by Rick Beyer
The Ghost Army tells a story of deception, showmanship, art and ingenuity kept secret for nearly 50 years. During World War II, 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was given a unique mission: to impersonate other U.S. Army units in order to fool the enemy. From Normandy to the Rhine, they put on a traveling road show, using inflatable tanks, sound trucks, phony radio transmissions and even playacting to stage their deceptions.
And that’s only half the story. Many of these soldiers were artists, recruited from New York and Philadelphia art schools. (Some of them became famous artists and designers after the war, like PFC Bill Blass, at left.) They literally sketched and painted their way through Europe. More than 60 years later, their artworks, and the stories behind them, offer a unique and highly personal perspective of their trek across a war-torn continent.
Our primary goal in 2006 was to raise enough money to be able to interview veterans of the unit while they are still here with us. Between March and September of 2006 we held six fundraising house parties, and raised $115,000 in cash and pledges from more than 125 donors—an extremely gratifying outpouring of support. I’m a big fan of fundraising house parties. It’s a lot easier to ask someone to help than it is to give. And guess what? If you ask someone to help, they’ll probably give as well. And you’ll both have some fun in the process.
And remember. The people who give aren’t just donors. They are supporters, proselytizers, and potential future donors. You want to make them feel like they are an important part of the team–which they absolutely are. We are trying various ways to keep donors in the loop. We sent an update letter out at Christmastime that resulted in a small number of donations (but more than enough to pay for the mailing). I also keep a blog to keep people updated on our latest news.
All of our characters are over 80, and many are in their 90’s. We felt a great urgency in getting their stories on tape as soon as possible. We were able to interview some at a gathering in Washington D.C. in September of 2005. In July of 2006, co-producer Jacqueline Sheridan, videographer Dillard Morrison and I set up lights and camera equipment in a Manhattan hotel suite, where we spent the week interviewing veterans from the New York and Philadelphia area. In September, we traveled to the west coast, interviewing veterans from Portland, Oregon, to Las Vegas, Nevada. All in all we have interviewed nineteen veterans from ten states. There were plenty of emotional moments, as well as others of high hilarity. Although there are more veteran interviews we want to do, we can rest easy that we have a critical mass of veteran stories on tape.
We have also created a digital Ghost Army archive, collecting more than 500 art works and still photographs from 26 different sources. We keep adding more all the time. The enclosed photo is of one of my favorite pieces of Ghost Army art: Arthur Shilstone’s painting of two startled Frenchmen who think they are watching four Americans lift up a 70-ton Sherman tank!
And there’s more…
In November, we completed grant applications to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. Mass Humanities praised the proposal, but turned it down because it didn’t have enough of a Mass connection. We should hear from NEH later this year.
As part of the application effort, we assembled a terrific panel of history and art scholars from universities across the country to advise us on the film. One of them, Roy Behrens, is an art professor at Northern Iowa University, and a world-renowned expert on camouflage. He truly captured the spirit of the unit in a letter he wrote in support of the project:
Perhaps more than in other varieties of camouflage, this unit had to bridge the gaps between distinctly different disciplines in the arts, sciences and humanities. Looking back, it may not be absurd to say that one of the persons best suited to function in a unit like the Ghost Army might have been Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s great humanists. Like Leonardo, the artists in this unit could not simply or only be artists. Instead, they were also required to think like scientists, psychologists, actors, language experts, and magicians.
Exciting news came in November from The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Director Gordon “Nick” Mueller and his team are enthusiastic about the project, and have written us a strong letter of endorsement that we can use in fundraising efforts. Further, they are interested in working together with us on a traveling museum exhibit, and education outreach efforts. It is exciting to know that an organization of this caliber wants to help us tell the incredible story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, and I look forward to exploring with them how best to work together.
We have accomplished a great deal, but more remains to be done. The next step is to conduct additional research and write a draft script. Then we need to raise the money required for the rest of the filming and editing, which I hope will get underway before the end of 2007. Our goal is to have the film completed before the end of 2008.
So many people have helped us make progress: the veterans and their families, our many generous donors, the terrifically talented production team, and many others who have given freely of their time, energy, and expertise. Martha Gavin, who introduced us to this project, continues to inspire with her enthusiasm and commitment to making it happen. And of course Susi Walsh and CID have been tremendously supportive in ways too numerous to count.
Want to know more? Visit the Ghost army website, or start a conversation below.