By Karen Zautyk
In June 1944, not long after the Allied forces’ D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, another 1,100 American soldiers crossed the Channel from England to France. Their task: “To create a traveling road show of deception.”
From ‘44 until the end of the war in Europe in 1945, the men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops carried out their mission through France, Belgium and Luxembourg and into Germany, misleading the Nazis about the size, strength and whereabouts of various American units.
The 1,100 were capable of “impersonating” up to 30,000 troops. And they did it with sound effects, false radio transmissions, phony command posts, deliberately misleading chatter in civilian areas — and, most ingenuous, inflatable tanks, trucks, artillery pieces and airplanes. Even inflatable soldiers.
Yes, inflatables. To be blown up with compressors, positioned in a field, deflated, packed up into little bags and moved to the next decoy position.
The 23rd would set up a fake landing field or would place the tanks and artillery somewhere in the countryside and imperfectly camouflage them with the intent that they be visible to German reconnaissance. The Nazis would then report the strength, location and identity of the U.S. unit — all of which was a ruse.
Now, there has been military deception at least since the time the Greeks rolled that big wooden horse up to the gates of Troy, but it’s not likely there was ever anything of the magnitude and complexity of the 23rd’s operation.
It helped win World War II. And then it remained an official military secret for nearly a half-century.
Now, as they say, the story can be told. It will be told in a documentary, “The Ghost Army,” set to air May 21 from 8 to 9 p.m. on PBS.
But it was told to us last week by lifelong Kearny resident John Jarvie, 91, a veteran of that “Ghost Army” whose predilection for memorabilia was a direct cause of the documentary’s being created in the first place.
Jarvie’s niece, Martha Garvin of Massachusetts, had borrowed one of the WWII scrapbooks for her son, who had asked if he could use it for a high school project.
Garvin showed it to a Massachusetts filmmaker, Rick Beyer, who came hurrying down to Kearny in 2005 to meet Jarvie, see the rest of the collection and learn more about the 23rd’s mission.
Beyer wrote, produced and directed the upcoming documentary, which features Jarvie, and he co-authored, with illustrator Elizabeth Sayles, a companion book.
The 23rd comprised the creative: artists, set designers, fashion designers (Bill Blass was a member and so was the latter-day Audubon, famed painter Arthur Singer), sound effects specialists and the like. Most of the artists were part of the unit’s 603rd Engineer Battalion, in charge of staging each deceptive deployment. “Every operation was different,” Jarvie noted.
Among the unit’s other three companies was the 3132 Sonic Service, which recorded the sounds of real troop/ equipment movement and mixed them to fit whatever scenario was being created to fool the enemy.
Tanks can’t just appear in a field; it’s more believable if they were “heard” rumbling through the countryside during the night.
The Signal Company specialized in “spoof radio” transmissions and deceptive Morse code messages regarding troop movements. Apparently, every telegrapher has an individual touch, sort of an audio fingerprint. “The Germans were adept at detecting this,” Jarvie explained, “so our operators had to have the same touch as the one they were impersonating.” The Germans would listen, secure in the knowledge they had pinpointed an American unit but, as Beyer’s book notes, “never catch on that the real unit and its radio operator were long gone.”
The 406th Engineer Combat Company executed construction and demolition tasks and, most importantly, provided perimeter security for the Ghost Army.
Jarvie had heard about the Army’s needing artists in 1942, although the concept of the Ghost Army (also called the “Blarney Units”) would not be authorized until 1943. The enlistees’ initial primary job was creating and painting camouflage art.
News of the need “was circulated in art schools,” Jarvie recalled, “and you could get into the unit only if you enlisted.” You also had to be cleared by both the local and State Police. In one of Jarvie’s scrapbooks is the 1942 letter signed by then-Kearny Police Chief John N. Hemsley attesting to the applicant’s sterling character.
So, at age 20, he left the family home at 4 Madison Ave. for basic training at Fort Meade in Maryland. Then it was on to Camp Forest in Tennessee, and eventually to England. It was only in England that the companies that would make up the Ghost Army came together, Jarvie said, since they had all been trained in different places stateside.
When they were given their assignment, “we were told, ‘Chances are you’re not going to come back from this’,” Jarvie remembered.
