'Ghost Army' filmmaker, author to share WWII tale

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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — If war is truly an art, these guys did it.

Fake tank formations, inflatable equipment, phony radio transmissions and dummy airfields.

These were just a few tricks used by a World War II unit trained in deception to thwart the Germans between 1944 and 1945.

The tactics used by the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops to throw off the enemy was a long-kept secret.

That top-secret unit was also known as the "Ghost Army." The unit would make it look and sound like tanks were moving in formation, like encampments were being built.

Or they would impersonate generals, create mock headquarters, move phantom troops.

But it all got declassified by the Pentagon in mid-1990s. In 2005, documentary filmmaker Rick Beyer had a fateful introduction to a woman named Martha Gavin.

Gavin's uncle, John Jarvie, had been a soldier in the unit, and Gavin told him the story, and showed him binders full of photos and Jarvie's artwork.

Excited, Beyer, a former journalist, made a documentary film, "The Ghost Army," which aired on PBS in 2013, and the story has found what appears to be an insatiable audience ever since.

"The Ghost Army has sort of taken over my life," Beyer said by phone from New Orleans, where he was presenting the documentary at a symposium for WWII buffs.

"They were blown away," he added.

Since the documentary's release, Beyer has co-authored a New York Times bestselling book about the unit with award-winning illustrator Elizabeth Sayles, whose father, William Sayles, was a member of the Ghost Army.

Now Beyer is going to give us a dose of it soon with multimedia presentations in Bennington, Brattleboro and Great Barrington, Mass., all sponsored by New England Newspapers Inc., The Bennington Banner, The Brattleboro Reformer, The Manchester Journal and The Berkshire Eagle.

Upcoming multimedia presentations are scheduled for March 14 at 6 p.m. at Latchis Theater, 50 Main St., Brattleboro, and March 15 at 6:30 at Laumeister Art Center (formerly Bennington Art Center), 44 Gypsy Lane in Bennington.

Beyer said the tales of this unit take the WWII story into new territory.

"It takes place at the intersection of art and war," he said. "This was performance art. You are putting on a show and the enemy is your audience, and your audience is a bunch of people who would kill you if they could get their hands on you."

He said if the unit failed to be convincing, "you and thousands of others are going to get killed."

No tall order. And yes, there were casualties: Three were killed and several dozen were wounded over the course of the war.

But they did a great job, one the Germans never cottoned-on to. Their artists would paint airfields so German reconnaissance couldn't spot them from air, for instance.

Many of the men in the unit were already artists, and recruited to be part of the camouflage battalions.

It was one of these battalions the Army said would become the visual deception unit, Beyer said.

And they playacted, too. Beyer said the men would talk loose at the pubs near enemy lines. "Anything to convince a spy," he said.

Beyer said people are so delighted and surprised to learn about this unit. No one knew, he said, because it was kept quiet for so long.

"Many of the men were told not to talk about it. So many of these guys didn't tell anyone about this for 40 to 50 years after the war. In general, the Pentagon was trying to keep the operational details secret to preserve that as military capability. There was a real sense that this was something different and you didn't want to alert potential enemies."

But war has changed.

"Technology is different, war is different, and it didn't make sense to keep it a secret anymore," he said.

Beyer said the story has enchanted him for so many reasons. "I met some of the soldiers, interviewed about 25 of them on video, read their letters, looked at their photos. I fell in love with them. And they were modest."

He said he and Sayles have created a nonprofit, the Ghost Army Legacy Project, in an attempt to bring the unit Congressional Gold Medal honors and other recognition.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts is a fan.

"These brave soldiers brought unique, creative skills to the most dangerous and critical missions," Markey has said. "They epitomized the American can-do, innovative spirit."

It's so compelling that Hollywood already has its paws on it.

Producers of the movie "American Sniper" are working on a film about it. Actor Bradley Cooper is one of the producers, he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

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