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Review: Ghost Army

Ghost Army of World War II: Jack Kneece: 9781565548763: ...

Kneece, Jack. Ghost Army of World War II. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 2001. 280. Reviewed by Steven Harkness

World War II famously glorified a certain kind of man. The leather-skinned, square-jawed, barrel-chested, all-American athlete, farmboy, or factory worker, as represented by the fatigued Gregory Pecks of the era to American audiences on stage and screen-- those caricatures became stock imagery, and a model of American manhood for the generation to come. Reflecting on the period, one does not as often conjure images of actors, fashion designers, and artists. However, one of the most courageous, clever, (and classified!) Army divisions of all time may well have been just such a group of men. To this reviewer’s knowledge, there still hasn’t been a movie made about them yet, so it is highly likely that general audiences will be wholly unfamiliar with the fighting twenty-third, the Ghost Army. By itself, that alone makes Jack Kneece’s 2001 history of one of America’s best kept secrets (and we don’t keep them well, you know) a rare treasure. But there are lots of other wonderful things to love about this book, nevertheless.

Bill Blass was a world class fashion designer to the stars, owning, at the height of his life, a $700 million firm in New York City that catered to Nancy Reagan and Barbara Streisand. Bill Syracuse was a card shark who stashed away $30,000 worth of PFC (read Privates’ Friday Checks) during his tour with the 23rd, depositing his winnings with the army payroll, and infamously pulling his .45 on the clerks who were planning to dupe him out of his loot at the end. Bill Thompkins was an artist from Nevada. Art Shilstone was an illustrator. Holwell Railey wrote for the New York Times and published Touched with Madness. What they all had in common was a super-secret mission most of them would never receive recognition for during their lifetimes. Some of those men, at the time this book was published, only a few years after the declassification of the mission in 1996, were indeed still trying to wrangle their friends’ posthumous medals and commendations out of congress, notably between the Lewinsky years and the repeal of Glass Steagall (both of which congress had plenty of time for). This is the next most important thing about Kneece’s work. Some 1,100 men, give or take, participated in some of the craziest, most dangerous, and critically important missions anyone on earth could have cooked up. They deserve recognition for their services, and their stories should be told and taught thoughtfully. This much, Kneece certainly accomplishes. But the real value in this book, as the author himself might agree, is the content.

These stories are compelling. Sometimes, they are downright scary. And they are quite often unbelievable. The following is an excerpt from the Ghost Army’s itinerary through Europe, not even for the whole war, mind you, just from the period starting with the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy and concluding with the Battle of the Bulge. This passage is taken from the publicized account of the division’s missions upon their return to the States. The reader is reminded, none of what they did was declassified until 1996, so reporters and public officials describing this division during their inevitable welcome-home parade had no idea what any of these people had contributed:

“...watched the liberation of Cherbourg, drove through the rubble of St. Lo, could have been cut off by the German counterattack at Mortain, helped put the squeeze on Von Ramke at Brest, took the cheers and kisses of frenzied Parisians, were second into Luxembourg after the Fifth Armored Division, shared the cold snow storms south of Bastogne with the Fourth Armored Division...hung around the dreary Saarland with XX Corps, gasped as the A/B flew over to secure a bridgehead on the lower Rhine.”

One of their first objectives was to assist the British in Operation Fortitude, the plan to persuade Hitler that the Allies would land at Pas de Calais instead of the low, drafty shores of cinematic legend. The Ghost Army’s job in that mission was to “freeze Hitler’s Panzers at Calais,” awaiting an imaginary invasion force, led by Patton himself, no less, that would never materialize. This is the best working example of what the Ghost Army’s purpose was, but it’s how they did it that matters. Two words: inflatable tanks. Also, inflatable artillery, trucks, and countless other big toys, all made out of rubber, totalling about a thousand individual pieces, designed to be covered in canvas or parked in the open to dupe the German reconnaissance pilots into believing there were real machines below. Throw in some “huge speakers” to mimic the sounds of these machines in motion, fake an absurd amount of radio traffic, and have a few platoons march in big circles to mimic larger troop movements, and it’s easy to see how easily such a group could just get mowed down by a handful of determined Nazis if the bluff ever got called. But ironically, since the Nazis thought the Americans were stupid and cowardly, they bought this zany ruse every single time!

