Illinois Holocaust Museum Special Exhibit Reveals the Fascinating Untold Story of the Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center has unveiled a fascinating exhibition sharing the untold story of the Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II. Produced by The National WWII Museum in New Orleans and exclusively sponsored by E. L. Wiegand Foundation, the exhibit unveiled the story of the 23rd headquarters special troops – the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in US Army history. The unit waged war with inflatable tanks and vehicles, fake radio traffic, sound effects and even phony generals, using imagination and illusion to trick the enemy while saving thousands of lives. 

This exhibit is an example of how sometimes taking a gamble on a wild idea can really pay off.

Fox Chart Archive
This illustraton by Lt. Fred Fox, who also wrote the official history of the unit, shows the separate parts of the 23rd and compares them to a theatrical company. Courtesy of Ghost Army Legacy Project.

Recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the unique and top-secret “Ghost Army” unit — composed of 82 officers and 1,023 men — was the brainchild of Colonel Billy Harris and Major Ralph Ingersoll. Activated on January 20, 1944, under the command of Army veteran Colonel Harry L. Reeder, the group was capable of simulating two whole divisions (approximately 30,000 troops) by using visual, sonic and radio deception to fool German forces during the final year of World War II. Once the war was over, these soldiers were sworn to secrecy. The long-delayed recognition has finally come for the soldiers who served in this Ghost Army.  

“In many ways this is a story that we as a society owe to ourselves to remember and to honor the veterans, with only eight being left who were a part of the Ghost Army… Some people think that history is old and boring, but it can turn your mind inside out and this exhibit is a great reminder of that.” says Rick Beyer, Ghost Army Legacy Project President and Exhibit Consultant.

The exhibit is filled with inflatable military pieces and historical narrative text panels detailing the under-recognized individuals that used their creativity to save lives. Also on display is archival photography, sketches, and art from the unit officers at the time of the war. 

The US army assembled the Ghost Army unit from pre-existing units, one of them being the 603rd camouflage unit, which included mechanical engineers. The camouflage unit ended up recruiting artists and designers from art schools to help create and bring this “fake” unit alive. 

“Artists in their spare time are going to paint and sketch and that’s where you get this amazing art work here at the exhibit… Some of them went on to become quite famous, in a way, that part of the unit was also like a traveling art graduate school at the time of the war for those artists,” says Beyer. 

Ghost Army
Sergeants from the 6034rd Camouflage Engineers during the Battle of the Bulge. L-R: Charles J. “Beef” Boullianne, Sgt. John L. Beeler, Sgt. Paul A. LaHive, Sgt. Buzz Senat, Sgt. George Vandersluis. Courtesy of The Ghost Army Legacy Project.

Ultimately, the exhibit is a celebration of an ingenious use of creative talent to save tens of thousands of lives.

“To think of this kind of creativity, art, and performance being used that way in the battlefield is really striking,” says Beyer. 

Visitors can experience “The Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II Special Exhibit from The National WWII Museum” from June 16, 2022 – Jan. 2, 2023 at Illinois Holocaust Museum by reserving a time slot in advance at The exhibit is complimentary with Museum admission. ILHEMC, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie, Illinois, 847-967-4800.

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Lucy Shapiro is Better’s editorial intern for the summer of 2022, currently a rising senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying Journalism with a minor in Political Science.

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