Chapter 1: My Con Artists
The con-artist’s job is to hoodwink the enemy instead of slugging it out with him. –Ralph Ingersoll
Every army practices deception. If they don’t, they can’t win, and they know it. –General Wesley Clark, United States Army
Ralph Ingersoll had the perfect combination of attributes to be a deception planner. Not only was he a genuinely creative thinker, he was also a bold, confident dissembler. “I’ve never met anyone who was such a bright guy who was such a goddamned liar,” fellow deception planner Went Eldredge later told Ingersoll biographer Roy Hoopes. “He’d say anything to get what he wanted.” Ingersoll is the only person to have claimed credit for dreaming up the idea of the Ghost Army. Given his reputation, it is easy to be skeptical. But he was certainly there when it happened, and even if he didn’t think up the idea all on his own, he undoubtedly provided a good share of the creative spark.
Before the war Ralph Ingersoll was a celebrity journalist and best-selling author—not to mention a man who attracted controversy as effortlessly as a starlet draws paparazzi. A product of Hotchkiss prep school and Yale University, he became managing editor of the New Yorker, publisher of Fortune, and general manager of Time Inc. He was one of the prime movers in the launching of Life magazine but made many enemies. He left Time to found his own innovative and left-leaning newspaper in New York, called PM. In a front-page editorial, Ingersoll wrote of PM, “We’re against people who push other people around.” The New York Times once described him as “a prodigiously energetic egotist with a talent for making magazines, covering a war, womanizing—and pushing other people around.” He acted as a star reporter for his own paper, met face-to-face with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, hung out at the White House with FDR, and made good copy for other reporters.
Ingersoll was in his forties when war broke out. After complaining vociferously when inducted by his local draft board (Ingersoll thought publishers should be exempt), he eventually gave in and joined up. Entering the army as a private, he quickly won a commission and became a staff officer. He served in North Africa, then came home and wrote a best-selling book, The Battle Is the Pay-Off. In the second half of 1943 Captain Ingersoll was stationed in the Operations branch of the army’s headquarters in London. He worked alongside British planners on various strategic deceptions so that American activities would dovetail with the overall British plan.
He took to deception like a duck to water. “For Ingersoll, it became love at first sight,” wrote Sefton Delmer, a British counterintelligence officer who authored the memoir The Counterfeit Spy. “He became one of the foremost American exponents of the art of deception.” He was full of ideas to meet any contingency. “Any problem, he would just think a bit and come out with something,” said Went Eldredge, who in civilian life taught at Dartmouth. “This was damn irritating for a college professor. He was always three moves ahead of you.”
One of the British deceptions Ingersoll worked on was Operation Fortitude, a massive effort designed to fool the Germans about where the D-Day landings would take place. Many means of deception—including inflatable landing craft, turned spies, and phony radio transmissions— were used to convince the Germans that an army under General George Patton was preparing to invade France at the Pas-de-Calais, when the real invasion would take place in Normandy.
In late 1943, according to an unpublished account Ingersoll wrote years later, this collaboration with British deceivers led him to the idea of creating a tactical deception unit flexible enough to create numerous different battlefield illusions. “My prescription was for a battalion that could imitate a whole corps of either armor or infantry. . .a super secret battalion of specialists in the art of manipulating our antagonists’ decisions.” He referred to the unit as “my con artists,” and said its creation was “my only original contribution to my country’s armed forces.” He went on to say: “When I first dreamed it up, I considered it one of my more improbable dreams, but damned if the Pentagon planners didn’t buy it whole.”
Ingersoll had a reputation for exaggerating his accomplishments. John Shaw Billings, who worked with him at Time, complained “he blew his own horn in the most outrageous way.” And he certainly didn’t conceive of the Ghost Army all on his own. One of his most important collaborators was his immediate superior, Colonel Billy Harris.
In many ways, Harris was the polar opposite of the flamboyant Ingersoll. He was a buttoned-up, straight-arrow West Point military man. He came from a family steeped in military tradition. His father was a general. His uncle was a general. Harris would himself eventually become a general. His mother, Lulu Harris, introduced Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a young army lieutenant, to his future wife, Mamie Doud, at Fort Sam Houston in 1916. Ingersoll called Harris a “cocky little man” and thought he had “more cheek than imagination.” Nevertheless, the two worked well together. While Ingersoll was full of wild, pie-in-the-sky ideas, Harris had the military training and discipline needed to implement deception in a way that could actually work.
