Shortly after the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, two Frenchmen on bicycles managed to cross the perimeter of the United States Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and what they saw astounded them. Four American soldiers had picked up a 40-ton Sherman tank and were turning it in place.
Soldier Arthur Shilstone says, “They looked at me, and they were looking for answers, and I finally said: ‘The Americans are very strong.’”
Patriotic pride aside, the men of the 23rd were not equipped with super-human strength. They did, however, have inflatable tanks.
Shilstone was one of 1,100 soldiers who formed the unit, also known as the Ghost Army. They were artists and illustrators, radio people and sound guys. Handpicked for the job from New York and Philadelphia art schools in January 1944, their mission was to deceive the enemy with hand-made inflatable tanks, 500-pound speakers blasting the sounds of troops assembling and phony radio transmissions.
This painting depicts two Frenchmen looking shocked upon seeing four American soldiers lift a 40-ton tank.
Over the course of the war, they staged more than 20 operations and are estimated to have saved between 15,000 and 30,000 U.S. lives. The illusion was never broken and not even their fellow soldiers knew of their existence.
Kept secret for 40 years, the story of the Ghost Army first broke in Smithsonian magazine in the April 1985 issue, when then-illustrator Shilstone shared his part in the war. Now, Shilstone and 18 other members of the 23rd are part of the new PBS documentary, “The Ghost Army.”
When he first began researching the story, director Rick Beyer says he was amazed. “First you think, maybe I’m misunderstanding or maybe it was just one time,” says the director. It’s a skepticism he’s since encountered on the road, including at a presentation for seniors at the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. “There was one guy, while I was setting up and he was just convinced that the whole thing was bullshit.” He told Beyer he had served in General Patton’s Third Army and never knew of any Ghost Army. But Beyer continued with his screening. Afterward the same man approached him and said, “This is the most amazing story I ever heard!”
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