on a crisp September morning in 1944, two cyclists taking cover in
a small French town near the Luxembourg border decided that it was
safe at last to venture out into the countryside. The nighttime rumble
of tanks had died away. Les Américains seemed firmly in control.
If one met them, one might even be given a little piece of le choclat.
So the men mounted up and swept along the road that passed the bivouac.
They sniffed the smoke of cooking fires in the cold autumn air. They
noted the usual scattering of grimy, mud-stained vehicles, partly
hidden under tattered camouflage nets: a couple of trucks, some trailers
and a few big M-4 tanks with their mighty guns poking out from the
cover of trees and netting.
a young American sentry stopped the pair. He was friendly enough,
but firm: they must explain where they were going and why. The Frenchmen
replied as well as they could until, all at once, they stiffened
and fell silent, their eyes wide in astonishment. For over the sentry's
shoulder they saw four GIs in muddy battle jackets and dull green
helmets walk over to a monstrous tank and, with one man at each
corner, simply pick it up, turn it around and set it down again.
Thus, or so the story goes at any rate, was the cover of the 603rd
Engineer Camouflage Battalion broken and the security of a neighboring
armored division imperiled at a critical moment in the Allied offensive.
Fortunately, no damage was done.
The 603rd was
one of four units that formed what was perhaps the most enigmatic
outfit ever fielded in battle, a group called the 23rd Headquarters
Special Troops. The 23rd's troops were "special," all
right. They specialized in impersonating other troops. The war with
Germany came to a close 40 years ago this mouth. For 268 days in
mid-1944 and early l945, the 23rd's 82 officers and 1.023 enlisted
men pretended. at one time or another, to be the 5th Armored Division,
the 4th Infantry Division, the 6th Armored Division, the 90th Infantry
Division and many other Army outfits hard at work in the hedgerows
and forests of northern Europe. With inflatable rubber guns and
vehicles, with ever-changing shoulder patches, stencils to make
phony signs, and with amplified recordings of heavy equipment in
action, the 23rd played role alter role. Its men fired only a few
shots in anger, but plenty for the sake of theatrics.
of all of that razzle-dazzle was to fool the enemy and, by doing
so, enable the troops that the 23rd was impersonating to sneak into
new positions, to launch a surprise attack or in some other way
to catch the other side off guard. Sebastian Messina, a radioman
with the 23rd from Worcester, Massachusetts likened his unit's modus
operandi to the old football Statue of Liberty play, with variations.
"Suppose the Umpteenth Division is holding a certain sector,"
he told a newspaperman after the war. "Well, we move in, secretly
of course, and they move out, We then faithfully ape the Umpteenth
in everything the Germans were accustomed to seeing them do or have,
assume their identity totally. Then the Umpteenth, which the Boches
think is in front of them, is suddenly kicking them in the pants
ten miles to their rear." Deception was used as a military
tactic long before the Greeks slipped their wooden horse into Troy,
but it didn't really come into its own, in a systematic and organized
way until World War II. The advent of sophisticated reconnaissance
and intelligence techniques, together with unprecedented battlefield
mobility, put a new premium on the possibilities of tactical spoofing.
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery pulled off an elaborate hoax in
the British Eighth Army's decisive victory over Erwin Rommel's Afrikan
Korps at El Alamein in North Africa, and the United States deftly
faked out Germany's intelligence experts prior to the Battle of
Tunisia, The success of those exercises in camouflage and cover
plans he1ped convince American strategists of the need for a chameleon
like ghost army in the European theater. Early in 1944, therefore,
the War Department authorized the formation of just such an outfit,
were hurriedly assembled front around the country for training and
reorientation at Camp Forest in Tennessee. The mission of the 23rd's
Signal Company was to develop and employ radio counter intelligence
tricks. The 406th Engineer Combat Company, a disciplined fighting
unit trained in desert warfare, was put in charge of all around
security and tough construction jobs. The aforementioned 603rd Engineer
Camouflage Battalion had already been experimenting with deceptive
installations for nearly two years. It was given the responsibility
for camouflage and dummy equipment. Yet another outfit, the 3132nd
Signal Service Company, was trained separately at the Army Experimental
Station in Pine Camp, New York, where it pioneered in the development
of "sonic deception" techniques.
