Heroes in Hide: Ghost Army exhibit tells history of Operation Viersen


In March of 1945, 600 tanks, planes, and artillery were loudly prepared to cross the Rhine River in Germany, a final push by the Allied forces to cross into Germany.

The deafening sound of the vehicles could have drowned out any radio traffic. The Germans flew reconnaissance flights over the action and started shelling. But the crossing was all a sham.

The real Allied crossing of the Rhine would take place a few days later, against almost no opposition from the Nazis. The success of Operation Viersen was thanks to the 23rdHeadquarters Special Troops, better known as the “Ghost Army.”

This group of more than 1,000 artists, soldiers and engineers — the first mobile, multimedia tactical-deception unit in the U.S. Army — created and positioned rubber inflatable tanks, trucks and planes, relayed false radio messages and manufactured warlike sound effects.

“They were figuring out how to create a big Hollywood set to fool Nazis,” said TammyBrown, marketing and communications director of the National Veterans Memorial andMuseum. “They weren’t there to fight, but to throw off the enemy.”

The National Veterans Memorial and Museum is home to an exhibit celebrating theirachievements. “Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II,” which runs through Aug. 25, includes reproductions of inflatable artillery, photographs of the artist soldiers, panels describing operations, interactive displays and numerous sketches and paintings made by the soldiers during their time in France, Belgium and Germany.

They were artists, after all.

The exhibit was created in 2019 at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans and is being shown for the first time in Ohio, fittingly during the 80th anniversary month of World War II’s D-Day.

“The Ghost Army was largely unknown until recently because it was classified through1996,” said Chase Tomlin, associate curator at the New Orleans museum.

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“Most people were not aware that a unit like this existed but because of the PBSdocumentary (“The Ghost Army,” 2013) and the Congressional Gold Medal just presented this year, it’s becoming better known,” Tomlin said. (For those interested in additional reading, Tomlin recommends Rick Beyer’s 2015 book “The Ghost Army of World War II.)

The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops included artists who, after the war, would become well-known names in the United States: fashion designer Bill Blass, jazz photographer Art Kane, minimalist artist Ellsworth Kelley, designer Jack Masey, wildlife artist Arthur Singer and television writer Eddie Haas, who, among other credits, was co-creator of “The Munsters.”

Inflatable tanks were the creation of more than 1,000 artists, soldiers and engineers to trick Nazi forces during WWII.

“A lot of them took their skill sets home and became comic-book illustrators, advertisers, industrial designers, and fashion designers,” Tomlin said. “Many returned to art institutes on the G.I. Bill.”

One of those attending the recent opening of the exhibit in Columbus was Pamela Pastoric of Willoughby, whose father, now deceased, was a member of the Ghost Army.

Marion Pastoric—nnée Pastoricich; his name changed for simplicity after the war—was attending the Columbus College of Art & Design on scholarship when the war broke out.

He enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.Pamela Pastoric said that her father usually said he was involved in camouflage when asked what he did in the war. Other artist-soldiers would say that they “blew up tanks, which of course was true, given the necessity to inflate the rubber decoys.

Pamela Pastoric said that her family has a number of watercolors that her father created while stationed in Europe. After the war, Marion Pastoric returned to Ohio and finished his art degree at the Cleveland School of Art, now the Cleveland Institute of Art. He died in 2003 at the age of 82.

At the time of the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony this year, seven members of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were still alive, with three attending the event.

After the war, much of the fabricated equipment was kept in secret so that the technology couldn’t fall into other hands. Similar tactics were used during World War II in North Africa, in England, and even today in 21st century warfare; the Ukrainians have built fabricated rocket-launching systems that force their enemy into wasting time and resources.

While the Ghost Army’s Operation Viersen — when the Germans were fooled in thinking the Allies were crossing the Rhine at a false location — was probably the most successful, Tomlin said, a fair amount of the other operations greatly added to the war effort.

“It’s difficult to gauge the efficacy, but an Army analysis a few decades after the war estimated that they saved between 15,000 and 30,000 lives,” Tomlin said. “That was thanks to these guys, who were artists who put themselves in harm’s way.”

“Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II” continues through Aug. 25 at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, 300 W. Broad St.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is free to U.S. military veterans, active-duty military and Gold Star families; $18 for adults; $16 for senior citizens; $13 for college students; $11 for ages 5 to 17; and free for ages 5 and younger.