One day in 1944, two French refugees cycling in a rural part of Luxembourg spotted what looked like trucks, trailers and M4 Sherman tanks draped in netting beneath sheltering trees. An American sentry approached, but the Frenchmen were mesmerized by what was behind him: four GIs effortlessly lifting and moving what appeared to be a 40-ton tank.
The two witnesses were impressed, said retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Crean, the vice president of education at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “These Americans are really strong,” one of the Frenchman was heard to remark. “After that, (the GIs) learned to keep civilians out of the area, or else it would blow their cover,” said Crean, who came to Reno in March for the opening of Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II at the Nevada Museum of Art.
The French cyclists had caught a glimpse of the backstage work of 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army, an American unit of 1,023 artists and other specialists chosen for their abilities to create realistic and convincing decoys. From the beaches of Normandy to the River Rhine, they conjured inflatable tanks and vehicles, faux artillery pieces, a phony general or two, vehicle noises and fake radio traffic—ruses to convince enemy commanders they were facing tens of thousands of American soldiers massing for attacks.
During the final year of World War II, the handful of creative soldiers imitated up to 60,000 men. When the Nazis took the bait, they moved their own troops to face threats that did not exist. It is estimated that the Ghost Army’s deceptions saved 15,000 to 30,000 lives by misdirecting Nazi forces away from the sites of real attacks.
“And we never saw much of it, we were just doing our job at the time. But in reality, we saved a lot of lives,” said Bernie Bluestein, 99, one of the few surviving veterans of the Ghost Army. “We had an important job.”
The exhibit, open through July 23, showcases the decoys, sound effects and other deceptions crafted by the soldier-artists, as well as the artwork they created in their spare time.
To be or not to be
Created in 1944, the Ghost Army stage-managed more than 22 deceptions as allied troops fought their way from the English Channel to the German border. The inflatable tanks and vehicles were combined with carefully coordinated sound effects that mimicked what the Germans would expect to hear when American troops moved in and out of areas. The recordings of military drills and radio messages were supplied by the 3133rd Signal Service Company, which also was able to impersonate individual radio operators.
Phony dispatches were sent in Morse code—and telegraphers have their own unique styles of tapping out messages, Crean said. “The Germans listening in to radio frequencies could tell the signature of individual operators,” he said. “Deceivers learned the touch of multiple operators, so Germans listening in would think that an army that may have left was still there.”
Selected for their creativity, the soldiers had to learn to improvise. With no guidelines or routines to follow, they had to think on their feet. The 23rd had less than five months of training at Camp Forrest, Tenn. The 3133rd Signal Service Company trained at Pine Camp, N.Y., before deploying in Europe.
“We did a lot of practicing out there, making sure we had proper dummies, making sure they were in good shape, practicing taking them out of the packages, and inflating them,” Bluestein said during a telephone interview from his home in suburban Chicago.
War was combined with performance art; lives were at stake.
Walking into the NMA exhibit is like entering a time capsule. Puddles of rubber on the floor are inflated to blossom into tanks, planes or artillery pieces, some scaled down to fit in the museum spaces. Air pumps hiss like tea kettles about to boil as the decoys bloom. Some speakers blare military radio calls; others fill the air with the clanking, rattling and roaring sounds of a mechanized army on the move. The recorded voices of GIs are mixed in the din, shouting to each other and giving orders to more soldiers who aren’t there.
Bluestein, who was an 18-year-old art student when he was recruited in 1944, said he and his fellow artists put their skills to work in their off hours. They painted and sketched the landscapes surrounding them and drew portraits of their fellow soldiers. “During the night, since most of us were artists, we were doing sketches and painting and doing artwork,” he said. Some of those artworks—including sketches of soldiers sewing their fake unit patches on their uniforms and watercolor paintings—are on display at the Reno exhibit.
Unit member Jack Masey drew caricatures of his companions, including Bill Blass, who became a famous fashion designer after the war. They painted and sketched scenes of neighborhoods, with tanks scattered through the streets and magnificent mountains and valleys in the background. They used watercolors to bring out the glory of sunsets behind soldiers who were setting the stages to create deception. Some artwork is romanticized; others depict war-torn cities and landscapes of destruction.
Their work documents their missions and their everyday lives.
Decades of secrecy
The unit was a secret during the war and for a half-century thereafter, until the Ghost Army’s history was officially declassified in 1996.
“They were so successful at deceiving the Germans that they couldn’t tell anyone, because the U.S. was entering (the Cold War), and deception was a necessary tool to reuse,” Crean said.
After the war, alumni of the Ghost Army returned to their civilian lives—not allowed to reveal the top-secret details of their efforts. “It wasn’t difficult for me to keep it a secret because I wasn’t an Army person. That was two and a half years of my life that I could have done without,” said Bluestein, who has continually signed up for college art classes after his retirement at age 65.
During the war, Bluestein said, “all I would tell my parents is that we were doing camouflage work. If they knew what I was really doing, they would have collapsed.”
Many Ghost Army veterans settled into careers in advertising, architecture, design, theater, art, fashion and radio. Some, like Blass, went on to become renowned, including photographer Art Kane, and artist Ellsworth Kelly.
Kelly became famous for artwork characterized by hard-edged and boldly colored shapes, which influenced abstract art in the 1950s. His work was partially informed by military camouflage techniques, which he said helped him learn the use of form and shadow. Kelly’s work, on loan from the collections of Jordan Schnitzer and his Family Foundation, is showcased in an exhibit accompanying the Ghost Army exhibition. The museum has scheduled a lecture about Kelly’s work, presented by Carter Foster, deputy director for curatorial affairs at Blanton Museum of Art, on Thursday, May 18, at 6 p.m. Other programs and lectures related to the Ghost Army and World War II are scheduled at the museum through July, including:
Thursday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Invisible Warriors: African American Women in World War IIis a film documenting the Black women who served in the war. Filmmaker and historian Gregory S. Cooke joins virtually following the screening for a live discussion ($15 general admission; $10 members; $5 students).
Saturday, May 13, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: The Estelle J. Kelsey Foundation presents Hands ON! Second Saturday. Free programs include hands-on art activities, storytelling, guided tours and live performances. Participants can create paper from military uniforms in a workshop hosted by Art Heals War Wounds.
Thursday, July 13, 6 p.m.: “Ghost Army: Deception and Disguise in World War II” is a presentation by Mark Stout, who will discuss the deception techniques used by the Ghost Army, from rubber tanks to double agents. Stout is an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University as well as a former intelligence officer and historian of the International Spy Museum ($15 general admission; $13 students; $10 members).
Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II is on display through Sunday, July 23, at the Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St., in Reno. Regular admission is $15, with discounts. Thanks to support by the E.L. Wiegand Foundation, admission to the exhibit is free to veterans, active military members and their families. For more information, call 775-329-3333, or visit nevadaart.org.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was revised on 4/2/23 to include portions of an interview with Ghost Army veteran Bernie Bluestein.