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Nevada Museum of Art exhibit on the Ghost Army ends July 23

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American soldiers who deceived the enemy or served with the Ghost Army during the final two years of World War II have left this world, but their spirits march on in military folklore and on the walls of museums that portray their ingenuity and courage to defeat the Nazis.

An exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, “Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II,” ends July 23 after a five-month run in northern Nevada. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops or the Ghost Army was formed and then activated in January 1944 to deceive the Germans.

Author and award-winning documentarian Rick Beyer recently took the Nevada News Group on a tour of the exhibit that displays inflatable vehicles and other armaments of war and also revealed three Nevadans served in the unit.

An ‘inflatable’ unit

“Standing here and the first thing you see are the inflatables,” Beyer pointed out. ”The inflatables are replicas because the originals did not survive the war.”

Beyer explained the inflatable airplane on display was a replica of a real plane that served tier in an infantry division. 

“They must have everything if they are to imitate,” Beyer said of the Ghost Army’s inventory, which was about one-fourth the size of the real vehicles and planes. “This really happened. People actually worked with these inflatables and had to do it on the battlefield … sometimes 10 miles behind the battle line and sometimes only a half-mile away.”

Bill-Blass, left, and the late Bob Tompkins of Gardnerville served in the Ghost Army during World War II. Photo Robert Tompkins collection/The Ghost Army of World War II
Bill-Blass, left, and the late Bob Tompkins of Gardnerville served in the Ghost Army during World War II. Photo Robert Tompkins collection/The Ghost Army of World War II

The Ghost Army story intrigued Beyer more than two decades ago, and through research, he interviewed many of former soldiers who served in the Ghost Army, wrote a book on the unit and produced a documentary that debuted on PBS in 2013. Beyer said he was intrigued how the Army became involved with a unit whose top goal was deceiving the enemy.

Through his research Beyer discovered how camouflage could disguise the weapons and vehicles but not the entire area of cantonment.

“These things look realistic standing here, but how close will German reconnaissance get,” Beyer said standing next a display.

The further away the Germans set up a position and scoped out the area the better the camouflaging looked; however, Beyer said once the enemy advance, then other techniques had to be used for deception such as visual, sound, radio and special effects.

“They (the techniques) worked together to make the enemy gather over here instead of 10 miles away,” Beyer explained.

Beyer said the Ghost Army had the first mobile multimedia tactical deception in war. He has scoured the pages of history books to find other proof, but he was unable to find any information to discount his claim. He didn’t find any significant proof from the Korean or Vietnam wars or for Desert Storm or the subsequent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Chronicling the deception

There is one thing Beyer has discovered.

“You have to gear deception to your enemy,” he added. 

Deception, though, is as old as mankind starting with the early tales from the Odyssey by mentioning a wooden horse hiding enemy soldiers. The English used it against the French more than 500 years ago. During the days leading up to the Normandy invasion in June 1944, fake radio traffic and inflatable tanks tricked the Germans into thinking a large-scale invasion would not happen off the coast of northeastern France. 

During the final year of fighting in Europe, the 23rd conducted almost two dozen large scale deceptions in France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg and also established a headquarters. The Ghost Army had a fake command headquarters that’s part of the exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art.

One of Beyer’s favorite profiles from the Silver State is that of Pvt. Robert Tompkins, born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1923, but he relocated to Gardnerville in 1989 with his wife Bunny. Beyer said he met Tompkins in 2006 to learn more about the Ghost Army soldier and to include his profile in his book and for the documentary. 

“He kept a diary, a complete recollection of the unit. It was a small address book written in tiny writing,” Beyer said. “It was a contemporary, uncensored account of what it was like to be a soldier in the unit.”

The late Bob Tompkins of Gardnerville kept a diary of the unit’s activities during the last two years of World War II. Photo courtesy of The Ghost Army of World War II
The late Bob Tompkins of Gardnerville kept a diary of the unit’s activities during the last two years of World War II. Photo courtesy of The Ghost Army of World War II

Beyer said Tompkins was friends with Bill Blass, the world renown fashion designer who traded in his fashion-design career in 1942 for an Army uniform. He was assigned to the 603rd Camouflage Battalion and then to the 23rd. According to Beyer, Blass’s mother typed up the information in Tompkin’s diary after the war.

As the war wound down, Tompkins focused his writing on the final days:

Apr. 28 Sat. Hear that Himmler has offered unconditional surrender to States and Britain, but not Russia. It looks like it’s all over. At least within the next week anyway. Wittlick to Trier and sleeping in castle. Marvelous news. All sorts of rumors. Lt. Gray said today we’d be home by July 4th. Others say Northern Germany. Being with 15th A of Occupation isn’t so good. Getting Eisenhower jackets. Have to wear ties now. Things are very composed and no one seems to know where we turn next.

