BOSTON — Wednesday is the anniversary of D-Day, the day in 1944 when thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Among the units that fanned out through France and Germany was the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — or the so-called “Ghost Army.” Its existence was top secret, and its men used trickery and artistry to fool the enemy.
“It’s about creativity and imagination and using them in war not to kill your enemy, but to save lives, and that is a cool thing,” said Lexington filmmaker Rick Beyer.
Beyer is drawing back the curtain on this chapter of military history in “Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War II,” a documentary he’s been working on for seven years.
It starts out the way so many war documentaries do; footage from the time, shot from a German reconnaissance plane, roles across the screen. In the narration, actor Peter Coyote describes what Nazi soldiers are seeing from the sky.
“Across the river from Dusseldorf, the view from the air reveals hundreds of American vehicles. Intercepted Allied radio transmissions confirm the presence of two American divisions…”
The Germans see the Allied forces, troops and armored vehicles. But those tanks are actually 93-pound inflatable decoys, made of rubber.
“The Ghost Army was like a traveling road show of deception,” Beyer explained. His painstakingly researched film reveals the secretive battalion’s story.
“So they’re a unit of 1,000 guys who are pretending to be 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 people — for a few days at a time — right on the front lines,” he said. “And then, before everybody could figure out what’s going on, they pack up their tents and fade away.”
Only to move on to doing it again someplace else.
The Ghost Army soldiers were bright, young creatives — artists, designers, radio engineers. They joined the army and were handpicked to engage in novel kind of psychological warfare. Costumes, camouflage, impersonation, props, fake radio transmissions, visual and sound effects were their weapons, used ingeniously to fool the enemy.
“So if they’re trying to get the Germans to think that the 75th Infantry Division is here at a certain place, they’re going to set up a phony 75th Infantry Division headquarters,” Beyer said. “They’re gonna have a lieutenant in their unit put on general stars and act like he’s the general of the 75th Infantry Division — totally against Army regulations, but they did it.
“They’re going to take their trucks,” he continued, “put 75th Infantry markings on them, and drive them through the town — back and forth. And they did this not once, not twice, 21 different times.”
This type of deception was new for everyone involved, not just the soldiers. The military even produced a training film. Parts of it are in the documentary.
The voiceover instructs, “Every sound that is part of the bridge-building operation is picked up by this microphone, carried through this cable, and recorded inside this sound recording truck. On this turntable, exactly the way a phonograph record is made.”
Sitting in his son’s office, Jack McGlynn — former mayor of Medford and the father of the current mayor Michael McGlynn — remembers signing on to the Ghost Army’s “Sonic Deception Unit” as a 21-year-old.
“Being a young naive gentleman I felt, ‘Well, I’m going to shoot the Germans with sound! That’s for me. We’re gonna get this war over!’ ” McGlynn recalled with a smile.
But what the eight-man Sonic Unit really did first was create a massive library of sounds they would ultimately use in battle.
“We went to Fort Knox, recorded tanks backing up and stopping,” McGlynn described. “Trucks out in the main highways. Jeeps. Vehicles starting, stopping, so that would be used when we finally did get over to Europe.”
Once in Europe, the unit essentially turned its hulking military trucks into giant boom-boxes.
“We had 30 half-tracks — a specific kind of armored vehicle — and each one of them had a gigantic speaker on them,” McGlynn said. “And as our compatriots who had the rubber tanks and trucks and jeeps were putting them into the woods and all, we were making the sounds as though they were really metal tanks and trucks with great guns on them.”
McGlynn, now 90 years old and part of Beyer’s documentary, told me the enemy was completely duped.
“The amazing thing is in all the situations that we found ourselves in, the Germans never wised up to the fact that we were a phony ghost army,” McGlynn said.
Throughout the war, a good number of Ghost Army soldiers made art for themselves — black and white sketches, colorful drawings and paintings of bombed out churches, battlefields, downtrodden civilians, their unit mates and human forms. Even casualties. This side of the Ghost Army is also in captured in Beyer’s film.
Some of the artists became famous after the war: fashion designer Bill Blass, painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly and photographer Art Kane.
Kane took the iconic shot of 57 jazz musicians in Harlem.
“Those are the most famous,” Beyer said, “but you’ve got a lot of other people who ended up doing things like designing dresses for Marilyn Monroe, or working on the architecture for the Space Needle in Seattle, or creating the Hamm’s Beer bear, or designing the packaging for Chiclets. All of these kinds of things that affect our culture can be tracked back to the Ghost Army.”
More recently The National, a Brooklyn-based rock band, adopted the Ghost Army’s unofficial insignia as its own on t-shirts and hoodies.
The creative intelligence and sensitivity that fueled the clandestine deception unit inspired Beyer to start making his documentary seven years ago. That’s when Beverly resident Martha Gavin showed the filmmaker wartime artworks by her uncle, John Jarvie, a Ghost Army veteran.
“The juxtaposition of the bizarre and the deadly, and the juxtaposition of the deception mission and then the artists painting and sketching was all very affecting to me,” Beyer said, “and then eventually I interviewed 25 veterans of this unit for the film. And I fell in love with these guys. I mean, these guys are amazing.”
Guys like Jack McGlynn were happy to talk to Beyer about their experiences because they’d been told to keep the Ghost Army’s activities classified for decades.
“No one ever had any idea what it was about — even our own comrade soldiers, who were maybe side by side with us, had no idea,” he said.
McGlynn didn’t tell his wife and family until four years ago. Now he’s grateful that his phantom outfit’s role in World War II is being acknowledged.
“Well, we hope that we saved lives — and we probably did,” McGlynn said quietly.
“There’s no question these guys saved lives,” war historian Jonathan Gawne confirmed. “Because if you’re able to set things up so that you avoid heavy combat in a certain area, lives on both sides are saved.”
Gawne wrote the 2002 book, “Ghosts of the ETO,” and helped Beyer fact-check the new documentary. The Framingham author said collecting the Ghost Army vets’ stories has been a race against time.
“They’ve passed away, or their memories started to slip away, and now that those have been recorded, those stories won’t be lost,” Gawne said, marveling at the fact that Beyer accomplished the task without having enough money to fully fund what he was doing.
“Seven of the veterans have passed away, and it’s sad to say that I check the obituaries trying to make sure that nobody else goes missing on me there,” Beyer admitted.
Beyer’s documentary is nearly finished. He said he still needs to raise a bit more money to make that happen. But he hopes to get the film out to the public soon so the surviving vets and their families can see it. Beyer has lead a Kickstarter campaign along the way. He’s also amassed a trove of Ghost Army artwork and artifacts into a colorful, fact-laden book and a traveling exhibition. The show is currently on display at the Beverly Historical Society, and it includes one of those impressive inflatable tanks. “Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War Two,” has become a profound labor of love for Beyer.
“You know, I started out making a film and now I think I’m embedded for life,” he said. “What am I gonna do?”
There is a fundraising gala for the documentary in Beverly Friday night. If interested in attending please contact Martha Gavin at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 978-969-3372.