Planning for the WWII Allied invasion of Europe began in 1943. Operation Bodyguard and Operation Fortitude were employed as Allied landing deception plans with three objectives: (1) to conceal the chosen Allied landing at Normandy, France, (2) to mislead the Germans as to the actual location, date, and time of the landing, and (3) to divert and keep German troops from reinforcing the Normandy area. Operation Neptune, the naval planning phase to cross the British Channel, and Operation Overlord, the landing and battle plan, were closely coordinated for the Allied landing initially planned for June 5, 1944. Weather conditions would eventually change the landing date to June 6, 1944.
Before the actual invasion of France, deception plans included double agents, false information passed through diplomatic channels and wireless activities, and physical deceptions such as dummy tanks placed strategically in Britain to confuse and fool any aerial German reconnaissance activity. These methods were referred to as “Special Means.” The British had great success using deception tactics during the North Africa Campaign [June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943].
In late 1943 a United States (US) Army Captain Ralph Ingersoll was working with Allied planners in London to develop plans and strategy to deceive the Germans before, during, and after the planned 1944 Normandy invasion. He had an idea to establish a separate American military deception unit. The US Pentagon approved the idea, and a new Army unit with a mission of deception, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, was activated on January 20, 1944. Colonel Harry L. Reader was named its commander.
Members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were a carefully chosen group of 1,100 men who were artists, sonic (sound) technicians, meteorologists, actors, set designers, engineers, camouflage experts, illustrators, architects, and other creative people and ordinary soldiers. Their combined talents would be used to deceive, confuse, and mislead the German Army.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was organized into four units having special areas of expertise:
The 603rdEngineer Camouflage Battalion Special
Of the 379 men in this unit, many were artists recruited from New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, art schools. Using props such as inflatable rubber tanks, jeeps, artillery, and aircraft they staged visual deceptions to trick and confuse the Germans.
It took under 30 minutes to inflate a rubber tank with an air compressor. An inflated tank weighed 93 pounds.
The Signal Company Special
This 296 man unit mastered the use of radio deception, also known as “spoof radio,” and sent fake transmissions trying to bluff the Germans as to the location, strength, and readiness of other Allied units.
The 3132 Signal Service Company Special
The sonic (sound) effects of this 145 man group, usually used at night with sound recordings projected from 500 pound powerful speakers on the back of jeeps or half-tracks, could project previously recorded “noise” associated with a military group changing locations or operating in a certain position. In some scenarios the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops would “cover” a secret departure of a military unit to another location, and then they would move in and impersonate them. With the information from a mobile weather unit and an ideal setup location, sound transmissions could be heard by the Germans as far away as 15 miles (24 kilometers).
The 406thEngineer Combat Special
This fourth unit of 168 men was trained as combat soldiers. They had skills in demolition, construction, and provided security for the 23rd. With their bulldozers they could simulate the tracks of dummy military vehicles to add to the illusion of vehicle deployment.
On May 2, 1944, three units of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops sailed to England. The 3132 Signal Service Company Special was still training in the US.
Combat action started for the 23rd when a 15-man platoon from the unit was sent to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 14, 1944.
All four components of this secret Army unit would be brought together in France in August 1944 when the 23rd participated in Operation Brest (August 20 – 27, 1944) to capture the French seaport of Brest from the Germans.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops existed to make “make-believe” believable to the enemy. They would manipulate sight and sound to bewilder the Germans. They had the capability of impersonating two divisions of thirty thousand men.
Creativity, deception, and courage were literally the order of the day. When the 23rd would impersonate other units, they set themselves up for attacks by the Germans who didn’t know who they really were.
23rd Headquarters Special Troops unit deceptions and activities needed to be kept secret from both the enemy as well as other Allied units.
Some of their tactics included set ups of dummy aircraft on dummy airfields, dummy artillery positions with dummy shells nearby, wearing their handmade shoulder patches to impersonate other units, setting up phony command posts with 23rd Headquarters Special Troops pretending to be US generals and high ranking officers, moving into the military position of an actual infantry or armored division so that the division could strategically move to another location, driving into a town with fake vehicle identification markings, or spending time in local pubs and seemingly during small talk and drinking give away secret and classified information to any potential spies in the vicinity. Their job was a creative and theatrical show as the men deceived, manipulated, mimicked, created illusions of sight and sound, and befuddled intended enemy targets.
In Operation Bettembourg (September 15 – 22, 1944) General George Patton’s Third Army planned an attack on the French city of Metz. A 70 mile (113 kilometer) gap along the US front line north of Metz was critically undermanned and weakly fortified. The US 83rd Infantry Division (ID) arrival at that location had been delayed. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops covered the gap by impersonating the US 6th Armored Division until the 83rd ID arrived.
From Operation Elephant (July 1 – 4, 1944) to Operation Viersen (March 18 – 24, 1945) the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops had participated in 21 WWII operations in the European Theater of Operations.
The Germans referred to this illusive military group as the Phantom Army.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops through their deceptions and impersonations have been credited with possibly saving the lives of an estimated thirty thousand Allied troops in WWII.
Information about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was not declassified until 1996.
Many of the talented and artistic members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops went on after WWII and had successful careers in the Arts. Photographer Art Kane, artist Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, and fashion designer Bill Blass were a few of those who served in the secret unit with a mission of deception.
A WWII Art Contest
In 1941 the US Navy Combat Art Program and in 1942 the US Army War Art Unit were established. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was activated in 1944. Artists were being sought to fill positions in these and possibly other military units.
LIFE’S Art Competition for Men of the Armed Forces drew 1,500 entries from the Army, Navy, Air Corps, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Pictures were submitted by military personnel assigned throughout the US and included entries from as far away as Trinidad, Greenland, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii.
Before serving in the US military Ralph Ingersoll [a name mentioned in the first part of this WWII story] was general manager of Time, Inc., and is credited in part with the founding of LIFE magazine. He would inspire the formation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and would be a staff officer in the deception unit.
Was this WWII art contest a secret plan between the US government and LIFE magazine to find needed artists using the pretense of a public competition?
The art contest did attract many very talented artists from all ranks of the US military.
LIFE magazine art contest First Prize winner Robert Clayton Burns and Third Prize winner Edward Arcenio Chávez had successful art careers after WWII. No information has been found on Sergeant Bob Majors.
The book The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (her father William Sayles was a member of the Ghost Army) is an excellent telling of the story of the US Army 23rd Headquarters Special Troops in WWII. The story is also told in a PBS documentary The Ghost Army.
Thank you to historian Dr. George Kelling who gave me the publication which announced the winners of the 1942 LIFE magazine art contest. It is from that publication that I started connecting the possible “covert” dots between the story of the Ghost Army and the art contest.