Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Ghost Army

World War II was a blend of strategies, battlefronts, and brave and warring men and women. Innumerable pages fill books about these individuals, but a group of creative and artistic men who participated in World War II recently captured my attention. These crews, known as the Ghost Army were not soldiers trained with assault weapons; instead they were actors and artists who successfully fought in World War II with an entirely different set of war tactics. Known by the Army as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, this 1,100-man Ghost Army started into action in June 1944 near Normandy. Their top-secret assignment was to use deception, trickery, and bluffs to save lives during World War II.

To accomplish this the Ghost Army set up their props from Normandy to the Rhine, staging twenty different battle deceptions while impersonating U.S. Army units in order to mislead the enemy. To accomplish this they used inflatable tanks, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes as well as giant speakers that broadcast sounds of artillery, troops, and fake radio transmissions. The author, Rick Beyer, stated that the Ghost Army traversed “the European Theater to put on a traveling road show of deception, two nights here, and a week there, with the German Army as their audience."

The camouflage engineers of the Ghost Army were responsible for the visual deceptions. Air compressors were used to inflate pump-up tanks, cannons, airplanes, trucks, and jeeps. After these were deflated they were hidden so they could not to be detected by air. The camouflage engineers from the Ghost Army could create dummy airfields, artillery batteries, motor pools, and tank formations within just a few hours. They also generated fake troop bivouacs that even included phony laundry hanging out on the line to dry.

The Ghost Troops also did some play-acting to mislead their enemies. At times their illusions involved driving trucks in looping convoys with just two men in the seats near the tailgate; this simulated a truck full of infantry under the canvas cover. Recorded sounds being played from the covered back of the vehicle assisted with the illusion of a full vehicle. Actors also posed as military police and were deployed at cross roads wearing appropriate divisional emblems. A few of the “ghost officers” simulated staff officers and generals, and visited towns where the enemy would be likely to see them. At times, actual artillery pieces and tanks were assigned to the Ghost Unit to make the imitations seem more realistic to the enemy from a distance.

The Ghost experts in sonic deception worked with engineers at Bell Laboratories. Before heading to Europe, this team went to Fort Knox and recorded sounds of armored and infantry troops. Sounds were recorded on state-of-the-art wire recorders, the forerunner of tape recorders. Once in Europe, these pre-recorded sounds were mixed to match the deception the Ghost Army was trying to make the enemy believe. On the battlefield, the sounds were blasted from huge amplifiers and speakers attached to half-tracks. These bogus sounds of battle could be heard fifteen miles away.

The United States Army gathered their Ghost Troops from the world of talented artists and actors. These men literally painted, sketched and acted their way across Europe during the war. The Ghost Army landed in France a few weeks after D-Day and ‘fought’ until the war ended. They staged over twenty battlefield deceptions and were usually functioning near the front lines.

Their first mission in France was to simulate a fake Mulberry Harbor at night using lights to entice German fire away from the actual troops. Next they assisted in confusing the German troops at Brest. Using speakers and pre-recorded sounds, the Ghost Army led the opposing forces to believe there were approximately 30,000 men nearby waiting to attack; far more than were actually there.

Members of the Ghost Army were talented artists previous to the beginning of World War II. Many of them spent their downtime while on the front lines, filling notebooks and journals with drawings of their surroundings, each other and their deceptions. After the war ended, the Ghost Soldiers continued in their chosen fields of artistic endeavors. A few recognizable names from the Ghost Army include: clothing designer, Bill Blass; sculptor Ellsworth Kelly; and wildlife artist Arthur Singer.

Friday, February 3, 2012

New Netherland, Sheep and Ice Cream

On April 15, 1660, Cornelis Jacobsz Van Leeuwen sailed from Amsterdam on the ship Bontekoe (The Spotted Cow). The ship was filled with families, soldiers and Cornelis’ employer, Roelof Swartwout; all were on their way to the colony of New Netherland.  After a few months at sea, the twenty-four foot wide ship, reached New Amsterdam, which today is New York City.  Swartwout was a farmer but had recently been appointed by the Dutch India Company to serve as a schout or sherrif in the town of Wiltwijck. He had been on business in The Netherlands and was returning on the Bontekoe to his home in the New World.

In the colony of New Netherland, a schout was responsible for keeping the town orderly, and free “from rabble and dicing,” and monitoring the weight of baked bread (Jacobs, 90). Carrying out these duty required him to be among the people of the town and attend meetings with other town authorities every fourteen days, expect during harvest time. During these meetings, various civil cases and disagreements were brought before the schout and leaders to be discussed and an outcome decided upon.

We do not know what Van Leeuwen’s exact duties were as he assisted Swartwout. Most likely, he was out among the people as well, observing the interactions of the colonists and stepping in when needed. For our purposes here, it is of interest to note that there was an individual with the name of Van Leeuwen, in 1660, who live in what would one day become New York.

In the late 1800s, near where Van Leeuwen had lived 200 years previously, a unique sight was beginning to unfold. The caretakers of Central Park in New York made the decision to grow and maintain a lawn. Many of us today may not understand the distinctive importance of this, but before the nineteenth century, not many people had lawns because it was simply too expensive to keep a “greensward” as they were called. There were basically two ways to maintain a lawn in the 1800s. First, a crew of people could be hired to scythe, gather and haul away the cut grass continually during the growing season. The second option was to keep a flock of sheep that would roam through the grass and nibble it down to keep it trimmed. The gardener of Central Park decided to use a herd of 200-300 sheep to do the job; he also employed a shepherd who watched over these sheep. Each morning and evening the sheep were herded in front of the beautiful building where they slept at night. Here visitors could watch them eat, look at paintings of different kinds of sheep and even examine sheep’s wool under a microscope.  All of the sheep along with their shepherd lived in this building until the 1930’s when it was changed into the Tavern on the Green Restaurant.

After decades of being in business, the Tavern on the Green has closed and the building is now being used as a gift shop for Central Park visitors. Various food vendors come and go but there are three mobile food vendors that are always set up on the outdoor terrace of the old sheep building. They are: Pera Mediterranean Brasserie, Rickshaw Dumpling Truck and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream. Not only is Van Leeuwen’s Artisan Ice Cream one of New York’s best but it’s name also sounds quite familiar. I’m certain that Cornelis would be quite surprised with the transformation of his little town into what New York is today; and he might even enjoy an ice cream cone with his name on it.

Jacobs, Jaap. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (New York: Cornell University, 2009).