Show of Force

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In the 1940s, there were, as there are today, a lot of great art and design schools in New York City – Pratt, Cooper Union, Parsons. And there were then, as there are today, a lot of young talented artists and designers at those schools who would go on to have great careers.

Katie Mingle:
But in the 1940s there was something else that some of those artists and designers had to do first.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
There was a war going on, World War II, and the army needed artists because, well, they had kind of a crazy idea.

Rick Beyer:
And it was a crazy idea that came out of one of the most conservative organizations you can imagine, the United States Army.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Rick Beyer, more about Rick in a minute.

Rick Beyer:
And it had to go up the line to high-ranking generals up as high as Eisenhower himself to get approval.

Roman Mars:
The crazy idea was this: the United States Army would design a deception unit, a unit that would appear to the enemy to be a large armor division – thousands of soldiers, tanks, trucks, guns. Only this unit would actually be equipped with fake tanks, fake trucks, fake guns, and manned by just a handful of soldiers.

Rick Beyer:
And it really is something unusual.

Katie Mingle:
Rick Beyer has a forthcoming book about all of this and also made a film about it called ‘The Ghost Army.’

Rick Beyer:
People say to me, “Well, did the Germans have something like this? Did the Japanese have something like this?” And what I’ve said is, “The Germans and Japanese did deceptions, but I haven’t found anybody ever who had a unit quite like this one.”

Archival Tape:
“Headquarters announced today that Allied troops began landing on the northern coast of France this morning, strongly supported by Naval and Air Forces.”

Roman Mars:
D-Day. June 6th, 1944 marked the start of the most critical period of World War II. The Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy and began to liberate France from the Germans who had occupied it for four years at that point. They were ultimately marching toward Berlin.

Katie Mingle:
And the success of the Normandy landings on D-Day was due in part to deception. Using a variety of techniques, the Allies tricked the Germans into thinking the invasion would happen at a different time and place.

Roman Mars:
But a couple of US Army men, Ralph Ingersoll and Billy Harris, wanted to take deception to a whole new level. They wanted to create a mobile deception unit.

Rick Beyer:
And we’re going to put that on the battlefield and give that to the generals to use for whatever set of circumstances come up.

Katie Mingle:
So what were the circumstances in which a unit like this would be needed? Well, let’s say American forces are guarding a border, but there’s a hole in one spot, and if the Germans realized there’s an unguarded spot they could use it to break the line. But the Americans don’t have any troops to fill that hole.

Rick Beyer:
Sometimes they can’t send the real troops because the real troops are needed someplace else and sometimes they can’t send them because they just don’t have enough or they can’t get them there in time.

Roman Mars:
That’s where the Ghost Army came in. This top-secret unit was officially called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and nicknamed ‘the Ghost Army’ after the war.

Katie Mingle:
The so-called Ghost Army would impersonate a larger armored division, might be the 6th Armored Division or some other one, it changed. But a division that was made up of say 15,000 or 20,000 soldiers, when they, the Ghost Army, were actually only about a thousand men.

Rick Beyer:
You want to make it seem like something is there that isn’t there and if you want people to do that, you’re going to want artists.

Jack Masey:
The army was interested in recruiting people with art, with an art background. We were going to do installations of sorts.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Jack Masey.

Jack Masey:
I’m Jack Masey. During World War II I served in the Ghost Army.

Katie Mingle:
Before the army, Jack was just a kid in high school. A pretty famous high school in New York City called the High School of Music and Art. It’s now called LaGuardia High School.

Jack Masey:
I was an art major.

Katie Mingle:
So young Jack is shipped off to Europe to join the camouflage unit, where he discovers that a lot of the other guys in his unit are also artists.

Jack Masey:
A good 50% let’s say.

Katie Mingle:
And one of the things all of those artists had been working on was designing fake tanks and trucks and by the time Jack got to Europe, they’d done all their R&D and decided rubber was the best material to use.

Jack Masey:
And so that’s when I discovered my first inflatable tank.

Roman Mars:
Inflatable rubber tanks were a crucial part of the Visual Deception Unit.

Jack Masey:
You could inflate one, to see something rise like a souffle in about a half-hour from nothing to a full tank was rather quite interesting, okay?