The 603rd epitomized
the creative character of the 23rd. It was composed largely of artistic
types who had been recruited from New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Some of them had known each other while attending various colleges
and universities, and such prestigious art and design schools as
the Pratt Institute, Cooper Union and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The average IQ of the 603rd was 119, rumored to be the highest in
Many of the
603rd's recruits were destined to achieve fame and success after
the war was over. There was a young fellow named Bill Blass, for
example, who wanted to set himself up as a fashion designer some
day. Others included Ellsworth Kelly, artist and an originator of
the "hard edge" painting, whose work now hangs in the
Museum of Modern Art: George Diestel, who became a famous Hollywood
set designer; Art Kane, a well known photographer: Arthur Singer,
one of the country's most respected bird painters; and Arthur Shilstone,
a distinguished illustrator whose work, appropriately enough, adorns
this article. Still others became influential university professors,
industrial designers and creative directors or i1lustrators with
their artistic temperaments, the men of the 603rd were required
to endure the torment and boredom of training, marching, drilling
and KP duty like any other GIs. It was not a burden always nobly
borne. One battalion mess sergeant gained notoriety for making KPs
clean his filthy grease pits. "I want to be able to see my
face in there!" he would bellow. I guess there's no accounting
for taste," an artist soldier snapped back one day. "You
just got yourself a whole week of KP," the sergeant roared.
Sometimes it all seemed a bit like Beetle Bailey.
For nearly two
years, the 603rd was stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland, where
it was required to do the same drills over and over, fixing camouflage
nets and painting camouflage on trucks an artistic accomplishment,
Shilstone recalls, that "any chimpanzee could have done as
well." As time dragged on the men began to lose hope of ever
leaving. "The 603rd will never go overseas," they repeated
to each other so often that the phrase almost began to take on the
significance of a unit watchword.
distinctions between the artists and the others began to blur. They
all groused together, drank together and brawled together. But the
differences never did vanish completely. A few of the troops filled
their off hours sketching. One man kept a Stradivari violin in his
barracks. A young dress designer, rich and spoiled, sat on his bunk
eating chocolates and endlessly writing letters. One night long
after taps, the stillness of the 603rd barracks was broken by the
sound of low voices engaged in muffled but earnest conversation.
"And there we were at Toots Shor's," one man whispered,
"when, Mother came in wearing this blue sequin dress
When the 603rd,
sketchbooks and all, finally pulled up stakes at Fort Meade and
arrived at Camp Forrest in January 1944, it was met by Colonel Harry
Reeder, a savvy career man, Reeder had studied at a service school
in Paris and commanded a crack armored infantry regiment. Nothing
in his experience had prepared him for his assignment as bead of
the 23rd. In a wonderfully engaging official history of the unit,
Frederic Fox, who was a captain in the Signal Company, recalls the
scene this way: "Since no one knew how a deception unit was
supposed to operate, the training program was not easy to write.
Officers, who had once commanded 32-ton tanks, felt frustrated and
helpless with a battalion of rubber M4s, 95 pounds fully inflated.
The adjustment from Man-of-action to man-of-wile was most difficult."
not, the adjustment had to be made. The men practiced setting off
flash devices, canisters with small charges triggered by electricity,
to simulate artillery barrages. They considered how to achieve large-scale
deception using their radio equipment. They learned how to deploy
their dummy vehicles and artillery weapons, which were inflated
with small motor-operated compressors. The signal service unit training
up in New York worked on its own unusual repertoire: amplified recordings
of tanks, half-tracks and jeeps that would be used at night to fool
the Germans into thinking that entire armored divisions were on
Then, one night
in early May, the main body of the U.S. Army's first and only tactical
warfare deception unit trooped aboard the USS Henry Gibbons in New
York harbor and embarked for Great Britain. There, the 23rd bivouacked
for a month in six-man tents on the elegant grounds of a Victorian
manor near Stratford-on-Avon. The British called the place Walton
HaIl; the GIs called it Mouldy Manor. "Training by all units
was continued," Fox notes in his chronicle, "with considerable
emphasis on athletics and recreation." Parties were held. Some
of the men attended Shakespearean productions at Stratford; others
passed the time relaxing at the Leamington Spa.
half of the command had departed for France, the remainder, some
600 men, spent a week waiting their turn at Charborough Park, the
rambling estate of Adm. Lord Reginald Ernst-Ernie Drax, KCB, DSO.
