Historical Society of Rockland County Unveils Photography Exhibit: World War II Ghost Army 603rd Camouflage Engineers
A Rockland Historical Society exhibit celebrates an unusual WWII unit
Children of veterans grow up hearing old war stories, and Liz Sayles is no different. But the stories her father, Bill, told were very different than the tales spun by most soldiers. She didn’t quite appreciate just how unusual they were, however, until a documentary filmmaker showed up four years ago to interview her dad about his days in what has come to be known as the Ghost Army.
Now, thanks to an exhibit curated by Sayles at the Historical Society of Rockland County, all of us can learn the remarkable story — which was classified and kept top secret for 50 years — that she heard as a child.
Double take: Faux tanks, such as the one pictured above, along with fake artillery and battlefield sound effects kept enemies guessing during World War II; (below) soldier Bill Blass — who later became a famous fashion designer — smiles from a Jeep
Just after D-Day in 1944, the U.S. Army sent a battalion called the 603rd Camouflage Engineers into Europe. No ordinary grunts — this battalion was made up of artists and actors — armed with rubber tanks, phony artillery, ersatz uniforms, and a cache of sound effects. Their mission: to deceive the enemy. Their strategy was to impersonate different army units, conjure fake deployments and troop movements, fool spies, and generally create the biggest military deception since the Trojan Horse.
Being young artists, the soldiers also spent their spare time painting and sketching their way across war-torn Europe. That artwork, most of which had been forgotten in filing cabinets or basement boxes for the past 60 years, is exquisite, which isn’t surprising when you learn just who these soldiers were. Remarkably, some of them grew up to be nationally known figures such as fashion designer Bill Blass, artists Ellsworth Kelly and Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane. Bill Sayles, of South Nyack, shared a New York City studio with fellow Ghost Army veteran Arthur Shilstone after the war, and had a long career as an art director, illustrator, and craft book producer. Another regional artist, Ned Harris of New City, became a renowned photographer and designer, and eventually co-owned the New York design firm Wallack and Harris. Many others had distinguished lives in the arts and design fields.
Inflatable tanks were often used as decoys to fool spies. Ned Harris (above) was an artist who contributed to the cause; below, two soldiers lift and carry an inflatable tank
Photograph (above) courtesy of Ned Harris
“My father told us stories of moving inflatable tanks in the middle of the night, how they would drive around villages for hours and hours so it seemed like a lot of troops were moving in when it was only a couple of hundred, of how Bill Blass resewed his uniform so it would fit better, all these bizarre stories,” says Sayles, an illustrator who lives in Valley Cottage. “They would sew patches on their uniforms to impersonate different divisions and then hang out in cafes, so spies would see them and think the Ninth Army was in the area, when in fact they were nowhere near there.” When filmmaker Rick Beyer stopped by to interview her father, “it dawned on me that this was a great story that others would be interested in, and it would make a great exhibit and art show,” she says.
Beyer learned about the Ghost Army when he was introduced to a woman whose uncle was in the unit. “We met at a Starbucks, and she brought a binder filled with her uncle’s drawings and paintings. I was stunned by it,” Beyer remembers. The woman’s uncle is John Jarvie, who became the art director for the in-house ad agency for Fairchild Publications, owner of Women’s Wear Daily.
Not everyone was an artist, Beyer says. “The camouflage guys were engineers. They created tank tracks, spent shells, and debris to paint the complete picture. They used sound effects in trucks along the road, so it seemed like a column of tanks was moving in. They used radio deception, copying real telegraph operators to create special effects like communications from phony headquarters. It really was a multimedia deception, a traveling show.” His film, he says, is ultimately about the wonders of creativity.
A “convoy” of fake vehicles along a road
Ned Harris, just 18, was a student at Pratt when he was drafted. “I was in a barracks full of artists, and felt immediately at home,” he says. Now 86, Harris says he had forgotten about the watercolors he made, which he lugged through the war in a German grenade case and had never shown his family. “This exhibit and film are taking me back to another era in my life,” he says. “It’s a big surprise, and very rewarding.”