Katie Mingle:
But the Visual Deception Unit had more than just tanks.

Rick Beyer:
It’s tanks and trucks and artillery and jeeps and all sorts of vehicles. Virtually every kind of vehicle the army has, the Ghost Army had inflatable versions of.

Katie Mingle:
Basically anything to make themselves appear to be the full-sized armored division that they were pretending to be.

Roman Mars:
This stuff was all meant to be believable from a distance for planes flying overhead or maybe people looking through binoculars. And at a distance, the inflatables were super realistic. But you had to be careful about certain details.

Jack Masey:
Sometimes the barrels of the tanks were not that inflated and they sagged. Well, of course, that was a mess.

Katie Mingle:
Flacid gun barrels, never a good thing. But there were other details to consider.

Rick Beyer:
A real tank weighs 40 tons and when it drives across the field it leaves a set of tank tracks that are really obvious to aerial reconnaissance.

Roman Mars:
So the Deception Unit would actually use a bulldozer to make fake tracks around the fake tanks.

Katie Mingle:
But there was one Cardinal rule, Jack says, about working with inflatables.

Jack Masey:
Never under any circumstances were you ever to carry an inflatable across the road.

Roman Mars:
Obviously two dudes carrying a 40-ton tank would look wrong. You weren’t supposed to casually pick up and move an inflatable vehicle in a place where you could be seen.

Katie Mingle:
When the artist soldiers weren’t busy with their dummy tanks, Jack says they did what artists do.

Jack Masey:
Spent that time sketching local people, local architecture, churches, all through Normandy, across France and into Germany.

Roman Mars:
During their travels through Europe when they weren’t sketching local architecture, the Ghost Army was often acting.

Rick Beyer:
And they call it special effects and I call it play-acting because that’s really what it was.

Jack Masey:
And the idea was for us to go into town and sit down at a cafe so that anybody watching us-

Katie Mingle:
Remember, the Germans had occupied France for four years at this point, so yeah, there were spies everywhere.

Jack Masey:
We wanted them to think that not only did we have actual tanks, which of course we didn’t, but that we actually were members of the 2nd Armored Division, which are in fact we weren’t.

Roman Mars:
They stenciled fake unit numbers on their trucks. They made fake patches to put on their sleeves.

Katie Mingle:
Sometimes they seem to be having a little too much fun with this part of the job, like the time they stole a bunch of cases of expensive cognac from a tavern just to piss off the tavern owner whom they knew to be a German collaborator.

Rick Beyer:
They are hoping that he is then going to be so angry at them that he’s going to go to the Germans and tell him, “Well, not only do I know that the 6th Armored Division is here, but their general was at my tavern today.”

Katie Mingle:
The whole point of the Ghost Army was to make sure their presence was known. The Ghost Army needed to be seen and heard and perceived by the German as being real.

Archival Tape:
“On turntable 1 goes the recording of the trucks moving in.”

Roman Mars:
Which brings us to the deception unit. Then I probably would have been drafted into, sonic deception.

Rick Beyer:
So they would record the sounds of tanks going down roads or the sounds of trucks of men reaching a certain point and all the men jumping out and then be able to play them back in such a way as to make the enemy think that those things are really happening.

Roman Mars:
This was all so new and strange that the army made a top-secret film which explained how sound could be used to deceive the enemy. In it, actors badly portray a group of German officers who were in the midst of being punked by the sonic deception unit.

Clip from Army Film:
“Did you say tanks? What’s all this nonsense about tanks?”
“Our OP here reports definite sounds of tanks moving into assembly about there.”

Katie Mingle:
The movie goes on to explain that the Germans in that scene were fooled.

Clip from Army Film:
“A sonic company had convinced them that an armored division under cover of darkness had moved along the river across from them. The enemy committed his tank destroyers and reserves to this bridgehead up here. They moved into position and waited and they waited and we crossed down here where they weren’t.”

Katie Mingle:
The film goes into great detail about the process of recording and playing back sounds.

Clip from Army Film:
“The best loudspeakers for the military requirements have been developed.”

Katie Mingle:
The speakers could project sound as far as 15 miles and there was a huge library of sounds to choose from. For example, engines make different sounds depending on the terrain and they had all of those different kinds of sounds.

