Inflatables—nothing more than plastic filled with air—are put to an endless amount of uses. Besides their entertainment value, inflatables can provide transportation, ranging from a child’s raft to a military-grade Zodiac. They can also be used to create an illusion, such as blow-up owls bobbing in the wind, keeping pesky pigeons away. Not the most common use perhaps, but the creation of illusions like this are an important chapter in the history of military uses for inflatables.
Read on to discover how a “Ghost Army” used inflatables to help win World War II.
World War II was a fight to preserve a free world. With the stakes so high, every possible advantage needed to be utilized, including human creativity. Artists like Ellsworth Kelly, fashion designers like Bill Blass, and even those drafting the newest ads for Coca Cola aren’t the types of men expected to be near the front lines, changing the tide of war. What was their role? Deception and chicanery by means of a “Ghost Army.” Classified until 1996, the Ghost Army was a group of individuals with backgrounds foreign to warfare, but well-versed in production and dramatization. A background in the fine arts may seem contradictory to war, but for the objective they were charged with, it was perfect. The mission of the Ghost Army was to confuse, disorient, and distract the Axis powers, using tools that on the surface have no place in war.
The troupe, comprising approximately 1,100 men, took that charge to heart and orchestrated over 20 “Illusions.” From the invasion of Normandy until the end of the war, most of these illusions took place within a football field’s distance from the front lines. To create such a realistic and effective deception, the U.S army outfitted these men with inflatable tanks. Each weighed about 75 pounds with a steel frame, a canvas covering and some pressurized tubing all strapped to a jeep. The hope was that this ragtag unit of painters and sculptors could create the impression of a much larger army, or to deceive the Axis powers regarding the location of the real American fighting forces.
It is difficult to imagine what these men must have been thinking going into a war zone, driving a 75-pound inflatable tank with real mortars and deafening gunfire erupting around them. The idea is almost too outlandish to believe, like being within a hundred yards of a battlefield carrying nothing but a blow-up alligator and some water wings. The analogy may be a bit exaggerated, but most people would agree that a 75-pound inflatable would not be anyone’s first choice of weaponry.
Besides inflatable tanks, the group also utilized fake radio messages, hoping to further confound enemy forces. More traditional forms of wartime trickery were also not overlooked. Men masquerading as enemy officers spread misinformation about U.S. plans, in efforts to divert attention from the real preparations.
Whether it was inflatable tanks, fake radio signals, or good old-fashioned play-acting, deception and theatricality were the tours de force of the “Ghost Army.”