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Brainiac

In World War II, the Allies’ secret weapon

Photos courtesy of “The Ghost Army of World War II” by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles

Of all the factors that propelled the Allies to victory in World War II, one of the least recognized — and most charming — may have been the use of inflatable tanks. In a new book, “The Ghost Army of World War II,” historian Rick Beyer and illustrator Elizabeth Sayles detail the exploits of a top-secret unit that came in just behind the D-Day invasions and confused German commanders with all manner of battlefield trickery.

The unit was officially called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and later received the nickname, the “Ghost Army.” It landed in Europe in June 1944 with a mission to make the Germans think Allied troops were in places they weren’t. They used visual deception (inflatable tanks, trucks, and artillery); sound effects, which made it seem that huge convoys were coming through; and fake radio networks. To make the effort convincing, the organizers of the unit recruited young artists and designers who went on to become big names in their fields — people like Ellsworth Kelly, Bill Blass, and Arthur Singer, the wildlife artist.

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The tactics may sound like a parlor trick, but they worked. During a year of operations, the covert unit, which also included former Medford mayor John McGlynn, launched 21 deceptions, several of which occurred at key moments in the Allied march to Berlin. In September 1944 General George Patton’s rapid advance had opened a hole in his lines. The Ghost Army stepped in and successfully impersonated the far larger 6th Armored Division for a week, preventing the Germans from recognizing the weakness. Six months later, in March 1945, the Allied army was getting ready to cross the Rhine, and the Ghost Army was given the job of making it seem like the crossing was going to take place 10 miles south of where it actually occurred.

“Afterward they found captured German maps that showed divisions they were portraying right where they wanted the Germans to think they were,” says Beyer, who lives in Lexington.

As remarkable as its deceptive actions were, it’s even more surprising how long after the war the unit remained a secret. It only began to receive a lot of public attention in the 1990s and Beyer — who also produced a documentary about the Ghost Army — says he’s surprised that even today many people don’t know about it. To change that, he’s leading a campaign to have the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to members of the unit and has recruited several members of Congress, including Senator Ed Markey, to sponsor the legislation.

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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.