Bill Blass and the ‘Ghost Army’ were in charge of audacious WWII deception campaigns - a traveling road show of inflatable tanks, fake radio transmissions, and elaborately staged illusions to dupe the Nazis.
American fashion icon Bill Blass cut a glamorous figure in WWII, reading Vogue in his foxhole and sketching designs for Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires fashion houses in his spare time. Blass was on a deadly serious mission in Europe however. He volunteered to join an innovative military unit of 1,100 artists, actors, and photographers known as the ‘Ghost Army’ who created tactical deception operations.
The group - officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops - specialized in sleight-of-hand, creating illusions with inflatable tanks, fake jeeps, and artillery coupled with speakers that blasted pre-recorded tracks of troops in action to intimidate the Germans.
"I spent most of the war inflating dummy tanks and dreaming up marvelous new uses for chicken feathers," Blass said later.
The ruses worked. Although three of the Ghost Army members were killed and dozens wounded, the military US estimates they saved the lives of 15,000 to 30,000 American servicemen.
Born in 1922 in Indiana, Blass was beginning to make a name for himself in New York fashion circles in the ‘40s when he voluntarily joined the military. Other members of the Ghost Army included painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, and fashion photographer Art Kane. Bill Sayles, an art director and military veteran, recalled Blass’ can-do attitude: "He would never shirk a duty. If it was cleaning trash cans, he was right there with a smile and beautiful teeth."
The Ghost Army was inspired by the British units who had honed their technique during Operation Bertram, a 1942 deception Egyptian operation in which the Allies deceived German General Erwin Rommel about the timing and location of the Allied attack.
Ghost Army: Masters of Battlefield Deception
Established in 1944, the Ghost Army worked under the cover of darkness and employed tactics that included positioning dummy paratroopers to simulate an impending invasion.
The decoy ‘missions’ were backed up with fake radio traffic suggesting the incorrect deployment of large military units. Soldiers also frequented bars to spread false information to spies, Axis informants, and eavesdroppers.
The Ghost Army’s most significant mission was in June 1944, D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France. Four members joined the D-Day landing followed by a 17-man Ghost Army platoon that landed on Omaha Beach eight days later to create dummy artillery placements that drew fire from the Germans.
In 2013, a documentary shed light on the Ghost Army and their astonishing achievements and in 2022 - decades after they saw action - the Ghost Army was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.