Often, while the enlisted men watched deer and played baseball on
the manicured lawns, the Admiral invited the officers in to enjoy
a glass of port and a warm bath. Everything went swimmingly until
the day before the men pulled out, when their chagrined host announced
haughtily: "Someone has beeeen in my sherry!"
It took two
months, two planes and nine ships to transport the entire unit to
France. The first detachments hit the beach shortly after D-Day
and four men were wounded. Victor Dowd, a platoon sergeant with
the 603rd and now an illustrator living in Connecticut, touched
down with his platoon on Omaha Beach in a C-47 transport plane at
D-Day plus seven. He wondered why there were nurses on the plane
and then he saw the wounded waiting on the beach. Not long after
that, the reality of warfare came home to John Hapgood, who was
a corporal with the 603rd and is now an artist in New York City,
when he took cover under a railroad car with fellow artist Phil
Hornthal. German shells were crashing all around them. Between explosions,
one of the men shouted sardonically, "The 603rd will never
The 23rd's acting
debut, Operation Elephant, was greeted with mixed reviews. It took
place in the forest near Cerisv-la-Foret, France, in early July
and involved about 400 men who were assigned the task of simulating
combat elements of the 2nd Armored Division while that unit secretly
took up a new position. German units were maintaining a defensive
position nearby. As the armored division moved out, the 23rd moved
in, replacing real tanks with dummies and substituting rubber artillery
for steel weapons.
Did it work?
An official digest of the 23rd's operations concludes that the deception
was effective because the Germans, expecting an attack in the vicinity
where the 23rd was operating, held their position while the U.S.
tanks made their move. However, historian Fox suspects that "little
good was done." The main problem had to do with the fact that
the 2nd Armored Division carried out its move in broad daylight
with no attempt at secrecy. The need for better liaison and stricter
camouflage measures, borrowed shoulder patches, simulated supply
dumps, and cover stories concocted for consumption by enemy collaborators
was assiduously observed from then on. It wasn't long, in fact,
before the 23rd had a voluminous file on visual identifications
and the men suffered many a bloody finger sewing bogus shoulder
patches on their uniforms before going into action.
Brest, which took place outside the great French port city in late
August the 23rd put on a terrific show. Its principal objective
was to bluff the Germans into surrendering the city. The 23rd was
supposed to impersonate two tank battalions and a field artillery
battalion. This it did, augmenting real units already in place with
"troops," using dummies, spoof radio installations and
a variety of misleading special effects. The 23rd kept up a pretense
of routine firing by setting off its flash canisters; as was often
the case in subsequent operations, a few authentic weapons remained
in place to add substance to the sham.
On three successive
nights, men of the 23rd approached within 500 yards of the enemy
lines and projected their amplified recordings of tanks approaching,
taking up positions and withdrawing. Engines roared. Gears clashed
and ground. Voices shouted in the dark, orders, counter orders,
frustrated cursing at yet another Army snafu. Friendly troops a
mile away were completely fooled and so, apparently, was the enemy.
The dummy flash batteries drew repeated counter fire and the German
Commander at Brest, General Herman B. von Ramcke, later testified
that he had been taken in by the armored act. Von Ramcke, with a
force of approximately 38,000 men, 17,000 more than U.S. intelligence
estimated, had already made a decision to stand and fight. But even
though Brest did not fall until mid-September, the 23rd's theatrics
offensive began to bog down, but in eastern France the 23rd kept
on the move. Its men enjoyed onion soup and Cointreau in Torcy,
uncovered an immense German cache of cognac in Les Garangers and
bought perfume in Paris. In southern Luxembourg, they assumed the
guise of an armored division and managed to checkmate a duped German
infantry division for seven days. In Belgium, the 23rd realistically
simulated still another U.S. outfit ostensibly lolling about at
a rest camp. The unit supported a "river-crossing demonstration"
near Uckange, France, facilitating a surprise crossing of the Moselle
elsewhere by the U.S. 90th Infantry Division. After the German breakout
in early December, the Great Deceivers used their bag of tricks
to help cover the movement of an infantry division into the Bulge.