“We carried very light arms and were sent into places where there was no army to make believe there was an army there.”
“We set up fake artillery to draw fire.”
“And we got shelled. We got shelled a lot.”
They had 300 rubber tanks, each of which could be folded into a 2.5-foot x 3-foot bag. They also had to transport the inflatable artillery, jeeps, planes, tanks, trucks, et al.
“We got artillery fire all the time,” Jarvie said. “The inflatables used to leak regularly, but sometimes it took out our guys, too.” And he wasn’t talking about the inflatable soldiers.
Why use artists for this work? “Because you have to have a concept of how this is going to look,” Jarvie said. “When you want concept, you get artists. Your concept is everything. You ask, ‘What is this going to look like from the air?’”
So when a troop emplacement was set up, it had realistic touches. The rubber trucks and tanks had “left tracks” in the soil, tracks created by bulldozers.
The vehicles, the artillery, the planes were hidden, “but ‘hidden’ so the Germans could see them,” Jarvie said.
When the Germans returned, ready to attack, “there was nothing left but the tracks,” Javie said. “The Ghost Army was gone.”
But not all the Ghost Army’s time was spent in foxholes and among the hedgerows. Part of their job was to spread false information by word-of-mouth, and this they did by patronizing the bars and cafes in nearby towns and villages and talking among themselves.
“France was loaded with spies,” Jarvie said. “There was always someone listening. But the stuff we dropped for them to hear was all phony.”
They had to look the part of whatever American unit they were impersonating at any given time. Although the Ghost Army had its own insignia (see illustration that accompanies this story), it wasn’t seen until after the war.
Instead, the soldiers carried patches of various U.S. units and would sew them on their uniforms as needed for a particular deception.
In all, they took part in over 20 decoy operations. Among them was Operation Brittany, which led the Nazis to believe that Gen. George Patton’s troops were heading west. They weren’t. Patton was moving east to encircle the German 7th Army. And in 1945, as the American 9th Army prepared to cross the Rhine into Germany, the Ghost Army impersonated two full U.S. divisions, 30,000 troops, diverting German attention and allowing the 9th to carry out its attack with minimal resistance.
On July 2, 1945, Jarvie and the others returned to U.S. soil — but not to the end of war. They were sent to Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) in upstate New York, there to start training for the invasion of Japan. Training that about a month later became moot due to the explosion of two atomic bombs.
Mark your calendars for May 21 and check your TV listings. There’s much more to learn about the Ghost Army—and the artwork they created while fighting a war.
And as described in the book, along with danger, there could be humor. One anecdote: “Two Frenchmen on bicycles accidentally got through the perimeter. And what they thought they saw was four GI’s picking up a 40- ton Sherman tank and turning it around.” Ghost Army soldier Arthur Shilstone told the bewildered civilians: “The Americans are very strong.”
Meet Cpl. Jarvie
John Jarvie, 91, proud wearer of the Ghost Army insignia, is a true son of Kearny.
The child of Martha and Alexander Jarvie, who immigrated from Paisley, Scotland, to Kearny in 1910, he was born in 1922 in the family home at 20 Halstead St., at the corner of Brighton Ave.
In 1927, the Jarvies moved to 4 Madison Ave., the home from which he left to join the Army. John attended Roosevelt School, Kearny High School and Cooper Union in New York.
Following the war, he spent 30 years as art director at Fairchild Publications in New York, supervising 10 artists and six to seven writers. He later moved on to become vice president and art director of an automobile agency.
He has lived on Grand Place since 1960 – in a home featuring his art and those of his war buddies, stained glass that had been salvaged from the shattered windows of bombed-out churches and sold to soldiers by French children, and books, books, and more books. Along with three glass and silver liquor decanters that had belonged to Gen. George Patton. These were presented to Jarvie by the general’s daughter-in-law, Joanne Patton.
“She is a big fan of the Ghost Army,” Jarvie said.
Also among his treasures are two empty champagne bottles, which he had shipped (not empty) to his family from France. Incredibly, they arrived intact, and were finally opened in celebration when Jarvie returned home.
It’s all a reminder that there are extraordinary people with extraordinary stories living right here, among us.
Your correspondent feels privileged to have met this one.
– Karen Zautyk