The Ghost Army could impersonate entire divisions, between 15,000 and 30,000 men, with full armament. Doing so allowed the allies to hold vastly superior German forces in place for weeks at a time, either waiting on reinforcements or, much more comically, actually allowing entire divisions to move out at night and relocate to more advantageous positions. Over time, the Ghost Army actually persuaded some of the more observant Nazi generals that the US Army must have master logisiticians, because they couldn’t understand how they could be fighting a certain group in one place on one day, only to have them pop up as if by magic in a compeltely different place, never seeming to depart or arrive. In fact, they were so mysterious and covert, Kneece tells us, “They always wore the patches and insignia of other army outfits as a cover for their work.” They designed their own patches, naturally, with a spooky ghost and some lightning bolts, but were literally prohibited from ever wearing them.

As must be evident to the reader by now, Kneece had a lot of ground to cover. The Ghost Army had more than a thousand brilliant minds, all bearing the weight of five decades elapsing between the events and their final account. They served in dozens of different missions, each time essentially putting a bunch of toys and props in front of history’s most ruthless killing machine, (almost none of them ever got killed, incidentally) and none of them were able to keep any written record. Thankfully, human nature being what it is, at least one or two did keep a pocket diary, and at least a few of these crazy old guys were still alive in the nineties to talk to Kneece about their memories. From these bits and pieces, the historian has constructed a magnificent and sprawling tale to rival any of Hollywood's greatest fictions.

But it is not just the missions that make this work so great. The characters are robust and sophisticated and funny and vulnerable. They fall in love, grieve, play jokes on each other, aspire toward their respective dreams, and get into plenty of jams along the way. There is one story about a mission to present a “notional” 75th on a particular front during the Battle of the Bulge. The Ghost Army, pretending to be the 75th, did such a good job that nearby allied divisions were not only convinced by it, but were actually pretty pissed off because the dummy tanks weren’t rolling and the blow-up artillery wasn’t shooting-- they weren’t friggin’ helping! This actually led to real fistfights between those divisions and the real 75th, upon arrival, also totally unaware of the decoys who had spent the preceding week warming up their spots, wearing their patches, and more importantly, deterring the Germans from advancing... Talk about the power of suggestion!

Kneece assembles these micro-narratives smoothly, and from a variety of perspectives, while retaining a great deal of detail and history. The imminent danger implied by thousands of oblivious armed enemy soldiers smoking and chattering just a few hills and hedgerows away. The levity of children, newly liberated and spared, cheering and chasing the soldiers for chocolates and coins. The seriousness of the C4 under the truck-drivers’ seats, last-ditch insurance against being discovered by the enemy. The women in Europe, filled with gratitude, and the wives at home, praying for signs in the dark. The warmth of a handful of old war buddies, time-forgotten and grey with change, sharing something meaningful and amazing with a young writer who can’t believe his luck.

There was this one village in France, called Torce. Allied soldiers had just swept through, like the wind, chasing out the German occupiers and not pausing in their pursuit. The 23rd followed them in to present a notional presence. The people of the town, having no knowledge of or need for distinctions more vital than Nazi or not-Nazi, perceived the 23rd to be their liberators. Men who had never fired a shot in the war, but helped win it. Men who wouldn’t be glorified and memorialized by the many spectacular films which the war would inspire. Those townspeople threw a parade just for them. Food, music, gifts, intimacy, laughter, and love. Maybe, in a sense, that was better somehow. As if God understood that the contributions these men made to the greater global effort to rid the world of the evil, bloodlusting depravity of fascism, almost to a man without firing a shot or taking a life-- all these deeds would all go unnoticed and uncelebrated, and in His infinite wisdom he granted these fine soldiers a party of their own.

Until Kneece, that’s all any of these men ever got. That’s why Ghost Army is so important, and why it truly is such a great read. The men of the fighting 23rd finally have their place in the sun. Kneece’s work gives us our heroes in their resplendent youth, full of vigour and wile. He preserves them, no doubt, in that place where most of them probably most vividly remembered themselves as they existed, sloughing otherwise through obscurity and worse, as the nation they risked so much for slowly set about forgetting the lessons of the war. The book has illustrations, pictures of a few of the men, and the names a few more, but even these efforts cannot grant the whole of what each of those 1,100 souls deserves from us. Kneece opens the door for the reader, and shines a light onto something precious and unseen. He lays the groundwork for other scholars to find the pieces he missed, and revive those voices still unheard. It really is a great book, worthy of general audiences and scholars alike. But it is this reviewer’s opinion that this story should be integrated into the greater history of the war by the professors teaching the classes.

(A blockbuster movie would be cool too!) 10/10, Most recommended.

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