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This painting depicts two Frenchmen looking shocked upon seeing four American soldiers lift a 40-ton tank. (Arthur Shilstone)

When an Army of Artists Fooled Hitler

A new documentary shares the story of the 23rd unit’s daring deceptions

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Because the men had to keep their true purpose a secret, they regularly pretended to be other units. They’d mark their trucks with chalk or sew fake badges to throw off potential spies in the cities where they spent time off duty.

Set apart from other troops by their secret mission, the artists also brought an unusual perspective to war. Upon finding a bombed-out church in Trévières, several of them stopped to sketch the structure. When they stopped in Paris and Luxembourg, the men recorded everything from the beguiling women biking by to the scenic rooflines and street scenes. Beyer accumulated more than 500 of these sketches during the eight years he spent on the documentary, many of which were included in an accompanying art exhibit at the Edward Hopper House in New York.

“In war stories,” explains Beyer, “it tends to be about the guys on the line under fire or the generals planning strategy in the headquarters. What you don’t get always is the sense of what the experience is like for the people.”

“Whether it’s visiting a bordello or sketching a bombed out church or trying to comfort the orphaned Polish children in a [Displaced Persons] camp on a dreary Christmas in Verdun when you’ve just retreated from the Battle of the Bulge, those sorts of stories are part of the G.I. experience also and I wanted to convey this humanity as part of the story,” says Beyer.

The Ghost Army returned to the United States in July 1945, thinking they would join in the invasion of Japan. But after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and Japan’s surrender, the unit was deactivated on September 15, 1945.

Many of the members of the special unit went on to have careers in the arts, including painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly and fashion designer Bill Blass. Unable to tell their wives, family and friends about what they had done until the information was declassified, their stories didn’t make it into the official narratives of WWII. Beyer says there’s more still to discover, “There are things that are still hidden away about it.”

In the meantime, Beyer hopes his documentary can help counter the traditional assumption that British deception, most known for Operation Fortitude, which sought to divert German attention away from Normandy, was elegant while American efforts must have been clunky. “It shows how creative and imaginative American deception units were,” says Beyer.

Retired commander of NATO General Wesley Clark agrees in the documentary, saying, “The essence of winning is the defeat of the enemy’s plan.” And with imagination and creativity, that’s precisely what the Ghost Army was able to do.

The Ghost Army” premiers on Tuesday, May 21 on PBS.

About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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