My colleague, Jeff, who is an Army veteran, and I had the opportunity to visit the traveling exhibition Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II as it begins its national tour at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. It will be in place through January 2, 2023. Produced by The National WWII Museum in New Orleans and exclusively sponsored by E. L. Wiegand Foundation, the exhibit tells the story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops—the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in US Army history. The unit waged war with inflatable tanks and vehicles, fake radio traffic, sound effects and even phony generals, using imagination and illusion to trick the enemy while saving thousands of lives. We found the exhibition fascinating and riveting.
“Ghost Army explores the bravery, heroics, and creativity of this first-of-its kind military unit,” said Kelley Szany, Vice President of Education and Exhibitions at Illinois Holocaust Museum. “Although their efforts were classified for over 50 years, the Ghost Army saved thousands of lives, and played an important part in liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny. The Museum is proud to highlight their vital contributions that went unrecognized following the war.”
Recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the unique and top-secret “Ghost Army” unit—comprised of 82 officers and 1,023 men—was the brainchild of Colonel Billy Harris and Major Ralph Ingersoll. Activated on January 20, 1944, under the command of Army veteran Colonel Harry L. Reeder, the group was capable of simulating two whole divisions (approximately 30,000 troops) by using visual, sonic and radio deception to fool German forces during the final year of World War II. Armed with nothing heavier than .50-caliber machine guns, the 23rd took part in 22 large-scale deceptions in Europe from Normandy to the Rhine River, the bulk of the unit arriving in England in May 1944, shortly before D-Day.
The project that led to this exhibition is remarkable. Rick Beyer, Ghost Army Legacy Project President and Exhibit Consultant explained that, “The Ghost Army soldiers are really the unsung heroes of WWII, who in total secrecy did so much to help bring down Nazi tyranny. They used creativity, performance, illusion and pure bravura to confound Hitler’s legions and help bring about Allied victory. What a great thing to remember and celebrate!”
One of the thrills of the exhibition for me was the opportunity to meet Rick Beyer and learn more about his story as he generously agreed to answer several questions about the exhibition:
Can you share how you learned about the Ghost Army?
I first learned about this unit in 2005, when my friend and former business partner Mark Tomizawa introduced me to a woman whose uncle served in the unit. Her name is Martha Gavin, and her enthusiasm was the spark that started the whole project. She brought her uncle’s wartime scrapbooks to the meeting, and that is how I first came to grips with the story. She was passionate that someone should make a film about this, and I became infected with her passion. That led to the documentary, book, the museum exhibit and so much more.
How did the PBS documentary come about?
After meeting Martha, and doing a bit of research, I realized that hardly anyone knew about this story, and it had never been explored in film. I had made other films for the History Channel, so I approached them first, but they decided it was not a good fit. (I disagreed then and still do today!!!) I decided to raise the money myself to make it as an independent film. “How hard can it be?” I said to myself. It took 8 years, 700 donors and a lot of work to get there, but in 2013 the film premiered on PBS. It has since been seen in more than 30 countries.
What inspired you to write the book about the Ghost Army? What has been the impact of the book?
As I was finishing the film, a book seemed the next obvious step. After all, there were so many stories we couldn’t fit in the documentary, and we were learning new stuff all the time. I partnered with Elizabeth Sayles, a tremendously talented artist and illustrator whose father Bill Sayles served in the unit, and we co-authored the book published by Princeton Architectural Press that came out in 20015. Sadly, Liz passed away last year. The book might never have happened without her enthusiasm. She was a great friend and I miss her a lot.
The combined impact of the documentary and book has been to make the story so much more known than it was when I started. Even though some other books had been written on the Ghost Army, when I started working on this NOBODY knew what I was talking about. Today when I talk about it, I often run into folks who have seen the film or heard something about it. The book and film also led directly to this museum exhibit, which was created by the National WWII Museum and is now traveling the country. There have also been efforts in Hollywood to make a movie – Ben Affleck was on board at one point to star in and direct a film – and while that project is dormant at the moment, I would not say it is a long way from being dead.
How did you make the selection of which men to interview?
I had a chance to attend the last reunion this unit held, back in 2005. We interviewed six people there, starting with John Jarvie, whose niece had introduced me to the project.
We asked everyone at the reunion – veterans and family members – who else we should talk to. We kept expanding our list, and widening the circle. I would estimate we were in touch with 40-50 veterans. We talked to all of them, pre-interviewing them on the phone. We tried to interview the ones that had the best stories and the most energy. I also made sure we had a good geographic mix, and that our interview subjects represented the various sub-units. It was great talking to the artists, because we could refer to the art they had created, which would often prompt a story or a reminiscence. When we interviewed John Jarvie, he had his scrapbook on his knees, and we just kept turning the pages, and asking him about the art there.
How did the “blow up” equipment come about? How was the fake equipment created, manufactured?
The Army tested several types of dummies. One type consisted of a collapsible metal frame, covered in fabric. When mounted on a jeep, it could become a mobile decoy. Despite this advantage, the frames proved heavy, difficult to set up, and prone to breakage. The Army decided instead to go with inflatable dummies made out of rubber. These were made in rubber factories in places such as Woonsocket RI, Lowell, MA, Scranton PA, Akron OH, and Memphis, TN. Much of the work force consisted of young women, since the men had gone to war. I talked to a woman named Teresa Ricard, who worked at the US Rubber Plant in Woonsocket RI. She was 16 years old, and paid 49 cents an hour. She was told that the tanks she was making were “targets” – that’s one way they kept security.
Is there a part of the Ghost Army story that especially stands out to you?
The Ghost Army story is inspiring to me in so many ways. It is about embracing the crazy idea and using creativity to save lives.
One of my favorite aspects of the story is the type of deception they called “Special Effects.” In order to fool enemy spies that had been left behind, they would wear the patches of the units they were impersonating. They even set up phony headquarters and had young officers portraying colonels and generals. Some Captain would wear two stars as a general, and drive around in a jeep filled with bodyguards and a special two-star-general license plate. It’s so crazy, it sounds like something right out of a movie – and yet it really happened! What a way to win the war!
When asked, How was it that the Illinois Holocaust Museum was chosen as the place to open the exhibition? Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions kindly replied: The show premiered March 2020 through January 2021. We are the first venue to host it since NOLA. It will travel on after us. We are hosting it because without winning the war, in all the creative methods used, there would be no liberation or liberated camps.
Ghost Army features inflatable military pieces, historical narrative text panels detailing unit operations, profiles of unit officers, archival photography and sketches and uniforms from unit officers. The exhibit presents exclusive, original content from The National WWII Museum archives along with a historical artifact collection curated and donated to them by Beyer. The exhibit debuted at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans in March 2020 before embarking on a national tour to share the story of the Ghost Army with communities across the country.
Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II will be on display through January 2, 2023. Throughout the exhibition’s run, the Museum will host a series of events, including book and author programs, Touch a Tank Day, Sip & Swing, and more.
Photos are courtesy of the Illinois Holocaust Museum
Additional information at the Illinois Holocaust Museum Website