Army Film Clip:
“At the little hill, this one projected the sound of tanks going up. This one projected tanks going down.”

Rick Beyer:
They would look at what they’re trying to simulate, what are we trying to make people think is happening? And then they would take all the appropriate sounds and mix them together to create a sonic story. People who heard this say that it was unbelievably eerie, that it was so realistic that you started seeing vehicles that weren’t there.

Roman Mars:
The third component of the Ghost Army were the radio operators. It was well known that the Germans listened in on radio communications of Allied troops. So if the Ghost Army was trying to impersonate a real armored division, they’d have to send the right kinds of transmissions.

Rick Beyer:
They bring in trained radio operators from all sorts of other units to have the very best operators to be part of the radio deception unit.

Katie Mingle:
All of the units paid incredible attention to detail, but the radio operators had to be perfect mimics. They had to learn the exact keystrokes of an individual Morse code operator in the unit they were impersonating.

Rick Beyer:
The way a radio operator in the 4th Armored Division always starts his messages with four dots – dah, dah, dah, dah – because that’s just what they do. And if you don’t do that, the German intercept person listening is going to think, “Well, wait a minute, is that really from the 4th Armored Division?” So you have three different units – visual, sonic and radio – and they’re operating separately, but they’re all organized by the same people. So they’re very carefully working on different components of the same plan.

Katie Mingle:
The three separate units might only be vaguely aware of what one another were up to and everything was kept completely secret from the rest of the military. If the fact of their mere existence ever leaked to the Germans, the whole deception, as well as the safety of the Ghost Army, could be compromised.

Rick Beyer:
The Ghost Army carried out 21 different deception missions between June 1944 and March 1945. Pretty much the entire time the US Army was operating in Europe.

Katie Mingle:
Rick says one of their most important missions was Operation Bettembourg, which took place near the border between France and Germany.

Roman Mars:
So picture this, there’s a river near the German border, the Moselle river and German troops are on one side and American troops are on the other. They’re part of a front that’s hundreds of miles long. And then General George Patton realizes that there is a 75-mile gap in his line, an unguarded 75 miles that the Germans could use to break across the border if they knew about it. So they bring in the Ghost Army.

Rick Beyer:
So they arrive in about the middle of the night. It’s in September ’44.

Katie Mingle:
And they’re using all three units, the visual unit with the inflatable tanks, the radio guys, but especially the sonic deception unit.

Rick Beyer:
Because most of the Germans are on the other side of the Moselle river.

Katie Mingle:
They’re within earshot, in other words.

Rick Beyer:
And so it’s a great opportunity to use sound to build it up and make it seem like so many tanks are moving in and so many troops are moving in.

Katie Mingle:
The deception goes on for seven days.

Rick Beyer:
Seven days is a long time to fool anybody.

Roman Mars:
The Ghost Army soldiers are getting nervous. They’ve never done a deception for this long before.

Rick Beyer:
And even General Patton is nervous. He wrote a letter to his wife and he says, “One bad spot in my line, but I don’t think the Huns know about it yet. We’re holding onto it by the grace of God we’ll have it plugged by tomorrow.” And the next day, the 83rd Division moves in and takes over for the Ghost Army.

Katie Mingle:
And the Germans never caught on to the Ghost Army during that operation or any other.

Roman Mars:
Over the course of the war, the Ghost Army lost three soldiers and had several dozen wounded. But overall it was one of the safer assignments of World War II.

Jack Masey:
Being in a camouflage unit, I always felt I was kind of lucky…

Katie Mingle:
That’s Jack Masey again. The Camouflage Unit was just another name for the Visual Deception Unit.

Jack Masey:
…because I had friends who were in the infantry. Several were killed, several were wounded, but being assigned to the Camouflage Corps kept me away from the front lines.

Roman Mars:
It’s true that the Ghost Army suffered far fewer casualties than other units. That’s partly because they were really good at their jobs. If their deception was ever uncovered by the Germans-

Rick Beyer:
It would be catastrophic for the men in the Ghost Army. They’re operating without any heavy weapons. They don’t have any real tanks. They don’t have any real artillery. So they’re kind of putting on this show of force in a very vulnerable place.

Katie Mingle:
Still, Jack remembers the army extremely fondly. He got to see Paris.

