THE 23RD WAS OFFICIALLY ACTIVATED on January 20, 1944, and the bulk of the unit Headquarters Special Troops arrived in England in May, shortly before D-Day. Led by regular army veteran Colonel Harry L. Reeder, this highly irregular unit would go to war with three types of tools: visual, sonic, and radio. Visual deception was handled by the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. Many of this battalion’s men were artists recruited from New York and Philadelphia art schools. (The outfit was said to have the highest IQ in the army.) In stolen moments of spare time they painted and sketched everything they saw, creating a unique visual record of the war. “We were sleeping in hedgerows and foxholes,” says John Jarvie, “but nothing ever kept us from going someplace to do a watercolor.” One of the artists was a 21-year-old from Indiana named Bill Blass. Fellow veterans recall that the future fashion designer read Vogue magazine in his foxhole, and his wartime notebooks are filled with sketches of women’s fashions. He was one of many Ghost Army soldiers who went on to prominent postwar art careers.
Ellsworth Kelly would become one of the nation’s foremost painters and sculptors. Arthur Singer’s drawings of birds would eventually illustrate dozens of books and a series of US postage stamps. Art Kane’s photograph of 57 musicians on a stoop in Harlem would become a jazz art icon. And Ed Haas would be credited as one of the creators of the 1960s television show The Munsters. To pull off its visual trickery, the 603rd was equipped with truckloads of inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks, and even airplanes. With these they created dummy armored formations, motor pools, and artillery batteries that looked like the real thing from the air. Attention to detail was critical in concocting convincing illusions. Bulldozers even scraped fake tread-tracks in the ground leading up to 93-pound, inflatable Sherman tanks. Working with these faux tanks had its lighter moments. Corporal Arthur Shilstone was on guard duty one day when he halted two Frenchmen on bicycles who accidentally wandered past his post. “They weren’t looking at me,” he says. “They were looking over my shoulder. And what they thought they saw was four GIs picking up what was a 40-ton Sherman tank and turning it around.” As they searched for an explanation, Shilstone finally told them “The Americans are very strong.”