Fancy a riddle?
What’s the common tie between: Bill Blass, a fashion designer who expanded his empire into clothing, automobile, perfume and more; Ellsworth Kelly, the famous abstract painter from the second half of the 20th century; and Arthur B. Singer, an advertising firm employee who later specialized into bird sketching and illustrated a very popular series of U.S. stamps in 1982?
Well, probably all of them have some artistic touch that they developed into different areas. In a nutshell: creativity. And one common event brought them together where you expected them the least: on the battlefield.
During WW2, a really special war did occur. A war of deceit, a calculated war, fought by architects and artists, masters of trickery and staging. People chosen from ad agencies, recruited from art schools or selected for their engineering backgrounds were gathered into what probably was the most diverse and original U.S. Army battalion: ‘the Ghost Army’.
The goal of this special team was to stage fake army positions so as to cloud German headquarters’ counter-attack strategy and general representation of the U.S. positions on the battlefield. In other words, the Ghost Army aimed at making their enemies believe they were everywhere – thus scattering the counteroffensive forces.
How then? They would use inflatable tanks, easy-to-intercept radio messages, speakers playing recorded sounds of a huge moving army (thanks to advanced technology especially concerning the sound mixing part), as well as officers’ costumes (because when they’re around, something should be going on!), false army identification badges and even laundry drying out of fake military camps.
The “camouflage” unit was actually doing the right opposite of it – as Cpl. John Jarvie explained, the fake military forces had to be somehow “hidden in plain sight” so that the trick could work and the German reconnaissance aircraft notice their presence.
The strategy, pioneered by British forces in the early stages of the war, was given full credit to be implemented in a larger scale and culminated into the Fortitude Operation preparing the Normandy 1944 landing. However, their mission was not over afterwards, and the unit kept moving close to the German artillery lines. Indeed, as Lt. Gil Seltzer pointed out, basically “asking the enemy to fire on us” was the main purpose of the Ghost soldiers…
When they finally headed back to their homes, they brought along thousands of sketches, drawings, watercolors depicting WW2 from the inside – the experience of war worked out as an incubator for some of them, later to meet fame in the artistic area. Otherwise, the Ghost Army case remained classified for four decades.
Arthur Shilstone remembers an anecdote from his time serving in France in the camouflage unit: he and other soldiers were preparing the stage, four of them lifting up an inflatable tank and turning it the other way, when Arthur noticed two French looking astonishingly at the scene. He looked at them and simply said:
“The Americans are very strong.”
- The Ghost Army (2013) documentary, directed by Rick Beyer