He Enlisted in Uncle Sam’s Camouflage Unit
Minimalist great Ellsworth Kelly, best known for his hard-edge painting, entered into the war efforts of World War II in 1943. He requested to join the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion, which filled its ranks with artists and was known as the Ghost Army.
Fine Art in War
In World War I, artists in the French military were the first to be assigned to a unit specifically designed to use art in combat. They created over seven million square yards of painted camouflage fabrics and nets that would be used for soldier uniforms and weapon concealment. The unit became known as the Camoufleurs, after the French word camoufleur, which means to veil or disguise.
By World War II, every country had expanded upon these artful military units, including the U.S. Army. American artists played a vital and dangerous role during WWII. Though the materials they used were far more advanced than those of World War I, they often required the artists to be in more dangerous positions than even the armed soldiers fighting at the fronts. These were the artist-soldiers of the Ghost Army.
Joining Up with the Ghost Army
The Ghost Army or the 603rd was a deception unit. It consisted of 1,100 men. They were called upon to practice visual, sonic, radio and atmospheric deception for the purpose of confusing and thwarting the enemy.
They used everything from inflatable trucks to sound trucks to fake radio transmissions and scripted pretense to mislead Axis forces about the directions and location of Allied forces.
Decoys and Deception
Kelly was one of many soldiers in the Ghost Army who created decoy devices and trompe-l’œil scenarios to deceive the enemy and hide military equipment and movements.
In addition to creating camouflage for hiding military equipment, the visual artists of the Ghost Army designed and created fake inflatable rubber tanks, jeeps, artillery, and at one point, even inflatable soldiers. Kelly also designed propaganda posters as well as actual camouflage patterns during his service with the 603rd.
The Ghost Army used their props, sound recordings and fake radio transmissions to impersonate other Allied Army units, manipulating the enemy’s perceptions of where operations were being held.
They were often very close to the front lines, making themselves the target. Some were killed in action, having fooled the enemy into attacking their fake artillery and tanks. These units had little defensive means to protect themselves. Their story wasn’t known until more than forty years after the end of World War II. A PBS documentary about them was produced in 2013.
The Artists of War
The artists of the Ghost Army were prolific. They used any spare moments to work in sketchbooks and on drawings and paintings that give us a window into their extraordinary lives.
Many went on to have successful post-war art and design careers. Ellsworth Kelly is the most famous visual artist that came out of the 603rd and, in many ways, it was his time with the battalion, painting and producing camouflage, that stands in as his basic art training.
Fashion designer Bill Blass was a member of the Ghost Army as was Arthur Singer of the well-known Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification illustrations was also with the Ghost Army. He also created one of the most best selling special issue postage stamp series, “Birds and Flowers of the Fifty States.”
Others became art professors at prominent universities. Several worked in illustration, design or advertising.
The Ghost Army of World War II by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles (2015) contains images of the soldiers’ sketches and watercolor paintings along with photographs from the war and maps of their operations — a remarkable story of the heroic, but secret work of the artists who served their country in The Ghost Army.
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