vanish and reappear several miles further down the coast of Egypt is great stuff.
posted by ninazer0 at 5:34 PM on October 5, 2007

this is so cool! thanks! i'd never even heard of it.
posted by amberglow at 6:26 PM on October 5, 2007

Fascinating post and story rtha! Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 9:27 PM on October 5, 2007

Perhaps they were artists who pulled off this kind of mind-blowing war camouflage?

"Blass “Great guy. Wonderful. Knew what he wanted, Read Vogue in his foxhole." Funny.
posted by nickyskye at 9:39 PM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was in this unit and would like to comment.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 12:24 AM on October 6, 2007

were you, Henry? tell us!
posted by amberglow at 11:51 AM on October 6, 2007

Great find.
posted by rougy at 10:37 PM on October 6, 2007

I think The History Channel showed a documentary on the 603rd a few years ago. Fascinating stuff: Inflatable replicas of Sherman tanks that would fool you at typical airborne-reconnaisance distances.

I vaguely recall reading that one of the reasons Patton was kept "on ice" for a while after the Sicily soldier-slapping incident was so that the OKW (German high command) could be persuaded through misinformation that he would be in command of a US Army invasion -- in Norway.

Another bit of misinformation from that war: Operation Mincemeat / "The Man Who Never Was."

Look at this page and note how many phantom division-sized formations there were. It's a sizeable fraction of the actual, real Army of the United States 1941-45.
posted by pax digita at 12:52 PM on October 8, 2007

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