Jack Masey:
To see Paris, the great cafes and the bistros, was a completely fabulous experience for me.

Katie Mingle:
After Jack Masey left the Ghost Army, he went to Yale.

Jack Masey:
School of Art and Architecture. GI Bill of Rights. Thank God.

Roman Mars:
After Yale, he went on to design some amazing things. He designed the kitchen used in the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, where the famous debate between Nixon and Khrushchev took place. He worked with Buckminster Fuller on a geodesic dome for the 1967 World Expo in Montreal.

Katie Mingle:
And Jack Masey wasn’t the only artist in the Ghost Army to have a great career. Remember all those artists that were constantly sketching around Europe? Well, some of them became pretty famous after the war.

Rick Beyer:
Ellsworth Kelly, the minimalist painter and sculptor, was in this unit. Arthur Singer, a wildlife artist who illustrated birds of North America and many other books. Bill Blass, the fashion designer.

Katie Mingle:
Jack Masey and Bill Blass were good friends in the army and Jack likes to say that Bill Blass was the only soldier that read Vogue in his foxhole.

Jack Masey:
Not only read Vogue in his foxhole, but he made sketches, fashion sketches wherever he went. He was forever working away, getting ready for the great moment when he would leave the army.

Roman Mars:
The government officially kept the Ghost Army a secret until the 1980s because they were hoping to be able to use some of the deception tactics in future conflicts. Some units were told not to talk about their experience ever to anyone, but apparently not everyone got the same directives on this.

Jack Masey:
I was in Company B and we were never told that we were not supposed to talk about it, so I was blabbing about the Ghost Army the second I left it. And I had everybody reduced to gigantic laughs and amusement. I mean the idea of a fake unit is a pretty amusing thing.

Katie Mingle:
It is amusing. But beyond amusing, it’s strange and amazing that they tried this and that they actually pulled it off.

Rick Beyer:
Not every operation was successful, but there’s a number of operations where it’s really clear that the Germans believed what they were trying to sell them and that it had an effect on the war. So it did help to save lives, it did help to win the war.

Roman Mars:
In the story of the Trojan horse, after a grueling 10-year war, the Greeks pretend to give up and sail away, leaving behind a giant wooden horse, which the Trojans dragged back into their city as a victory trophy. At night an elite force of Greek fighters, which has been hiding inside the horse, creeps out and is able to capture the city of Troy. Victory by deception. That deception wouldn’t have worked very well in World War II and the Ghost Army’s techniques probably wouldn’t be very useful in today’s conflicts.

Katie Mingle:
For obvious reasons, Rick couldn’t get the army to tell him what kinds of deceptions they’re doing these days, but you can be sure they’re doing something because, well here I’ll let this guy say it.

Army Film Clip:
“Deception of the enemy is of course as old as war itself.”

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Jim Mingle – yes, that’s Katie’s dad – for his help editing and fact-checking this week. Rick Beyer and co-author Elizabeth Sayles’s forthcoming book is called ‘The Ghost Army of World War II.’ It’s full of amazing images and so many more details about specific operations performed by the Ghost Army. It will be out on April 28th.

  1. Nancy Galatowitsch

    I live in Minnesota and on our PBS television station tonight is a program about the Ghost Army! 99pi this morning and PBS in the evening — on the same topic!

  2. Greg D.

    Great story, well presented! Only one nit… When you add Morse Code sounds to the Podcast audio backdrop, you might want to use something other than one Ham radio operator calling another. War is deadly serious, but I burst out laughing when I heard “CQ” (Dah-di-dah-dit Dah-dah-di-dah), obviously not the original event, in the segment on the radio operators.

    To add a little to your story, experienced Morse Code operators have long been able to recognize each other by listening to how their code is sent, called their “fist”. It’s like listening to someone’s voice accent, and to be totally effective, I would expect the Ghost operators would have had to mimic different fists during their work, in order to not be recognized. Do you know if they did this?

    Keep up the good work!

  3. This was a great episode! I had heard about this before, but never in such detail. I’ll definitely be checking that book out!

