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The inflatable tanks that tricked the Germans

  • A dummy M4 Sherman tank like those used by the “Ghost Army.” Courtesy of National Archives

  • Allied Forces used loudspeakers to deceive the enemy. courtesy of National Archives



Monitor staff
Sunday, June 05, 2016

Marie Kirk’s father was an artist. He sketched, he painted and he sculpted.

And in 1944, Kirk said, her father used these abilities – creativity and sheer artistic talent – to help save thousands of lives.

Peter Horbick was a member of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a U.S. Army unit in World War II with a special purpose: to deceive enemy troops about the size and location of U.S. forces.

They used giant inflatable tanks, painted to look like the real deal from above. They employed giant speakers to mimic the sounds of an army 20 times larger. Actors met up in bars and talked over radios, swapping false information for German spies to intercept.

They were called the “Ghost Army” – for just as quickly as troops seemed to arrive, they would disappear, moving on to stage their next performance.

“The art was a big part of it,” said Kirk, a Concord resident. “The Germans thought we had a lot more tanks on the ground than we did. It was all one big trick.”

The unit’s story is a lesser-known one because the information was classified by the government until 1996. The operation began to draw more attention in 2013, with the release of Rick Beyer’s PBS documentary The Ghost Army.

“We are talking about a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe,” Beyer said. “It’s a story about imagination, and it’s about creativity – and using those things in an unexpected way to save lives.”

In the documentary, Beyer interviewed 20 of the 1,100 artists, engineers and actors that composed the Ghost Army to paint the true story of the 21 deceptions staged between the time of D-Day and the crossing of the Rhine River in March of 1945.

“To me, it’s very inspiring because it makes you realize that there may be an out of the box way to think about something that can really solve the problem in a completely different way than you would ever expect,” he said.

The Ghost Army’s story may spread even more in the near future. Bradley Cooper and the producers of American Sniper optioned the movie rights to Beyer’s book in summer 2015.

Around the same time, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster launched a campaign to award the men of the unit the Congressional Gold Medal. With few Ghost Army veterans still living, Kuster currently has 44 co-sponsors for her bill, a number she said she hopes to increase in the near future.

“I think that it’s very important for Americans to recognize our history in World War II and recognize the role that our veterans play and that our troops continue to play in keeping our country safe,” she said. “And sometime it takes very creative measures, and that’s what this film is all about.”

Kuster will host a showing of The Ghost Army at 6:30 tonight at Red River Theatres. A panel discussion with Kuster, Beyer and Kirk will follow the film. Tickets are free, but attendees should register online beforehand.

On the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, the documentary will offer an opportunity to reflect on the lives of the soldiers that served in Europe during the war, Beyer said.

“I think D-Day is an anniversary of great significance not simply to the 175,000 military people who took part in the operation,” he said. “It’s meaningful also in the sense of the continued efforts to redeem the promise of that cross-channel invasion and free Europe.”

Horbick and the Ghost Army played a role in the invasion, Kirk said, impersonating Allied troops to convince the Germans the invasion was happening miles away from the beaches of Normandy.

Horbick died in 2008 at age 87. After the war, Kirk said he continued to pursue a career in art, working for years as a monumental and architectural sculptor.

“For his last 10 years, all he talked about was his service in the Army,” she said. “He had drawings, sketches – the art was a part of the war experience, for him.”

Over the course of his career, Horbick sculpted a number of veteran memorials out of stone, sometimes for free.

“Even if he played a small part overall, his whole life was dedicated to doing art,” she said. “The fact that he used it in the war and to honor veterans. I know that’s special to him.”

(Katie Galioto can be reached at 369-3302, kgalioto@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @katiegalioto.)