An Army of Ghosts: The Inflatable Rubber Tanks of WWII

A documentary details the exploits of special troops tasked with using phony inflatable rubber tanks to deceive the enemy during WWII.

The Ghost Army
A soldier stands alongside one of hundreds of inflatable rubber phony tanks used during World War II to deceive German reconnaissance.
Courtesy of PBS.

Kearny native John Jarvie was a student at Cooper Union in New York in 1942 when he got word that the army was recruiting artists for a special unit. Jarvie enlisted and became one of 1,100 specially trained troops whose sole mission in World War II was to dupe the enemy. Armed with inflatable rubber phony tanks and a library of sound-effects recordings, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops cut a swath of deception from Normandy to the Rhine. Their little-known story—oddly reminiscent of the Academy Award-winning film Argo—is told in The Ghost Army, an hour-long documentary that premieres May 21 on PBS.

Jarvie, 91, and fellow Jerseyan Gil Seltzer, 98, are among the members of the unit who appear in the documentary, vividly relating their bizarre and often-harrowing experiences. So covert were their exploits that the army did not officially let out the secret until 1995. “Even my wife didn’t know what I had done,” says Seltzer, who rose to the rank of first lieutenant.

What they did was move swiftly across Europe after the D-Day invasion, setting up their inflatable tanks, airplanes, jeeps and artillery pieces to create the impression of massive American troop concentrations where none existed. “We could put up as many as 100 fake tanks in a night,” says Jarvie, a corporal. They augmented the deception by blasting sound effects of troop movements over giant loudspeakers. They also made phantom radio transmissions and leaked counterfeit stories in local pubs, where they might be overheard by German spies.

While the documentary includes wartime footage of soldiers playfully hoisting ersatz 40-ton Sherman tanks, their work was hardly a joke. “We really were a suicide outfit,” says Seltzer. “Our job was to draw fire.” Remarkably, he says, the unit suffered only “a minimum of casualties.”

The 23rd often worked in concert with General George S. Patton’s Third Army as it dashed toward Germany. “Patton understood the power of confusing the enemy,” says Seltzer. A particularly gut-wrenching episode came on the banks of the Moselle River, when Patton realized he had a stretch of 60 miles along the river with no troops. The Ghost Army moved into the gap. “They used us to fill that 60 miles,” says Jarvie. “It was all make-believe.” The ruse held for seven days until real troops moved in. The unit also served at the Battle of the Bulge.

Jarvie and Seltzer escaped the war unscathed (as did another of their partners in deception, Bill Blass, who went on to global renown as a fashion designer). Jarvie came home to Kearny and a career as an art director at Fairchild Publications and elsewhere. He retired in 1992. Seltzer, a native of Toronto, moved to New Jersey after the war and started a career in architecture. He eventually settled in West Orange, where he is still active in his firm, Gilbert L. Seltzer Associates. Both men have two grandchildren.

“I guess the deception worked out,” says Jarvie. “I’m still here.”

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