Seventy-seven years ago, the US Army sent a unique unit of 82 officers and 1,023 men on a mission that would be kept secret for 50 years. Activated on January 20, 1944, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, known as the Ghost Army, became the first mobile, multimedia, tactical deception unit in US Army history. Today there are only eleven surviving members of the unit.
The Historical Society of Cheshire County’s summer exhibit tells the story of the mission in a special traveling show entitled Ghost Army: Combat Con Artists of WWII. Visitors will learn the true story of the top-secret unit, which was capable of simulating two whole divisions (approximately 30,000 men) by using visual, sonic and radio deception to fool German forces. Many of the Ghost Army members were recruited from art schools and the entertainment industry, and some of them went on to successful post-war art careers such as fashion designer Bill Blass, painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane.
The Ghost Army exhibit includes an inflatable Sherman tank and over 50 formerly top-secret photos. There are also dozens of drawings that were created by members of the unit while they took part in 22 large-scale deceptions in Europe from Normandy to the Rhine River. The artwork documents some of the landscapes, people, and action that these artists saw while on their assignment.
Joan Allen and Margaret Costick from Keene were the first visitors to see the exhibit on its opening day, June 2. Costick said, “It was amazing to see how they thought out of the box for this concept of fighting the war with ghost soldiers and equipment.” Allen added, “And they were able to keep it secret. Usually, somebody leaks it.” The two friends said they were definitely going to come back. “There’s so much to see,” said Costick. “Who would think this would come to Keene.”
One of the members of the Ghost Army was Cheshire County resident Mickey McKane (1922-1990). Recruited to the Army as an art student at Pratt Institute, McKane joined the 603rd Camouflage Engineers with a specialty in color gradation and design. His war career was spent finding ways to trick the enemy into believing that they had spotted real army units in action. Meanwhile, the US army could strategize sneak attacks in other areas. Following the war, McKane went on to have a career as an interior designer with works published in national magazines throughout the 1950s. He and his wife Priscilla raised a family in Marlborough before moving to Keene and running the Stage Coach Gift Shop on route 12 in Swanzey.
Mickey McKane’s son Keith has provided artifacts and photos for the exhibit, and a video interview of Keith is one of several videos on display. Keith McKane recalls, “I think it’s amazing that Dad found his niche and the timing came together and he had the courage to be part of that, and he went with all of his compadres in that same group of men using their talents for something that was not done before. And the fact that it had to be kept secret speaks to the honor of his efforts. It was not done for glory or personal storytelling. They had to be quiet about it. I think that really lends itself to how we look at the Greatest Generation.”
May 19 of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to the members of the Ghost Army. The prime sponsors of the bill were Annie Kuster, Democratic Representative for New Hampshire, and Chris Stewart, Republican Representative of Utah. The bill now moves on to the U.S. Senate, where Senators Edward J. Markey and Susan Collins have reintroduced the legislation.
The Ghost Army: Combat Con Artists of WWII is on view at the Historical Society of Cheshire County headquarters at 246 Main Street in Keene, NH through September 2, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online and give visitors a 30-minute time block in the space. Space is limited to 20 people at a time. Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for members of the Historical Society. Youth under 18 and all veterans and their families are free. Members and veterans’ families are asked to call 603-352-1895 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for promo codes.
In conjunction with the Ghost Army exhibit, April Claggett, artist and art historian from Dublin, New Hampshire, will offer a program on Wednesday, July 28 at 6 pm via Zoom entitled, “All’s Fair in Art and War: Abbot Thayer Sets the Stage.” Her richly-illustrated presentation will take a deep dive into the lessons that this local artist, known around the world as the “inventor of camouflage,” learned from the local landscape and that forever changed the landscape of war.
The Ghost Army exhibit has been supported by C&S Wholesale Grocers, Savings Bank of Walpole, the Putnam Foundation, Bergeron Construction Company, and Price Chopper.