Two men on bicycles managed to cross the perimeter of a US army outpost in France. Inside, they watched with astonishment as four American soldiers lifted a full-sized Sherman Tank and turned it in place.
“They looked at me,” former soldier Arthur Shilstone told The Smithsonian, “and they were looking for answers, and I finally said: ‘The Americans are very strong.'”
Only a few weeks removed from the Allied invasion of the Nazi-occupied nation on June 6, 1944, the stray Frenchmen had caught a glimpse of the unusual 23rd Headquarter Special Troops in action.
During the second World War, men were enlisted from all walks of life, but one Allied division specifically recruited a certain type of soldier from art schools and ad agencies — artists. The men who made up the 23rd unit were sought not for their physical prowess but for their creativity. Their task was to fool Hitler.
Today, the 23rd is better known as the “ghost army,” a troop of military tricksters that used theater prop-versions of war weapons. Using inflatable tanks, rubber airplanes, elaborate costumes and pre-recorded soundtracks, they created a second narrative of Allied actions meant to distract the Axis powers. And it worked.
They’re estimated to have saved between 15,000 and 30,000 lives. The illusions they created were so intricate and well-guarded that they remained secret from the rest of their own army until the operations were declassified in 1985.
“It’s a great example of how many fantastic, amazing, sort of mind-bending stories there still are 70 years later coming out of WWII,” said Rick Beyer, the director of a PBS documentary on the 23rd called The Ghost Army.
The unit functioned like a multimedia roadshow that could pick up their equipment and relocate in a day’s notice. As The Atlantic notes, the 23rd created the impression of an omnipresent and inescapable military force by employing its members unique skills in the arts. Some crafted soundscapes, others designed set-dressings, and still others play-acted as major generals or simply spread gossip about spies at French cafes.
Sometimes they used inflatable tanks and enormous speakers, audible within a 15-mile radius, playing infantry recordings to convince enemy troops that an enormous army was gathering in the area. Other times the soldiers drove canvas-covered trucks — often as few as two of them — in circles to make observers think an entire infantry unit was travelling through.
Perhaps the 23rd unit’s greatest accomplishment was in the “spoof radio’ it created. The Signal Company Special would impersonate the radio operators from real units. They mimicked other Allied units’ ways of transmitting Morse Code to make Axis eavesdroppers believe men were still in the area when they had in fact departed hours of even days earlier. Their transmissions fooled the radio propagandist dubbed Axis Sally into reporting an Allied army was preparing for battle in a location that actually contained no troops at all.
Of the 1,100 men that made up the 23rd, many went on to successful careers in the arts, including fashion designer Bill Blass and painters Arthur Singer and Ellsworth Kelly. Despite their accomplishments, their artistry was likely never employed more effectively than it was to the art of war.
“I used to refer to us,” one of its soldiers says, “as ‘the Cecil B. DeMille warriors.'”