by Brooke Chilvers
If only well-known watercolor artist and sportsman Arthur Shilstone (1922-2020) were still alive!
If so, he would be one of fewer than a dozen surviving members of World War II’s top-secret elite army defense force, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, or four-unit “Ghost Army.” On February 13, 2022, they will finally be honored, 75 years later, with Congressional Gold Medals.
More than half of the Ghost Army’s 1,105 soldiers were artists, illustrators, or graphic designers, including future fashion designer Bill Blass, minimalist artist Ellsworth Kelly, painter-of-birds Arthur Singer, and Arthur Shilstone, not to mention actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
This absolutely defenseless band of brothers was tasked with deceiving the Germans and their allies using both visual and audio trickery, from hiding tanks under butterfly netting and garlands, to its Sonic Unit emitting faked artillery blasts and phony radio shows. The grand art of illusion, used to hide military presence in one place while pretending to be in another, included whispering too loudly in French bistros and dropping fake clues, such as Coca-Cola trash.
Shilstone had been studying for only a year at New York’s Pratt Institute (which actually offered a certificate course in Military Tactical Camouflage) when he was hand picked to join the Army’s 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. It would carry out 21 campaigns of deception — with three men killed and a dozen seriously wounded — in Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, northern France, and Germany. The “multi-media road show,” as one general described it, of artists, engineers, architects, radio operators, and truck drivers, is remembered for replicating entire regiments on the move, falsely equipping up to 30,000 fake men, feigning airplanes, artillery, field hospitals, and even 33-ton Shermantanks.
It’s all on the very interesting website, Ghost Army Legacy Project, which is also live streaming The Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Celebration on Sunday, February 13, 2022, at 2:00 P.M. (EST).
The project is dedicated to creating biographies of veterans, and archiving their interviews, photos, letters, and diaries. It acts as a clearing house for everything “Ghost Army,” and was behind the recent legislation for recognition.
Except for a single leak that escaped censors in 1945, the Ghost Army’s story was hush-hush until the 1985 article, “A Phantom Division Played a Role in Germany’s Defeat,” written by Edward Parks and illustrated by Shilstone, appeared in Smithsonian magazine. Information about the unit, which was deactivated on September 15, 1945, was classified, briefly declassified, then reclassified once more, and finally declassified for good in 1986.
The website tells of a famous 1945 ruse during the crucial final attempt to crush the German Army during the Rhine River campaign. To draw attention away from the actual crossing place of the 30,000-man strong 30th and 79th divisions, the 603rd set up 10 miles south, where they conjured up a decoy force of inflatable rubber 93-pound M4 tanks, cannons, planes, and trucks. They duped the Germans into firing on the imaginary divisions while the real soldiers crossed, more or less safely, elsewhere.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest honor Congress can award to an American individual or institution. It is equivalent to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The present legislation was sponsored by Representative Annie Kuster (D-NH) in recognition of the 23rd Special Troops “unique and highly distinguished service in conducting deception operations” during World War II, which is credited with saving thousands of lives.
In the Legacy Project archives, Shilstone’s army pals describe him not only as dashing and movie-star handsome, but also as a “wonderfully talented kid –– very.”
Painting with a war on was no problem for him; he simply used whatever materials were at hand, and spit on his fingers to produce a wash.
If only Arthur, who died at age 97, were still here to be celebrated.
As a kid, the 1929 stock market crash sent Shilstone’s family from the New Jersey suburbs to their summer house on Lake Mahopac, New York, where the future artist spent an idyllic youth bass fishing, bird shooting, and copying Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant comics.
After the war, funded by the G.I. Bill, Arthur graduated from the Pratt Art Institute just as his generation was taking the reins of publishing and Madison Avenue. By 1957, Shilstone was member of New York’s American Watercolor Society and the Society of Illustrators.
Shilstone’s work appeared in 36 publications, from the Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic to Gourmet, Sports Afield and Field & Stream; on numerous book jackets; and on album covers for Aaron Copland and Billie Holiday. Ed Gray’s book, Flashes in a River, and Fred Polhemus’s Arthur Shilstone, A Lifetime of Drawing & Painting, are devoted to his work, which also graced Gray’s Sporting Journal covers many times.
During his 12 years as an illustrator for Life, he covered the infamous Sam Sheppard murder trial, the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, and the funeral of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Shilstone was selected by NASA to chronicle blastoffs, landings, and the space shuttle Columbia’s maiden voyage in 1981.
In 1953, Arthur married Beatrice, a schoolteacher and former fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily. They had two sons. Beatrice died in 2016 after 63 years of marriage. They lived for many years in their bucolic home/studio in Redding, Connecticut, where he found decades of good wingshooting, and trout fishing in the Saugatuck and Norwalk rivers.
Inspired by Degas’s softness, Homer’s use of contrast, and Turner’s vibrating luminescence, Shilstone’s rhythmic dance of colors, which explored nature’s shapes, light, and patterns, is reminiscent of Mark Rothko. His atmospheric watercolors featured wingshooters and hunting dogs, anglers surf fishing or pulling brook trout from New England streams. His sense of place firmly puts him in the company of Ogden Pleissner.
Digging around on the internet, Brooke found the DVD for a 2013 PBS special, The Ghost Army, but could not track down the award winning 2006 documentary film, Art in the Face of War, directed by David Baugnon, in which Arthur Shilstone also appears.