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Telling the untold tale of soldiers practiced in the art of deception

US ‘Ghost Army’ sought to mislead enemy in WWII

By Cindy Cantrell
Globe Correspondent / February 23, 2012
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MEDFORD - During a 50-year career in local and state government, Jack McGlynn was a city councilor for 22 years, served five terms as mayor of Medford, and held numerous roles in the state Legislature. For 42 years of that time, he was simultaneously director and board chairman of Medford Cooperative Bank and its successor, Brookline Bank. The city’s John J. McGlynn Sr. Elementary School is named for him, and he is the proud father of Medford’s current mayor, Michael J. McGlynn.

However, he kept an earlier period of his life secret, even from his wife and six children, until he read four years ago that the US government had declassified the information.

“Those were my orders,’’ recalled McGlynn, who will turn 90 on Sunday. “And I followed them.’’

A member of the 23d Headquarters Special Troops, or so-called Ghost Army, McGlynn was among approximately 1,100 American GIs who used inflatable rubber tanks, sound effects, impersonations, scripted radio transmissions, and other trickery to mislead the Germans about the size, strength, and location of American units in World War II. Beginning shortly after D-day, the troops conducted more than 20 clandestine operations through the end of the war.

The hand-picked soldiers included artists, set designers, engineers, and radio operators. In addition to sketching and painting from Normandy to the Rhine River, many achieved post-war fame, among them fashion designer Bill Blass, sculptor and minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, bird artist Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane. Others would go on to careers in illustration, design, advertising, and law.

Their story is chronicled in the independent documentary, “Artists of Deception: The Ghost Army of World War II,’’ by Rick Beyer of Lexington and the book of the same name that he coauthored with Elizabeth Sayles of Valley Cottage, N.Y.

“Not only were these men brave enough to be operating right near the front lines with inflatable tanks, but they were creating this amazing art while they did it,’’ said Beyer, a lifelong history enthusiast and writer who has made films for the History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

“The Army was using creativity to save lives, but the men were exercising their own creativity in this awful environment.’’

At a fund-raiser at 7:30 p.m. on March 2 at the Lexington Depot, there will be a screening of the nearly completed film with champagne, dessert, and an exhibit including wartime photographs by Waltham resident Robert Boyajian, a veteran of the 603d Camouflage Engineers. Tickets cost $75. On March 3 from noon to 6 p.m. at the depot, the exhibit will showcase the soldiers’ original photographs and artwork, wartime artifacts, and documentary footage.

Reenactors from the 26th Yankee Division WWII Living History Group will greet visitors and demonstrate their equipment. Military historian Jon Gawne of Framingham will sign copies of his Ghost Army history, “Ghosts of the ETO: American Tactical Deception Units in the European Theater.’’ Beyer, who is curating the exhibit, will be on hand to discuss his seven-year journey making the documentary. Admission is $5 at the door.

“All along, I had a feeling I was doing more than making a film. I was becoming an archivist of this story,’’ Beyer said. “I was very conscious of the fact these veterans wouldn’t be around forever.’’

In fact, seven of the 20 veterans in the documentary have died since he began videotaping interviews in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, D.C. in 2005. He obtained war footage for the 64-minute film from the Library of Congress and National Archives and Records Administration.

“The film is a salute to all the men involved,’’ Beyer added. “They’re articulate, spirited, amazing guys, but people aren’t aware of them. That’s one of the reasons this is so exciting for me.’’

As a staff sergeant in the 3132d Signal Service Company, McGlynn recalls being given the choice after completing basic training at age 21 of working as a cryptographer for the Pentagon, pursuing specialized Army training in college, or volunteering for a top-secret military organization specializing in sound.

“I figured if we could knock off the Nazis using sound,’’ he recalled, “I was all for that.’’

In Fort Knox, Ky., his sonic deception unit spent a week recording soldiers working and trucks, tanks, and half-tracks (an armored tank-vehicle hybrid) moving back and forth, up and down hills, shifting gears, and backfiring, noises that would be projected through 500-pound speakers to mimic a massive military operation.

The sonic unit shipped out of New York on May 30, 1944, to join its camouflage and radio communications counterparts. Over the next year, the Ghost Army served on the front lines in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, where McGlynn yanked down two Nazi flags from a building that had been the Germans’ headquarters “because it stood for the massacre of all those wonderful people.’’

McGlynn laughs now at his youthful shock that Utah Beach in France looked so similar to the beaches of Cape Cod. He also remembers a variety of living arrangements: a cleared pigpen in France; a town hall in Germany; and foxholes all over Europe providing so much insulation from the wind and cold that he likened them to “going into a hotel.’’

“The further you went into the ground,’’ he recalled, “the warmer it became.’’

However, McGlynn’s most memorable moment occurred while leading a platoon down a country road during the Battle of the Bulge. When he couldn’t supply the password to a fellow soldier brandishing a machine gun, the sergeant suspected the men of impersonating Americans to sneak back into Germany.

“He asked where I was from and I said, ‘Boston.’ He growled, ‘Where? That’s a big place.’ I told him Medford, and then he wanted to know the name of the school on Harvard Street. I was relieved because I lived on Harvard Street, so I passed the Lincoln School every day.

“There were millions of Americans in the Army and I ran into someone who lived a quarter-mile from me,’’ McGlynn continued. “My one regret is that I didn’t remember his name so when I came home, I could contact him.’’

Like McGlynn, one of the occasional duties of US Army Corporal John Jarvie of Kearny, N.J., was impersonating soldiers from vastly larger divisions by painting different US Army insignia on their vehicles, sewing patches onto their uniforms, and talking boisterously about invented battle plans in cafes, bars, and marketplaces that were believed to be under German surveillance.

Jarvie, who was a 20-year-old art student when he joined the 603d Camouflage Engineers in October 1942, was a jeep driver and expert in badly camouflaging rubber artillery, tanks, trucks, and even airplanes so they would be visible to enemies scouting overhead. Now approaching his 90th birthday on Tuesday, it was his niece, Martha Gavin of Beverly, who initially shared with Beyer the Ghost Army’s role and armfuls of three-ring binders containing Jarvie’s artwork created during periods of downtime overseas.

“The only real thing was the soldiers. We joked about it, but it wasn’t fun when shells came whistling in. We lost a few guys that way,’’ said Jarvie, who attended Cooper Union Art School in N.Y. with Singer and befriended Blass in the Army. While Blass was known for tailoring his uniform and reading Vogue in his foxhole, he was just one of the guys in those days.

“Bill Blass wasn’t Bill Blass in the Army. He was Blass, as in ‘Blass, do this’ or ‘Blass, do that,’ ’’ said Jarvie, who eventually became art director for the in-house ad agency of Fairchild Publications, owner of Women’s Wear Daily. “They were all good guys, talented guys.’’

Although it can be emotional to recall the “terrible devastation’’ of the war, McGlynn said it has been an honor to share memories of his service in the Ghost Army with Beyer.

“Going through Belgium and France, we saw house after house destroyed, and we heard about the Jewish people being treated so badly, which always bothered me,’’ he said. “If we could do anything to help, in any way, we did it. We saved lives.’’

To date, Beyer has raised $158,521 for the documentary from individual donations nationwide. He estimates that he needs at least $30,000 more to complete the film, which he hopes to do by June 30. Beyer may submit it to film festivals or offer screenings at colleges and art museums, but his ultimate goal is its broadcast on public or network television.

“Getting it done is the first half of the battle,’’ he said. “The next half is finding a way for people to see it.’’

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