The plan they developed, with input from other military planners, was to create a unit of about eleven hundred men capable of impersonating one or two infantry or armored divisions—the equivalent of twenty to forty times their number. “It’s really simple,” Corporal Sebastian Messina explained to a reporter from the Worcester Daily Telegram shortly after the war was over. “Suppose the Umpteenth Division is holding a certain sector. Well, we move in, secretly of course, and they move out. We then faithfully ape the Umpteenth in everything.. . .Then the Umpteenth, which the Boches [the Germans] think is in front of them, is suddenly kicking them in the pants ten miles to the rear.” Ralph Ingersoll thought that deception was the wrong word for what they did. “The right one should be manipulation—the art and practice of manipulating your enemies’ mental processes so that they come to a false conclusion about what you are up to.”
Military deception—or manipulation—has a long history, going back to the Trojan Horse. “Every army practices deception,” says retired United States Army General Wesley Clark, former commander of NATO and a student of military history. “If they don’t, they can’t win, and they know it.” American generals have often used it to gain an advantage. Seemingly caught in a British trap in January 1777, General George Washington detailed a small number of men to tend bonfires and make digging noises to make it seem as if he were readying for battle in the morning, while in fact he was spiriting most of his troops away to attack the British rear. In 1862 Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston used log cannons to make his front line in northern Virginia appear to be bristling with guns and too strong for the Union to attack. Earlier in World War II, the British had made deft use of deception in North Africa.
But the Ghost Army wasn’t simply more of the same. It represented something unique in the history of war. George Rebh, who served in the unit as a captain and retired a major general, described it as nothing less than the first unit in the history of warfare that was dedicated solely to deception. “Now, you take Napoleon and Lee and Caesar,” said Rebh. “They would take part of their fighting force and use them for deception, but when they got through, they would come back as fighting force. In contrast, our sole mission was deception.”
The Ghost Army was different in two other ways. It was designed to project multimedia deceptions, using visual, sonic, and radio illusions together so that however the enemy was gathering information, everything would point to the same false picture. And it was mobile, capable of carrying out a deception for a few days in one place, packing it up, and moving on to someplace else to carry out a completely different deception. In effect, a commander could maneuver the Twenty-Third the same way he would a real unit.
An idea of this magnitude had to get approval from the highest levels. General Jake Devers, top American commander in the European theater of operations, embraced the idea and gave the go-ahead in a memo to Washington on Christmas Eve, 1943. Military historian Jonathan Gawne, author of Ghosts of the ETO, has argued that Devers deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the creation of the Ghost Army. “Lots of people suggest things,” he said, “but it was Devers that had his name on the bottom of the memo and thus his butt on the line.” Once General Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Devers in January 1945, he, too, became an enthusiastic supporter of the endeavor.
The new unit was officially activated on January 20, 1944, at Camp Forrest, Tennessee. To carry out the deception mission, the army brought together three existing units and one brand-new one, placing them all under the command of Colonel Harry L. Reeder (who would continue to command the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops until the unit returned home from Europe at the end of the war):
The 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special
This was the largest unit in the Ghost Army, with 379 men. These visual deceivers, also known as camoufleurs, used an array of inflatable rubber tanks, trucks, artillery, and jeeps to create deceptive tableaux for enemy aerial reconnaissance or distant observers. The unit had spent the previous two years doing camouflage work and included in its ranks many artists specially recruited for that job.
The Signal Company Special
Formerly the 244th Signal Company, this group of 296 men carried out radio deception, also called “spoof radio.” Operators created phony traffic nets, impersonating radio operators from real units. They mastered the art of mimicking an operator’s method of sending Morse code, to prevent the enemy from realizing that the real unit and its radio operator were long gone.
The 3132 Signal Service Company Special
This sonic deception unit was staffed with 145 men. Their mission was to play sound effects from powerful speakers mounted on half-tracks (armored vehicles with wheels in the front and tracks in the back), to simulate the sounds of units moving and operating at night. Recently formed, they had been undergoing training at the Army Experimental Station at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) in upstate New York when the Twenty-Third was assembled and would join them later in England.
The 406th Engineer Combat Company Special
Led by Captain George Rebh, the 168 men of the 406th were trained as fighting soldiers. They provided perimeter security for the rest of the Ghost Army. They also executed construction and demolition tasks, including digging tank and artillery positions. The men of the 406th frequently used their bulldozers to simulate tank tracks as part of the visual deception.
These four units, plus a headquarters company—eleven hundred men in all—were capable of simulating two divisions—approximately thirty thousand men—to confuse and confound the enemy. The Twenty-Third eventually came under the direct command of General Omar Bradley’s Twelfth United States Army Group, carrying out operations planned by Bradley’s Special Plans Branch—under Billy Harris and Ralph Ingersoll.
The biggest of the four units brought together for the deception mission was the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. It was an unusual unit, rumored to have the highest average IQ of any unit in the army. But what really made it unique was that it was loaded with some of the most unmilitary people imaginable—artists.
Chapter 2: The Art Boys
We were looked on as kind of nutcases by the hardworking, no-nonsense backbone of America, the people that worked for a living and didn’t sketch. –Jack Masey
Private Ned Harris was only eighteen years old when he reported for duty at Fort Meade, Maryland, in 1942. He was there to join up with the newly formed 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion Special. Young and nervous, far from home, he had no idea what to expect. As he signed in, someone asked him where he was from, and he answered, “New York.” Then another soldier inquired if he had attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
“I immediately said yes,” recalled Harris, “and they began laughing. I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or what. Were they laughing with me or at me?” Then another voice chimed in with words that made Harris feel right at home. “Just another artist arrived to be part of our fraternity.” Harris was one of many creative types who had found their way into the 603rd. Many others also came from Pratt. James Boudreau, the dean of Pratt’s art school, was a general in the United States Army reserve. In the early 1940s, with war already raging in Europe and Asia and fears rising over the threat of aerial devastation from enemy bombing, the farsighted Boudreau organized an experimental laboratory dedicated to camouflage research and development. He recruited camouflage experts to the faculty and instituted a camouflage course.
Bob Tompkins was quick to sign up for it. He was taking courses at Pratt while also working at an advertising agency in the Chrysler Building for $17.50 a week. Ed Biow, Ellsworth Kelly, George Martin, and William Sayles also took the course. They built detailed tabletop models and went out to the Pratt family estate on the North Shore of Long Island to work with camouflage netting. Boudreau, a pilot, would fly overhead and snap photos to show them what their camouflage installations looked like from the air. “Amateuring around,” Biow called it, but it led them all into the 603rd.
Kelly’s journey to the unit involved an unusual detour. He requested assignment to the 603rd, but when his orders didn’t come through, he was transferred to Camp Hale, Colorado, to join the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops. This, in spite of the fact he had never been on skis in his life! When his orders to join the camouflage unit finally arrived, he felt sorry to leave the beautiful mountain camp.
Victor Dowd recalled that Dean Boudreau actively recruited art students (and recent graduates) for newly organized army camouflage battalions. Dowd had known since childhood that he was going to be an artist. “My mother never had to worry about me on rainy days, because I’d occupy myself by drawing.” After graduating from Pratt in 1940, he and classmates Ray Harford and Bob Boyajian worked together as comic-strip artists at Jack Binder’s studio during what is now considered the golden age of comics. They drew such heroes as Bulletman, Captain Midnight, and Spy Smasher. Under the auspices of Boudreau, all three found their way into the 603rd.
As did Arthur Shilstone. Unlike Victor Dowd, Shilstone had no intention of being an artist. “I thought the thing to do was to be a businessman, wear a blue suit, someday have the end office.” So he took a lot of business courses, in which he did quite poorly. But he excelled in an art course. His art teacher suggested he should think about a career in art. He dutifully went back to his business teachers to see what they thought. He recalled with laughter how enthusiastic they were. “They said, ‘That’s a great idea, Arthur. You really should go and do something else.’” So he went to Pratt to study illustration and ended up in the 603rd.
John Jarvie was studying at New York’s Cooper Union when he enlisted. “It was a big war,” recalled Jarvie, “and everybody went.” Jarvie heard about the camouflage unit and applied to be a part of it. “You had to write to them, and they had to accept you—it had nothing to do with the army draft at all.” Seventeen-year-old freshman Art Kane and twenty-five-year-old graduate Arthur Singer also hailed from Cooper Union. Jack Masey was a recent graduate from the New York High School of Music and Art. Keith Williams was a prizewinning artist in his mid-thirties. Bernie Mason was designing display windows for a store in Philadelphia. Harold Laynor was a recent graduate of the Parsons School of Design, also in New York City. George Vander Sluis had painted post office murals for the WPA and taught art at the Broadmoor Academy in Colorado. Bill Blass was a fledgling fashion designer who had recently moved to New York from Fort Wayne, Indiana. They and many other artists filled the ranks of the 603rd.
