World War II’s deceptive game-changer

An exhibition of 'The Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II' has opened at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

An exhibition of 'The Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II' has opened at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Before D-Day 1944, when the Allied assault rushed the beaches of Normandy, the U.S. Army had developed a ruse against the Germans.

The Ghost Army, or the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, activated as a unit on Jan. 20, 1944, to deceive the Germans by simulating two divisions that normally consisted of 30,000 men. Additionally, the 23rd HQ used inflatable (fake) tanks, vehicles and radios along with sound effects and radio traffic to confuse the enemy.

Prior to the D-Day landing on Normandy on June 7, Operation Fortitude, which included soldiers from the Ghost Army, tricked the Nazis into believing a major amphibious assault would land in the Pas-de-Calais region across the Strait of Dover and miles away from the original target of Omaha and Utah beaches.

In May, less than a month before D-Day, the unit sailed for England from the United States and then located near Stratford-upon-Avon. That in itself is an irony since William Shakespeare, who hailed from Stratford, was a master of deception and irony when writing many of his plays.

An exhibit produced by the World War II Museum in New Orleans has opened at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through July 23. Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II depicts the secret campaign waged against Hitler’s army and reveals “Not All is Fair in Love and War.” Active military members, their families and veterans receive free admission because of the E. L. Wiegand Foundation’s support.

The art of deception in war, however, has been in existence for centuries.

“I never heard of this army before this,” said Rebecca Eckland, the museum’s director of Communications and Marketing. “Military deception is nothing new. Homer wrote about it in the ‘Iliad,’ the Trojan horse.”

Likewise, Felipe Gutierrez de Alba, a program director with the Veterans Resource Office at Truckee Meadows Community College, never knew a Ghost Army existed. He took his time walking from exhibit to exhibit, reading the narrative for each.

“What they did is very interesting,” said Gutierrez, a sergeant who deployed to Iraq more than a decade ago with the Marines.

Eckland said she also has reached out to the area’s veterans’ groups such as the Vietnam Veterans of America chapters, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Honor Flight Nevada and many more to visit the exhibit and learn more about the art of deception.

Army Col. Peter Crean, vice president of Education and Access at the National WWII Museum, said the exhibit had a well-received run in Skokie, Illinois, and he also feels it will provide a wonderful experience for museum visitors in Northern Nevada.

“The inflatables are neat,” he said after the formal introduction of the exhibit. “You see photographs from World War II of a half-dozen guys picking up a tank. That’s jarring to the eye.”

During the last year of the war in Europe, the 23rd conducted almost two dozen largescale deceptions in Europe ranging from Normandy in northern France to the Rhine River, a major tributary that splits western Germany by flowing from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Crean then revealed his favorite deception enacted by the 23rd, a fake command headquarters on exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art.

“There’s a Morse Code machine,” he said. “The kids can go in and play around with the Morse code. I love anything that involves kids.”

Morse code during the war enabled the allies to encode text characters with dots and dashes that transmitted with varying signal continuances.

Crean said the Ghost Army tells an amazing story of the men and women who became professional liars. Not only did the soldiers assigned to the 23rd each have a story to tell, said Crean but so did another 16 million who wore the uniform. The 23rd consisted of 82 officers and 1,023 men, many of them possessing some of the highest IQs in the Army. Col. L. Reeder the unit.

Vietnam veterans Curtis McLachlan and Tom Spencer, both members of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter 388 in Carson City, were among those invited to the opening.

“This is actually what they did during the World War II, to fake the enemy,” said McLachlan, a resident of Mound House.

While serving with the 1st Army Aviation Brigade, McLachlan, though, doesn’t remember much trickery from his two tours between 1970-1972.

“We didn’t have anything fake. It was all real,” he recalled.

McLaughan, though, has also taken an interest in the history of war by gathering hundreds of items ranging from photographs to other memorabilia from Vietnam. At several Northern Nevada Vietnam events, his memorial museum has been a popular stop.

“I’ve actually been to the museum in New Orleans, and it was something to see,” Spencer said.

Spencer said he enjoyed the exhibit.

“The Ghost Army literally elevated battlefield deception to an art form,” explained David B. Walker, CEO of the museum. “We are forever grateful for these soldiers and their creativity, their ingenuity and their bravery.”

Walker pointed out the exhibition represents another milestone in art and how the museum presents it to the community.

Phil Satre, chairman of Wynn Resorts and a trustee with the WWII Museum, provided an overview of the museum beginning with its history and mission.

“The World War II Museum tells the story of the American experience in a war that changed the world,” he said.

Satre said all generations will be able to understand freedom, and as a result of that awareness, they will be inspired by what they learned.

“The message of the museum is the price and value of freedom has resonated with Americans of all backgrounds and ages,” he added.


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