May 2 Wed. Hitler dead! Have transferred 2300 DP’s into [prisoner of war] Camp. Should have 5700 by end of week. Running back and forth all day. Rumors have it we leave for Briey Sunday. Rumors very strong for return to States. I think I’m really getting s bit punchy from driving that damn jeep constantly. I guess it must be “jeep fatigue”.

MAY 7, 1945. It’s a beautiful world tonight naturally. It’s been a long hard road and we thank God it’s over. Let’s hope it won’t be many weeks before we leave for Utopia and our loved ones, and God bless the guys that are finishing it off on the other side of this messed up world. Got a keg of beer, a bottle of wine from some Heinies, and I drove into town with some of the guys and we raided an empty wine cellar. However, we eventually had champagne, wine and beer. Hear we may leave within six weeks- sooner the better. Heaven and all that goes with it awaits my arrival.

Beyer said one entry in Tompkins’s diary was written 3 miles from the front, but no one knew where the front was.

Invaluable contributors

A longtime Nevada Appeal employee who was born in Ely in 1913 worked as a reporter, a photo editor, an advertising director and columnist for 59 years up until he died in 2006. Prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy, radio operators such as William “Bill” Dolan of Carson City, who was assigned to a different unit, deceived the Germans.

“He was one of the radio operators who convinced the Germans to land at Calais, not the beaches (Omaha, Utah),” said his son Trent. “He received a citation from (Gen. George) Marshall stating he saved 20,000 lives.” 

Trent said his father told him about the fighting at the Battle of the Bulge and how the soldiers navigated through the wet, thick mud on their way to Germany.

Another New York City native eventually moved to Las Vegas in the 1980s after serving as a professor of Art at Millersville (Pennsylvania) University. Harold Laynor was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge while serving in the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. While recovering from his wounds in a Paris hospital, Laynor received a visitor — the renown painter Pablo Picasso who invited the soldier to his studio after discovering Laynor’s interest in his work.

Ghost Beyer Author Rick Beyer visited the Nevada Museum of Art during the spring to promote the exhibit on World War II’s Ghost Army. Steve Ranson / LVN
Ghost Beyer Author Rick Beyer visited the Nevada Museum of Art during the spring to promote the exhibit on World War II’s Ghost Army. Steve Ranson / LVN

“I found Picasso wonderful and it’s not difficult to see why he is the top figure in the art world today,” wrote Laynor to his wife Gloria and documented in Beyer’s book. “My visit to his studio and working with him greatly inspires me to continue with my painting.”

Beyer wrote Laynor’s belief as artist was strengthened by freedom and originality.

“Picasso strengthened Laynor’s belief that an artist must trust in his or her intuition to create freedom and originality,” described Beyer in his description of the situation. “Laynor’s strong convictions about patriotism coupled with his sense of the realities of war are dramatically portrayed in his vivid and striking collection of World War II  paintings, some painted during the war, some painted afterward based on wartime sketches and watercolors.”

Laynor died 21 years ago, but his collection of World War II paintings had been exhibited worldwide.


Additional discussions on the WWII era

Before the exhibit ends, the Nevada Museum of Art has several World War II-era programs remaining in July.

  • Dr. Mark Stout, former intelligence officer, former historian of the International Spy Museum, and adjunct instructor at John Hopkins University, will showcase tools of the craft throughout military history and demonstrate how deception helped Allied commanders while avoiding confusion with actual military plans.

July 13, 6-7 p.m. There is a charge. Go to www.nevadaart.org to register.

  • Let’s Get Swinging! The Retro Radio Dolls join forces with Reno Swings to teach you how to Lindy Hop with a little combination of West Coast Swing! Members are invited to join the museum at 6 p.m. for lessons, then put those skills to the test during a live performance featuring wartime favorites of the 1940s. 

Be sure and visit Ghost Army: The Combat Con Artists of World War II one last time before it closes on July 23. Event hosted in the Nightingale Sky Room. Standing (and dancing) room only. Cash bar. This event is exclusive to Museum members.

July 20, 6-8:30 p.m.

  • Rations and Fashions of WWII: The Second World War was the dominant force impacting fashion of the 1940s. Civilian clothing was impacted by the rationing of materials as the need for uniforms took precedence. 

Megan Bellister, Curator of learning and engagement, will discuss the ways in which necessity and limitations led to innovation in fashion in the U.S. and abroad.

July 21, noon-1 p.m. There is a charge for nonmembers. Go to www.nevadaart.org to register.

Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.

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