This is not a photograph of a strong man contest. That tank weighs about as much as an inflatable dingy. But what were World War II U.S soldiers doing clowning around with a blow-up tank?
Actually, there was nothing funny about it; these were the brave men of a unique secret mission to intimidate and deceive the enemy with an elaborate fake army. They were better known as the Ghost Army.
Before 1996, images like these had never been seen or talked about, the mission remained top secret for decades and details of it are still classified. The 1,000 soldiers that made up the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were unsung heroes of WWII, who staged more than 20 crucial “battlefield deceptions” that helped defeat Germany at their final frontier before losing the war.
Using dummy tanks, cannons, jeeps and trucks, fake aircrafts, phony radio transmissions and special effects, this small group of American soldiers pretended to be two divisions of up to 30,000 allied troops moving in for the attack, when in actual fact, the real attack (with real tanks and artillery) was going to take place miles away.
Surely though, a few inflatable tanks and trucks couldn’t fool Hitler and his army in their final stand?
But the Ghost Army was so much more than that.
Most of the men in this secret unit were recruited from art schools in New York and Philadelphia or America’s best advertising agencies.
Outside of war they were painters, architects, actors and set designers, encouraged to use their creative minds and talent to help defeat the German army in France once and for all.
They arrived just after D-Day with bundles of compressed inflatables in tow and top secret tapes recorded at Fort Knox with sounds effects of heavily armed infantry units to be played on giant boom boxes that could be heard from more than 20km away.
They inflated their dummy tanks and the unit’s artists got to work painting them with imperfect camouflage so they could be detected by unassuming the enemy. The set designers staged dummy airfields and camps complete with fake laundry hanging out on clothes lines. Empty trucks manned by a single soldier in the driving seat made looping convoys to simulate a truck full of infantry under the canvas roofs to spare lives elsewhere.
The contingent’s actors were turned loose in French towns posing as divisional generals where enemy agents were likely to see them and overhear them “talking loose” in the local café over bottles of wine.
In their down time, they continued painting, sketching and documenting the war through art. Fashion designer Bill Blass and painter Ellsworth Kelly were among the artists turned soldiers who served in this secret mission, and their unit became an incubator for young artists who went on to have a major impact on art in post-war America.
Across the river from Dusseldorf, enemy reconnaissance saw hundreds of American vehicles from the air. The presence of “two large American divisions” was confirmed by German intercepted allied radio transmissions. Enemy observation posts reported hearing the Americans moving in fast across the river. Of course, none of this was true. A genius deception from a ghost army and their inflatable tanks that helped win the war.