US military history is filled with units whose names not only convey a whiff of combat — 101st Airborne, First Air Cavalry, 14th Field Artillery — but also describe what the unit did on the battlefield. But what is one to make of an outfit with a name like 23d Headquarters Special Troops?
That unit, consisting of 1,100 troops, was special, all right. The 23d, which served during World War II in England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, is the subject of “The Ghost Army.” Written and directed by Lexington resident Rick Beyer, the documentary airs Tuesday night on Channel 2. Peter Coyote narrates.
So what exactly did the 23d do? Well, thereby hangs a surprising military tale. That the unit bore such a blandly deceptive name was fitting. Its mission was battlefield deception, and the 23d sought to deceive the Germans in four ways.
One group, the 603d Engineer Battalion, built and operated inflatable rubber tanks and artillery pieces. These would be placed near the front line, with the aim of making the Germans think an attack was imminent. The tanks weighed 93 pounds, and watching footage of them being toppled over by a single man is a visual treat. It’s as if a World War II combat movie has been taken over by a Looney Tunes cartoon. Among the 350 GIs in the outfit were several who’d become famous after the war: photographer Art Kane, painter Ellsworth Kelly, fashion designer Bill Blass. An Army buddy recalls how Blass would “read Vogue in his foxhole.”
Phony tanks need phony tank tracks. So the treads of the bulldozers of the 406th Engineer Combat Company would provide tracks for the inflatable armor to fool German aerial reconnaissance that was taking pictures.
Then there was sound-effects warfare, courtesy of the 3132 Sonic Service Company. Using 500-pound speakers that were audible for 15 miles, pre-recorded sounds of tanks, trucks, and other troop movements would be played at night close to the German front line.
Finally, there was the most conventional of the four techniques: faked radio transmissions. Some 100 radio operators would pretend to be transmitting from real combat units. The aim of their steady stream of radio traffic was to inflate German estimates of Allied troop strength.
“The Ghost Army” includes interviews with 19 veterans of the 23d, as well as military historians and retired Army General Wesley Clark (who comes across as a bit of a blowhard). One of the things that set these GIs apart was that during a rest break they were as likely to reach for a pencil as a pack of cigarettes. The documentary includes an ample selection of their sketches. Best of all is the footage Beyer has assembled, much of it in color.
While the 23d offers one of the war’s more offbeat stories (and its activities were kept secret for 40 years), it’s not one of the war’s more important stories. “The Ghost Army” can feel a bit padded at times. Like one of those rubber tanks, it’s not as imposing as it seems. But also like those tanks, it’s memorable and not quite like anything else.