In February 2005, documentary filmmaker Rick Beyer of Lexington sat down with Martha Gavin of Beverly at a local coffee shop to learn about her uncle’s experiences in World War II.
Gavin showed him armloads of three-ring binders containing sketches and watercolors that her uncle, US Army Corporal John Jarvie of Kearny, N.J., had created during periods of downtime overseas. What most captured Beyer’s attention, however, were the circumstances of his service.
A member of the 23d Headquarters Special Troops, or so-called Ghost Army, Jarvie was among approximately 1,100 American GIs who used inflatable rubber tanks, sound effects, impersonations, scripted radio transmissions, and other trickery to mislead the Germans about the size, strength, and location of American units. Beginning shortly after D-day, the camouflage, sonic, and radio-communications experts conducted more than 20 clandestine operations through the end of the war.
The handpicked soldiers included artists, set designers, engineers, and radio operators. Many achieved postwar fame, such as fashion designer Bill Blass, sculptor and minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, bird artist Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane. Others would go on to careers in illustration, design, advertising, law, and politics.
Next week, Beyer will host a two-day event in Lexington to promote his independent documentary, “Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War II,’’ and an accompanying book of the same name coauthored with Elizabeth Sayles of Valley Cottage, N.Y. The event will be held at the Lexington Depot.
“Not only were these men brave enough to be operating right near the front lines with inflatable tanks, but they were creating this amazing art while they did it,’’ said Beyer, a lifelong history enthusiast and writer who has made films for the History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“The Army was using creativity to save lives, but the men were exercising their own creativity in this awful environment.’’
During a fund-raiser for Beyer’s project on March 2 starting at 7:30 p.m., there will be a screening of the nearly completed film with champagne, dessert, and an exhibition including wartime photographs by Waltham resident Robert Boyajian, a veteran of the 603d Camouflage Engineers. Tickets cost $75.
On March 3 from noon to 6 p.m., the Lexington Depot will showcase the soldiers’ original photographs and artwork, wartime artifacts, and documentary footage. As part of the event, reenactors from the 26th Yankee Division WWII Living History Group will greet visitors and demonstrate their equipment, and military historian Jon Gawne of Framingham will sign copies of his Ghost Army history, “Ghosts of the ETO: American Tactical Deception Units in the European Theater.’’
Beyer, who is curating the exhibition, will be on hand to discuss his seven-year journey making the documentary. Admission is $5.
“All along, I had a feeling I was doing more than making a film. I was becoming an archivist of this story,’’ Beyer said. “I was very conscious of the fact these veterans wouldn’t be around forever.’’
He noted that seven of the 20 veterans in the documentary have died since he began videotaping interviews in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, D.C. Beyer obtained war footage for the 64-minute film from the Library of Congress, and National Archives and Records Administration.
“The film is a salute to all the men involved,’’ Beyer added. “They’re articulate, spirited, amazing guys, but people aren’t aware of them. That’s one of the reasons this is so exciting for me.’’
One of the Ghost Army members is Jack McGlynn of Medford, the city’s former mayor and father of the current mayor, Michael McGlynn.
The elder McGlynn did not divulge any details of his service with the 3132d Signal Service Company until he read the information had been declassified. As a result, his wife and six children only learned of his role in the Ghost Army’s sonic deception unit four years ago.
“Those were my orders,’’ recalled McGlynn, a retired staff sergeant who will turn 90 on Sunday, “and I followed them.’’
After he completed basic training, the then-21-year-old McGlynn was given the choice of working as a cryptographer for the Pentagon, pursuing specialized Army training in college, or volunteering for a top-secret military organization specializing in sound.
“I figured if we could knock off the Nazis using sound,’’ he recalled, “I was all for that.’’
In Fort Knox, Ky., the sonic deception unit spent a week recording the sounds of soldiers working, and trucks, tanks, and half-tracks (an armored tank-vehicle hybrid) moving back and forth, up and down hills, shifting gears, and backfiring - noises that would be projected through 500-pound speakers to mimic a massive military operation.
The sonic unit shipped out of New York on May 30, 1944, to join its camouflage and radio-communications counterparts. Over the next year, the Ghost Army served on the front lines in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, where McGlynn yanked down two Nazi flags from a building that had been the Germans’ headquarters “because it stood for the massacre of all those wonderful people.’’
McGlynn laughs now at his youthful shock that Utah Beach in France looked so similar to the beaches of Cape Cod. He also remembers a variety of living arrangements: a cleaned-up pigpen in France; a town hall in Germany; and foxholes all over Europe providing so much insulation from the wind and cold that he likens them to “going into a hotel.’’
“The farther you went into the ground, the warmer it became,’’ recalled McGlynn, who embarked on a 50-year career in local and state government after the war.
Like McGlynn, one of Jarvie’s occasional duties was impersonating soldiers from vastly larger divisions by painting different US Army insignia on their vehicles, sewing patches onto their uniforms, and talking boisterously about invented battle plans in cafés, bars, and marketplaces believed to be under German surveillance.
Jarvie, who was a 20-year-old art student when he joined the 603d Camouflage Engineers in October 1942, drove a jeep, and became expert in badly camouflaging rubber artillery, tanks, trucks, and even airplanes so they would be visible to enemies scouting overhead. He will celebrate his 90th birthday on Tuesday.
“The only real thing was the soldiers. We joked about it, but it wasn’t fun when shells came whistling in. We lost a few guys that way,’’ said Jarvie, who attended Cooper Union Art School in New York with Singer, and befriended Blass in the Army. While Blass was known for tailoring his uniform and reading Vogue in his foxhole, he was just one of the guys in those days.
“Bill Blass wasn’t Bill Blass in the Army. He was Blass, as in ‘Blass, do this’ or ‘Blass, do that,’ ’’ said Jarvie, who eventually became art director for the in-house ad agency of Fairchild Publications, owner of Women’s Wear Daily. “They were all good guys, talented guys.’’
Jack Masey of New York was another member of the Ghost Army.
Now 87 and still working full time as president of New York-based MetaForm Design International, Masey sketched and painted from Normandy to the Rhine River as a corporal in Company B of the 603d Camouflage Engineers. The men used small watercolor sets, pencils, and fountain pens, making half-tones with their saliva.
Masey published a book of caricatures of the soldiers and officers in his unit while in Luxembourg, and his war experiences launched a lifelong career in designing exhibitions. He recruited Blass to design the uniforms for the American Pavilion’s hostesses at the Expo 67 World’s Fair.
“I hate to admit it, but I really had a good time during the war,’’ said Masey, who enlisted at age 19. “It was marvelous madness, and if we saved lives and contributed to the winning of the war, so much the better. Talking with Rick brought back some wonderful memories.’’
Masey’s artwork will be on display at the Lexington exhibition.
Beyer has raised $158,521 for the documentary from individual donations nationwide. He estimates that he needs at least $30,000 more in order to complete the film, which he hopes to do by June 30. Beyer may submit it to film festivals or offer screenings at colleges and art museums, but his ultimate goal is its broadcast on television.
“Getting it done is the first half of the battle,’’ he said. “The next half is finding a way for people to see it.’’