University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Documenting WWII's 'Ghost Army'

Martha Gavin
Martha Gavin '70


Documenting WWII’s ‘Ghost Army’

Martha Gavin ’70 has childhood memories of her uncle's watercolor paintings of burned-out churches with little more than steeples still standing. At the time, she was told by her parents not to ask too many questions about them; her uncle had drawn them while serving in World War II, and veterans didn’t like to talk about war, they warned.

“I remember specifically asking my mom and dad, “Why does Uncle John just paint broken churches? Why doesn’t he paint ‘together’ churches?” recalls Gavin. “They had created a narrative in their minds about how war had been a horrible experience for Uncle John, so we never asked him about it, which sounded perfectly reasonable to me. But it turned out that he didn’t talk about it because it was actually top secret, and he wasn't allowed to.”

Years later, when her son was sifting through some paintings, photographs and letters in the basement that her uncle, John Jarvie, had woven together chronologically, it became evident that he was in fact a member of an eclectic, top-secret unit of 1,100 eclectic artists, actors, set designers, and sound technicians known as the “Ghost Army.” The special unit was responsible for engineering some of the greatest military deceptions in history using inflatable rubber tanks and artillery, artful illusions, and the latest sound technology. Its efforts helped the Allies win the war by arranging twenty intricately orchestrated battlefield deceptions from June 1944 to March 1945 in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany that tricked Hitler’s armies into believing that Allied forces were in places they were nowhere near.

“My uncle was the youngest of his generation, so all my aunts and uncles, including my parents, died not knowing about it,” says Gavin. “All they knew was that he served in the war and painted on his down time. We were really totally unaware of it until he was able to talk about it after an imposed secrecy for fifty years.”

The unprecedented use of art to help win the war without ever firing a shot by the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops is the focus of Ghost Army, a documentary by filmmaker Rick Beyer that premiered on PBS in May.

By broadcasting fake radio traffic and using inflatable tanks, jeeps and aircraft to create phantom soldier and artillery formations, the Ghost Army managed to convince German reconnaissance and intelligence that they were an army of up to thirty thousand men. They played sound recordings of tanks and loud troops, using state-of-the-art recording devices to project sounds up to fifteen miles. To add to each deception, some members of the Ghost Army hung out in local bars and cafes telling fake stories in hopes that spies might overhear them and buy into the forthcoming grand illusion.

In order to pull off such intricate deceptions, including a crossing of the Rhine to draw German troops away from actual sites, the U.S. military recruited from art schools and ad agencies across the country. Some members of the unit would go on to enjoy successful careers, including fashion designer Bill Blass, who sketched renderings of clothing designs and his future company logo while sitting in his foxhole. Minimalist painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly and photographer Art Kane were also part of the unit. Jarvie went on to become a successful art director for Women’s Wear Daily and other Fairchild Inc. publications. 

“There was no rule book for it, so they had to have an extremely bright group of guys who were not only talented and intelligent, but also had to be able to think on their feet and problem solve to deal with whatever confronted them,” says Gavin. “They had to be very realistic and very careful. You can’t have a tank blow up just because it took a bullet. As Rick likes to say, ‘the Trojan Horse only works once.’”

The more Gavin learned about her uncle’s unit, which was secret until 1996 although some parts still remain classified, the more she thought it might be worth telling to a larger audience. She ran it by a friend, who set up a meeting with Beyer at a Starbucks in Lexington, Massachusetts. Beyer was immediately hooked by the idea and has worked on the film, which includes interviews with twenty-one surviving members of the unit, for the past eight years.

Gavin, who is listed as a producer on the film, has worked tirelessly to raise money and support Beyers’ efforts.

“I don’t know if there’s a name for what I do, because I don’t know the first thing about making movies,” says Gavin, who graduated from UVM with a degree in English and history and later taught history before working in research in Boston as a psycho-educational specialist. “I delivered the idea for the story, but primarily I’ve tried to help Rick find fundraising opportunities and support him and the film however possible.”

Gavin says the self-funded film has multiple messages and serves as an example of how creative, collaborative thinking can produce powerful results.

“Somehow the army was able to determine who would be good in this unit and they did it with totally opposite segments of our culture and society,” says Gavin. “It’s an amazing example of the military complex, corporate America and the whole art and design world working hand-in-glove for a common purpose. They developed road maps for creative, outside-the-box thinking and problem solving that we should be using today.”

- Jon Reidel G’06

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