Messina pointed out, much of the 23rd's energy was devoted to obscuring
the movement of other troops. In a typical cover operation, the
23rd's actors stayed in plain sight in the area they were supposed
to be holding. They kept fires burning at night and visited supply
dumps regularly. Having been briefed on the recent history of the
outfit they were "playing," they chatted with civilians
about things anyone in the real unit would know. Arthur Shilstone
clearly recalls riding around villages in trucks for hours. At the
rear, the two outside men would wear the proper patches and no one
could see whether the rest of the truck's complement of 12 was inside
the canopy or not.
an armored unit, the 23rd often-used half-tracks to scar the ground
with tread marks like those of tanks. Then the rubber tanks would
appear, partly hidden by netting and sometimes augmented by a real
tank or two. The dummies were always inflated at night, which took
about half an hour using the compressor pumps. As the air entered,
they would squirms like sulphur snakes.
There were problems,
of course. Since the dummy equipment was positioned in the dark,
an inflated tank would sometime be discovered in the morning facing
the wrong way, a dead giveaway to aerial reconnaissance. (That's
why those two French cyclists saw a tank being picked up and turned
around.) The morning sun could cause trouble, too. One day some
rubber planes began collapsing with a series of loud reports because
the sun heated air had expanded. There was trouble with leaks, too.
The troops dreaded the sight of limp gun barrels at first light,
when the German reconnaissance planes usually flew over.
It was difficult
to gauge the effects of the 23rd's operations. There were times
when they appeared to have no impact whatsoever. There were other
times when they confused friend more than foe. Often enough, though,
the Germans were completely hoodwinked. Prisoners spoke in awed
terms of an "elusive" division. A map overlay captured
before one engagement showed that the enemy had mistakenly positioned
a U.S. unit right where the 23rd wanted them to think it was. Even
Axis Sally, the notorious German radio propagandist, was taken in
by that ploy. Given its flair for the dramatic, it was perhaps inevitable
that the 23rd's most impressive battlefield performance would be
its last. In March, the United States crossed the Rhine at Remagen,
but the Ninth Army was held up near the river at Viersen, not far
from the Dutch border. One of the Ninth's three corps moved north
under the cover of darkness and prepared, in absolute secrecy, for
a real assault on the Rhine. The 23rd teamed up with the Ninth's
other two corps to engage in a bogus buildup designed to convince
the enemy that a crossing would be attempted near Viersen in April.
Engineers built facilities and paraded about with bridging equipment.
Medical installations were set up and a vehicle control center broadcast
news of heavy traffic. The 23rd's "notional divisions"
made a brazen show of themselves around Viersen. Each one had nearly
400 rubber vehicles, including five liaison planes, and aerial photos
of their installations looked remarkably authentic. All of the 23rd's
sonic tricks and special effects were brought into full play.
It was a show
that would have warmed the cockles of Cecil B. DeMille's heart,
and it worked. The real Rhine crossing in March came as a complete
surprise to the Germans and many American 1ives were saved. For
its efforts, the 23rd received the next best thing to an Oscar,
a formal commendation for "careful planning, minute attention
to detail, and diligent execution" from the Ninth Army's commander.
The 23rd was
inactivated in September 1945. Unlike many returning soldiers, whose
exp1oits have been emblazoned across the pages of the nation's newspapers,
the men of the 23rd came discover that Americans didn't know any
more about them than the Germans did. The reason: everything they'd
done had been classified "top secret." But at least, to
the inevitable question, "What did you do in the war, Dad?"
veterans of the ghost army could honestly respond: "I blew
up tanks and guns, Son."