‘Ghost Army’ tells of trickery, stagecraft of U.S. in WWII

The fascinating new PBS documentary, “The Ghost Army” (airing tonight on KCTS), tells the story of some crafty Americans who were tasked with the job of punking Hitler.

We are talking about the 1,100 or so G.I.s who served in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a “field deception unit” entrusted in the summer of 1944 with creating the illusion of advancing tanks and troops across Europe, designed to fool the Germans.

Made up of artists, designers, set builders, sound engineers and other creative types, this ghost army successfully confused the enemy — and seemed to have a wonderful time doing it, even if their work was intended to draw fire upon themselves in order to give an edge to Allied troops.

Ahead of and alongside the D-Day invasion, the ghost army traveled with instruments of trickery and outdoor stagecraft, including elaborate recordings that mimicked pontoon-bridge construction and tank movements.

To keep themselves entertained, they kept private sketchbooks of war’s everyday horrors, destruction, banality and companionship. (Concurrent to the making of the documentary, an exhibition of the soldiers’ artworks has made its way to several museums.)

Their contributions to winning the war were kept classified for four decades.

“The Ghost Army’s” idea of deception seems like a quaint and delightfully absurd notion compared with the many deceptions involved in today’s war on terror. Suicide bombers and the makers of improvised explosives must also invent ways to sneak around and be clever.

And what is a drone, meanwhile, if not an elaborate and brutally efficient riff on the remote-controlled toy?

Once more I am struck by the shape and texture of World War II, and how, for all its many horrors, can still provide fresh stories of teamwork and bonhomie.

Watch it

“The Ghost Army premieres at 8 tonight on KCTS.

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