    I work at a visual arts residency based out of Maine. It was founded in 1946 by several WWII artists, though I’m not sure any of them worked in this deception unit. However, Ellsworth Kelly, and a lot of other artists who were, were among the first participants. There’s definitely an interesting line of inquiry to be drawn between the founders of Skowhegan (where I work), who were mainly used for realistic battle documentation and continued to make mostly figurative art, and those artists who were in the deception unit, who I think largely went on to make more avant-garde works post-war.

  4. Wow! I had heard of the ghost army before, I but never knew the role of inflatables in its success. That gives a whole new dimension to Michael Sailstorfer’s “T 72”. It was on view in 2010 at ARTER, a gallery in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, near Taksim square:
    https://youtu.be/q0xrTCY18ts

  5. Does anyone know if the audio archives still exist? The sound effects used for the sonic deception is what I’m looking for. I would love to use them for some upcoming music I’m writing…

  6. Josh Skarf

    I was surprised that for your Classical analogy you went with the Trojan Horse and not the Biblical story of Gideon, which is exactly using audio and visual trickery in a show of force.

  7. This was such a cool episode! The Ghost Army if fictionalised in Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Bluebeard’ – the hero Rabo Karabekian was a member of the army of artists and maintained a troubled relationship with representational versus abstract art for the rest of his life.

    1. Thanks for mentioning this, I was hoping someone would! A great Vonnegut book, especially if you like breakfast of Champions where Rabo Karabekian reappears.

  8. tom logan

    I VISITED THE ARMY ENGINEER PROVING GROUNDS AT FORT BELVOIR IN THE EARLY 1960s . BY THEN, 18 YEARS AFTER THE WAR, THE ARMY’S EFFORT HAD SHRUNK FROM 1000 OR MORE TO JUST FOUR PEOPLE . THEY WERE STILL ENGAGED IN DECEPTION R&D . THEY WERE VERY PROUD OF THEIR PROOF-OF-CONCEPT FIBERGLASS JEEP, WHICH FOUR SOLDIERS COULD PICK UP AND MOVE WITH EASE . IT WAS INDICATIVE OF THE STATE OF THE EFFORT THAT THE JEEP WAS ONE OF A KIND AND THE ARMY HAD ALREADY BEGUN PROCURING A DIFFERENT-LOOKING OPERATIONAL JEEP. ALSO THERE AT BELVOIR ( AND THEY MAY STILL BE THERE ) WERE BUNKERS CONTAINING DEVICES USED TO GOOD EFFECT DURING WW-II . EXAMPLES WERE THE TINY PARATROOPERS DROPPED AT NORMANDY AND THE “CRICKETS” ISSUED TO IDENTIFY FRIENDS TO FRIENDS . THE RUBBER TANKS HAD ALL BECOME PILES OF ROTTING RUBBER . I DID NOT SEE THESE THINGS BUT WAS TOLD ABOUT THEM DURING MY VISITS . I DID SEE THE JEEP. – – TOM LOGAN – – BTW THE PRINCIPAL BEHIND THE TROJAN HORSE IS JUST AS VALID TODAY AS IT WAS IN BIBLICAL TIMES . SO ARE SOME OF THE GADGETS IN THE BELVOIR BUNKERS

  9. Tim Rice

    I’m wholly mesmerized, captured and held prisoner by this fascinating story. A wonderful effort!

  10. Wayne Munn

    This Ghost Army work was a core plot element in Ken Follett’s fictional spy novel “Eye of the Needle.” A Nazi spy in England uncovers the pre-D-Day deception and is trying desperately to get word back.

  11. Dan Epstein

    I’m a former Army psyop specialist and thought this episode was great! I once pretended to be a tank column using tank recordings broadcast over a jeep-mounted loudspeaker system. No mention was made of the Ghost Army in our training. Not sure why.

  12. mike smithson

    I served aboard a cruiser in the early 1980s and while on a Mediterranean cruise, we moved into the Gulf of Sidra, to perform “freedom of Navigation” exercise under the cover of darkness. We were equipped with a special unit that could play different audios on known frequencies that made us appear as the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier and home to the squadron of F14 fighters which had shot down two of the LAF planes in a recent skirmish.
    Our hope was that the Lybian Air Force would come out and attack us. Nothing ever happened but it was interesting to know that we were deployed as bait specifically as a ruse to see what we could stir up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist