Ghost Army, Beach Jumpers, Artists and Tricks

The Boston Globe ran a fascinating article yesterday about one of my favorite World War II tales -- how the "Ghost Army" used rubber inflatable tanks and recordings of armored units to deceive the Germans after the invasion of France.

Rick Beyer, a documentary filmmaker based in Lexington, Mass., stumbled on to the tale of the Ghost Army -- officially 23rd Headquarters Special Troops -- when he met Martha Gavin of Beverly, Mass., who had three binders containing sketches and watercolors that her uncle, U.S. Army Corporal John Jarvie of Kearny, N.J., had done during his service.

These sketches, according to the Globe, led Beyer to research Jarvie's outfit, and the result is a documentary titled Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War II, and a book of the same name coauthored with Elizabeth Sayles of Valley Cottage, N.Y.

Beyer will show the documentary at the Lexington Depot next Friday along with photographs, artwork, and wartime artifacts of the Ghost Army.

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops recruited an odd-ball mix of artists, ad men, artists, and recording engineers for its mission, including fashion designer Bill Blass, who, according to the Globe, "was known for tailoring his uniform and reading Vogue in his foxhole...."

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. inspired the founding of the Navy's deception unit, the Beach Jumpers, after he did detached service with British Commandos at the start of World War II. The Beach Jumpers used small boats equipped with loudspeakers and smoke pots to mimic a large fleet. It went into operation in July 1943 off the coast of Sicily and fooled the Germans an amphibious assault was about to take place at one spot, when the actual operation was underway 11 miles away.

The Beach Jumpers and the Ghost Army also operated fake radio networks to spoof the enemy, and I spent a memorable afternoon in the midst of a sandstorm with a Beach Jumper unit radio-packed van in the desert at 29 Palms, Calif., Marine base in 1964.