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The Ghost Army

Some pretty bonkers sh*t went down in WWII and we’re not just talking about The Night Witches. It's no secret that during the war both sides employed strategic and innovative tactics to outmaneuver the other. But one troop was kept so secret by the US Army, not even other soldiers knew about their existence. Enter - The Ghost Army. #spookyseason

The Ghost Army was a tactical deception unit made up of soldiers from over 46 states. The battalion was primarily made up of artists, illustrators, radio specialists and sound engineers who were hand-selected from art schools across the country. Their official name was the US Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and their numbers totaled 1,100. The Ghost Army’s mission was simple in theory - divert the Germans. In practice, their operations involved carefully coordinated multimedia productions that successfully steered the enemy troops in strategic ways. 

Multimedia productions? Yeah, you read that right. Inflatable tanks, airplanes, fake radio transmissions, and sound recordings of actual troops blasted from speakers within a 15-mile radius were all weapons of the tactical deception unit. Being able to pack up and move their unit at a moments notice was key to their success, as they strategically filled holes in the battle line to distract the Germans. 

The Ghost Army was the brainchild of two American military planners based in London. Inspired by successful deception units utilized by the Brits in North Africa, Colonel Billy Harris and Major Ralph Ingersoll devised the idea for a military unit that could divert the German soldiers when needed. The unit mixed artists, engineers and seasoned soldiers. Some of its famed conscripts included fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane. Over the course of WWII, the 23rd unit was involved in over 20 operations and credited with saving an estimated 15,000 - 30,000 U.S. lives. Their missions weren’t all on the sidelines and they often found themselves right in the thick of battle - from the beaches of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. The Ghost Army’s biggest operation (and success) came towards the end of the war where their mission was to distract the Germans while the American Ninth Army crossed the Rhine. No small feat, The Ghost Army ramped up their multimedia production to make their unit of 1,100 appear to be over 30,000 strong - posing as the 30th and 79th divisions simultaneously.  But they weren’t without their slip ups. Shortly after D-Day in 1944, two frenchman on bicycles came across the 23rd unit as they were moving their troops from one location to the next. They witnessed four soldiers carrying a 40-ton tank - sacré bleu! As they looked on in surprise, soldier Arthur Shilstone remarked to them “The Americans are very strong…”.  The Ghost Army returned to the U.S. in 1945 and their existence was kept a secret. It wasn't until the Smithsonian Magazine published an article in 1985 that their adventures became public knowledge.  So what do you get when you send a bunch of artists to war? Well, for one thing - incredible art. In their downtime, The Ghost Army captured their unique perspective on wartime in over 500 sketches from across the countryside.

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Sketch by Arthur Shilstone as seen in Smithsonian Magazine


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