John Hapgood and America’s ‘Ghost Army’

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 5:28pm
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How does one sum up the core contributions of someone’s limited time on this small planet? While the answers are as diverse as those who seek to give a response, I found a most succinct, perfect biography — not written on paper but etched in stone in the Island Cemetery, where I surveyed three centuries worth of headstones. Toward the western edge, I found a stone under the shade of a tree.

Under the name John Hapgood, written in beautifully flowing font, was a single word summing up his 90 years: “Artist.” The next line noted his service in the U.S. Army as an artist/soldier World War II. Hapgood lived from 1905-1995.

A number of winters ago, I interviewed Maureen Hoyt about Hapgood, her family’s late, lifelong friend. Hoyt’s parents, Charlie and Edith Martin, were friends of Hapgood’s before the start of World War II. One could argue that in his nine decades of life, his greatest contribution was his artistic career as a commercial artist in New York City. However, my interview sought out details of his unique U.S. Army unit in World War II called the “Ghost Army.” After the war, he resided at the Shelton Hotel, room 3110,  in New York and summered on 11 acres near the Southeast Light House here on Block Island.

Hapgood’s importance to the Martin family can be seen from the start. In fact, in 1931 Charlie asked Hapgood (who knew Edith from his social circles in Rochester, N.Y.) for a formal introduction to the woman who would become his wife. Their courtship included introducing Charlie Martin and John Hapgood to Block Island, where Edith had spent a large portion of her early childhood. They were married in 1933. Hapgood’s friendship with the Martins remained constant, interrupted by the start of World War II. With Hapgood pushing nearly 40 years old, he signed up with the U.S. Army.

During the war, Charlie Martin purchased a parcel of land on the southeast side of the island with a derelict house. Writing his friend Hapgood, then on the front in Europe, he stated the cost was $750 and if he wanted it, he could have it. A response from Hapgood soon re-crossed the Atlantic, quickly snatching up the property. Hapgood, who was also known to his friend’s as ‘Hap,’ after the war named his new island home “Hap-Hazard house.”

The 603rd

Hapgood’s grave marks his service with 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. Before the D-Day landings in northern France, the landscape of England served as this unit’s canvas. Hapgood and his fellow soldiers employed visual deception and designed and constructed fake military installations — formations of rubber tanks and airplanes — which, when viewed by German intelligence, looked real. Later, on the continent of Europe, they also included sonic deception: hidden speakers blasted recordings of tank and truck movements. As the quote from Winston Churchill notes about intelligence during the war, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Working in concert, artist/soldiers “built” dummy airfields or Army Division Headquarters outfitted with blow up cannons, fighter planes, and jeeps. Overnight, invisible armies appeared for German intelligence to see and report. What the Germans didn’t know was that the M-4 tanks they detected were roughly 100 pounds of rubber inflated with compressed air, not 32 tons of steel. These artist/soldiers avoided the bright springtime colors later used in Hapgood’s advertising campaigns after the war. Drab browns, blacks, and greens aided their work in confusing the enemy. However artful the fakes were, the intent still remained to strike emotional fear into the enemy. Attempts to show a group of men and machines hiding, but just failing to accomplish this feat, required subtle but immensely complicated technics. Thus, phantom divisions of artillery, trucks, and tanks, seen from afar, added further German confusion to the fog of war.

The ranks of the 603rd consisted of many artists recruited from the art schools of New York City. The unit participated in 21 Allied campaigns. The artists’ designs of balloon weapons, expertly devised to look like newly minted weapons constructed in the factories of the United States, convinced the Germans of the presence of an U.S. Army unit that in fact did not exist in the “real” form. While the job did not entail the regular handling of actual weaponry, this assignment  did not lack danger. For the success of Hapgood and his fellow soldiers in visual deception was not measured in audience applause but, rather, in German artillery raining down on the balloon army. However, at times German artillery strikes caught these artists/soldiers in the act of construction, so freshly dug foxholes remained a constant of their war lives.

Hapgood wrote to Maureen Hoyt’s parents throughout the conflict. These correspondences include a photograph taken from the back of a military truck as the Americans pushed into land occupied by Nazi forces. One black and white image shows a large gathering of youngsters surrounding the vehicle, looking up at the Americans soldiers (see photo). Hapgood’s hand-written message on the back states “How Europe looks from the back of GI truck (the way we saw it.) Kids — kids, always kids!”

After the war, Hapgood worked as a graphic artist in New York and on Block Island. Before the computerization of advertising campaigns today, ads, whether in store windows or newspapers, were the hand-produced work of artists. Hapgood’s work appeared in front windows of New York department stores, including Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor. His work was so intricate that he employed a magnifying glass in adding detail to his pen and ink drawings.

Hapgood’s art career also included a religious component, and this was showcased for five decades in producing the covers of the magazine, America, which is a weekly Catholic publication. His religious works often centered on the Madonna. In addition, his friends looked forward to his Christmas cards, one of which included his drawing of a young Joseph carving a cradle for this son. Cardinal Cook of New York asked Hapgood to complete a piece of art depicting St. Patrick for the celebration of the saint’s birthday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, his New York place of worship.

Hapgood continued to visit the island and work almost to the end of his life, which ended in 1995 and on his favorite holiday, the 4th of July — the birthday of the nation he served with his bravery and artistic skill. He is buried in the Martin family plot at the Island Cemetery, next to his lifelong friends Charlie and Edith Martin.

Work finding its way home

In closing, during my interview with Hoyt, she reported a matter of serendipity. After Hapgood’s death, her family later purchased an island home on Seaweed Lane. While laboring in the attic of this house, her son Kevin Hoyt found a left-behind drawing in a broken frame. In the lower right corner, Kevin, after examining it, found Hapgood’s signature. The pen and ink drawing depicts a small formation of waterfowl in flight, another example of separate beings that exist by relying on the greater group. After carefully reframing this piece, it now serves as another testament to Hapgood’s 90 years of life.