Masters of deception served during World War II
While many of the stories of US military action during World War II are well known, others are still coming to light. One is that of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which began arriving in Normandy 18 days after D-Day and staged more than 20 missions over the ensuing nine months. Specializing in deception, their task was to make it appear that 1,100 men were really two divisions — about 30,000 men — confusing the enemy as real troops were put into place for battle.
Known as the Ghost Army, the men are the subject of a documentary by that name that will be shown on PBS Tuesday, May 21, at 8 p.m. Producer Rick Beyer was introduced to the Ghost Army by the niece of one of the veterans eight years ago and subsequently interviewed more than 50 of them, 19 of whom are included in the documentary.
One of those men is Arthur Shilstone of Redding, who had a long career as an illustrator and continues to paint watercolors of fishing and hunting scenes and show his work in galleries.
Mr. Shilstone, now 90, was a 20-year-old art student at Pratt Institute when he enlisted. “A colonel came to Pratt looking for artists to be part of a camouflage unit,” he recalled, “but you had to apply for what turned out to be a top-secret operation; it was an intelligent and creative bunch.”
Many members of the unit went on to illustrious careers; the most well-known are fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly and photographer Art Kane.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops brought together four units: 3132 Sonic Service Company (sonic deception); Signal Company Special (radio deception), 406th Engineer Combat Company (perimeter security providers) and the 603d Engineering Battalion (visual deception), to which Mr. Shilstone belonged. It was this camouflage unit that set up the inflatable trucks, tanks, artillery and jeeps in ways to fool the enemy from the air, as well as to create the illusion of a greater presence to those on the ground “disguising ourselves using phony markings on trucks, patches on our uniforms.”
Mr. Shilstone notes that his unit comprised architects, engineers and artists and did perform engineering tasks such as building bridges, roads and cutting down trees. “The design of the program was pretty ingenious,” he said, “but you couldn’t get away with it today.”
And in the downtimes, the artists in the company sketched and painted what they what they saw; the documentary makes good use of some of those images. Mr. Shilstone said, “At the time, I considered the sketches a visual diary; I was fascinated with the whole thing.” He has no idea of how many images he created, but “many were sent home, and I was delighted when my family was able to send some watercolors to me.”
Commenting on Mr. Shilstone’s participation in the documentary, Mr. Beyer said, “Arthur is a tremendous artist and a tremendous storyteller and we are lucky to have him in the film. One story he tells in the film resonates very strongly to me. It’s about being on the troopship, about to climb down the nets into the landing craft to land on Omaha Beach. And he is so blown away by the scene… all the ships, all the action, that he whips out his sketch book and draws it. Think about that: he’s there with his pack, and his rifle and his gear, amidst all these guys, about to dangle perilously off the side of a ship and jump into a landing craft, and he’s got the presence of mind to pull out his sketch pad and capture the scene!
“Like most of the soldiers in The Ghost Army that I have talked to, Arthur is exceedingly modest about their contribution, but to me these guys are all rock stars, and I want everyone to know about what they did.”
Once introduced to the story of the Ghost Army, he continued, “I was fascinated by the layers; it became sort of a quest to get the story out there, to keep the memories alive. The story has been told before — a Smithsonian article published in mid-80s, a couple of books have been written — but I think people have a hard time believing it; I was excited to meet the guys and tell the story of their bizarre mission.”
The article in the April 1985 Smithsonian was illustrated, and instigated, by Mr. Shilstone, who had a 21-year relationship with the magazine and institution. “Once the information had been declassified, I managed to steer a conversation with some of the people I knew there around to the subject, and they agreed it would make an interesting article and assigned it to one of their best writers.”
When Mr. Beyer came across the article in his research, he contacted Mr. Shilstone.
After the war, Mr. Shilstone returned to Pratt on the GI bill, graduating in 1947. He then began “the arduous journey to find work; I’ve been a freelancer all my life. When I started out I had three goals: to work for national magazines, travel for my work and to live in the country … guess I’d have to say that it’s worked out well so far…”
His work has been published in 31 national magazines, including National Geographic, Gourmet and Sports Illustrated.. His 12-year stint with Life included illustrating articles on murder trials, his first being that of Sam Sheppard — “the OJ of his time” — and such news stories as the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education case and the funeral of Senator Joseph McCarthy. He also worked for NASA, completing seven onsite assignments including the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle.
He and his wife Bea, who worked as fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily, will be married 60 years in August and moved to Redding 55 years ago. “We were living in Westport, but looking for something more rural. One day Bea called and said she thought she found our new house. It was a converted, 200-year-old barn that had served as a studio for an art school. When I arrived, I saw a hawk making lazy circles in the sky and said, ‘This is my house’ — even though the studio space had no lights or heat, just a lot of old trunks, cobwebs and dust.” An enormous north-facing window provided the only light.
Mr. Beyer has been promoting The Ghost Army at film festivals and other screenings — it recently won the Audience Award at the Salem (Mass.) Film Fest, and was shown last week GI Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and was screened at the World War II Museum in New Orleans this week. A traveling exhibit on the subject is also visiting museums around the country.
Some of the artwork shown in the documentary is currently on display at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, and the film will be screened at The Nyack Center Monday, May 27, at 5 p.m. An exhibition of Mr. Shilstone’s work is on view at the Mahopac Public Library (he lived in the town in his youth) and the Mark Twain Library in Redding will exhibit some of his NASA work later this year.
Additional information about The Ghost Army can be found on Mr. Beyer’s website, ghostarmy.org.