By Jim McAllister
Note: This article was originally published on April 27, 2005 in the NORTH SCOTTSDALE INDEPENDENT. I was fascinated by the story of the ghost army and the bravery of those guys in World War II. With Memorial Day arriving in a few days, I feel a tribute to them and our current fighting forces is appropriate with a reprint of that column....JM
I’m sure you are wondering, "What in the world was the ghost army of World War II?" It’s an interesting and fascinating story which is not that well known.
Ever since warfare has existed, armies have relied on some type of deception to gain an advantage on their opponents. Some ancient armies used plaster dummies, others used fake smoke signals and spies, and we all know about the famous Trojan horse. These ancient examples of deception were carried into modern warfare during World War II with the exploits of the ghost army or their actual title which was the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.
The ghost army was a unique and little known group of American soldiers who played a big part in the Allied victory over Germany through their abilities in the art of deception. Even though information on this unit became available about thirty years ago, not much has been written about them. As World War II faded into history, so did the 23rd Special Troops.
The ghost army was organized by Lieutenant Colonel Merrick Truly. He was the executive officer in charge of these deception experts. Although Truly’s men reported to the American ground commander in Europe, General Omar Bradley, most of the American soldiers did not know of the existence of the Special Troops. They operated at night under strictly special orders and were not even required to give their identity to superior officers.
Former Scottsdale resident Dr Harold
Laynor, a member of the 23rd Special
Troops. (Laynor Museum)
The ghost army consisted of 82 officers and 1,023 enlisted men. With their eclectic mixture of talents, they were strictly in the deception business. The Special Troops were made up of four units: a sonic deception company, a special radio company, a company of combat engineers, and a battalion of camoufleurs. They served with four armies in five European countries in five major campaigns from D-Day (June 6, 1944) until the end of the war in 1945.
The most unique part of this already unique group was the composition of its members. Many of these men were already famous as artists, sculptors, architects, literary figures, and others from the world of the arts and humanities. Actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was perhaps the most well known for his Hollywood successes, but there was also renowned fashion designer Bill Blass, Olin Dows: a prominent artist, George Diestal: a Hollywood set designer, Art Kane: a fashion photographer, and Harold Laynor, whose artistic works depicting World War II and other subjects, are shown in galleries throughout the country.
The Special Troops used six major methods of deception: camouflaging troops and tanks, placing dummy tanks and artillery, firing pyrotechnics to simulate actual artillery fire, the use of artificial sound effects, using artificial radio communication, and using fake special effects. This created an atmosphere of great danger as they needed to be in close to front line battles.
"Dummy" aircraft used for deception (Laynor Museum)
Although these brave men were involved in at least twenty other confrontations with the enemy, their biggest contribution was probably at the battle between Allied Forces and Germany at the Rhine River on March 23, 1945. Their contributions were essential in weakening the German assault and forcing Germany to surrender two months later in May of 1945.
Although records and information concerning the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops are sketchy, the aforementioned artist Harold Laynor (1922-1991) made a series of fifty paintings covering two years of participating in World War II. His works include paintings of army buddies, aspects of training and, as the series progresses, he relates the brutality and horror of war.
Like the above mentioned celebrities participating in the 23rd, Dr. Laynor was highly distinguished in his field. Although he used primarily watercolors for his World War II work, he was also a pioneer in the use of lacquer as a medium of painting and the use of 3D paintings for the blind.
The Laynor Foundation website (www.laynor.org) has valuable information concerning the ghost army and also features seven galleries of Dr. Laynor’s World War II paintings. They are very interesting and illustrative of that terrible time in our history.
Optical illusions, bluffs, sleight of hand, misinformation, disappearing acts: all part of the ghost army of World War II; a brave and cunning bunch of guys who were instrumental in giving us the lifestyle we enjoy today.