Thursday, May 23, 2013

How a Ghost Army of American artists helped defeat Hitler

A new documentary shines a light on an audacious WWII regiment of actors, painters, and other illusion-spinners.

The exhibit catalog: Renderings and images of a few of the artist-warriors  

The exhibit catalog: Renderings and images of a few of the artist-warrior.

The CIA Iran rescue operation featured in Argo isn't the first time the U.S. has used the arts to foil a bitter enemy. This week, PBS premiered a documentary on the U.S. Army's 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, nicknamed the Ghost Army, a group of 1,100 handpicked soldiers in World War II who played an unlikely, but pivotal, role in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

If you've never heard of the Ghost Army, you're in good company. The unit was a classified secret until 1996 — it's still partially classified — and Rick Beyer, the director of The Ghost Army, only found out about the covert troop of artist-warriors by chance, in a Boston-area café, from the niece of one of the unit's veterans.

Armies have been using subterfuge to fool enemy forces for eons, but the Ghost Army was unusually audacious, and especially good at its job: Designing and deploying inflatable tanks, airplanes, and artillery, plus sound effects and other illusion-spinning tactics, to convince the German army that the Allied forces were stronger and more omnipresent than they were.

That success was not an accident, says Megan Garber at The Atlantic. Veterans from the 23rd include fashion designer Bill Blass, minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane, who went on to capture Harlem's jazz greats in an iconic 1958 photograph as well as portraits of folk and rock legends from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones.

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