They were officially known as the Army's 23rd Headquarters Special Troops during World War II, but the unit's nickname suits it better: the Ghost Army. Made up of 1,100 soldiers who were artists, illustrators, sound technicians, etc., the Ghost Army had one mission: trick Hitler and enemy troops through sleight of hand, reports Smithsonian. They'd set up at strategic locales, roll out inflatable tanks, trucks, and weapons, and pump out fake war noises though huge speakers to make the enemy think a huge military presence existed where it didn't. (Late in the war, its deception helped the American Ninth Army cross the Rhine deep into Germany largely unabated.)
The Ghost Army's mission remained classified for decades after the war and first became public in 1985 when an illustrator named Arthur Shilstone told his amazing story. Now PBS is airing a documentary this month about the unit, which staged more than 20 operations and is credited with saving thousands of American lives. Some notable names who served in the 23rd include fashion designer Bill Blass and painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly. “It’s a great example of how many fantastic, amazing, sort of mind-bending stories there still are 70 years later coming out of WWII,” says documentary director Rick Beyer.