After basic training at Fort Meade, they began learning the ins and outs of camouflage. They experimented with everything from tin cans to chicken feathers to see what they would look like to aerial observers. They studied how to use texture, color, shadow, blending, and shape in camouflage. Ellsworth Kelly helped to silk-screen posters that introduced infantry units to these basic camouflage principles. In later years Kelly was to become famous for his minimalist painting and sculpture, and art critic Eugene Goossen argued that this exposure to military camouflage helped shape Kelly’s aesthetic. “The involvement with form and shadow, with the construction and destruction of the visible. . .was to affect nearly everything he did in painting and sculpture.”
Soon they graduated to larger-scale projects. Fearing German bomber raids, the army had the unit camouflage coastal defense artillery on Long Island and at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Baltimore, where B-26 bombers were made. “Our outfit was responsible for disguising that and covering it,” recalled Ned Harris, “so from the air it looked like it was the countryside.” In 1943 they took part in large-scale maneuvers in Tennessee.
But while camouflage was their job, art was their love. The 603rd served as an incubator in which artists could hone their skills. “I learned more about who I was as an artist and. . .my craft by being there rather than even at school,” said Harris, “and it continued till the end.”
The artists in the 603rd sketched and painted all sorts of things: their barracks, their buddies, themselves. “It isn’t as though we weren’t busy,” said Victor Dowd. “But you have to realize, no matter how busy a soldier is, there’s always down time. Soldiers are playing cards, they’re shooting craps, they’re reading. And I drew. I just developed the habit, and I don’t think it’s ever left me.” Harold Laynor recalled his first sergeant “was always berating me for taking so much time up with my, as he called it, ‘darn painting.’” Laynor thought the sergeant should have expected no different, given that the men were “a mass of artists and architects” who thought they “were going to camouflage the United States.”
Not all the soldiers in the 603rd were artists. There were policemen, farmers, accountants, shoe salesmen, and other people from all walks of life. “It was a wild array of all kinds of people,” said Arthur Shilstone. For Jack Masey, a kid from Brooklyn, it was an eye-opening experience. “I’d only known Brooklynites or Manhattanites. Now suddenly I was thrown into another world. I was intrigued by the people who constituted this world, their accents, the obscenities they threw out.
This was another awakening for me: hey, this is America. It’s got all kinds of crazy people in it.”
The sharp cultural divide in the unit was obvious to many. Bill Blass marveled that he could hear Beethoven’s Fifth at one end of the barracks and “Pistol Packin’ Mama” at the other. “And we were looked on as kind of nutcases,” said Jack Masey, “by the hardworking, no-nonsense backbone of America, the people that worked for a living and didn’t sketch.”
Some even thought that the young artists wouldn’t be able to hack the army. Not so. “The artists did what everybody else did,” said Arthur Shilstone. “They made the hikes and [carried] their rifles and everything else, and they were as good or better than the other guys: the bartenders, the truck drivers, and so forth.” In early 1943 Private Harold Dahl, a young sculptor from New Jersey, noted in a letter to his mother that of the twenty sergeants in his company, fifteen were artists. “And some of these tough engineers thought the art boys would be flops!” he added with pride.
In the end, as in countless other army units, the young men of different backgrounds found a way to put aside their differences and work together. “It did pit us against people who probably never knew or met an artist,” said Ned Harris, “and knew nothing about the world that was ours. And they learned something from us, and we learned from them.”
The 603rd had been together for nearly two years when it was uprooted from Fort Meade in January 1944 and sent to Camp Forrest in Tennessee to be part of the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops. Instead of trying to hide things, they were now going to be in the risky business of drawing attention to themselves. Lieutenant Gil Seltzer, a twenty-nine-year-old New York City architect, concluded that the 603rd was being attached to a “suicide outfit.” But Private Dahl, for one, found the new assignment very much to his taste. He wrote home to say that he couldn’t talk about what they were going to do, “but it promises to be very interesting and frankly it looks like we are at last going to play a real part in the war effort.”
From THE GHOST ARMY OF WORLD WAR II. Used with the permission of Princeton Architectural Press. Copyright © 2015 by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles.