Three U.S. Army jeeps roared through the small Luxembourg village, just a few miles from the front lines near the German border. It was early September 1944, three months after D-Day. The vehicles in front and back bristled with guards and machine guns. The one in the middle bore the distinctive red license plate of a major general. In the backseat sat a ramrod figure sporting a magnificent military moustache and general’s stars. All three jeeps were clearly identified by their markings as belonging to the 6th Armored Division.
(This is a corrected version of an article published in the March 21, 2012, issue. The correction appears at the end of the story.)
The convoy pulled up to a tavern run by a suspected Nazi collaborator. The general and his lanky, bespectacled aide strode inside. With the help of their bodyguards, they “liberated” six cases of fine wine, loading them onto the general’s jeep. The little convoy then took off, leaving the seething proprietor plenty of incentive to get word to the Germans about what he had just witnessed: that the American 6th Armored was moving in.
But in fact, the whole bit was a carefully choreographed flim-flam. The 6th Armored Division was far away. The commanding presence in the back seat was no general, but a mustachioed major playing king for a day. His dashing young aide was Fred Fox ’39, who later would become known as Princeton’s Keeper of Princetoniana and favorite son. As an undergraduate, Fox had trod the boards in college musicals and dreamed of making it to the big time. Now he found himself playing a leading role in a top-secret piece of performance art designed to help win World War II. And his flair for the dramatic would prove instrumental in its success.
The unit to which Fox was assigned in January 1944 was unique in the history of the U.S. Army. Officially, it was called the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, but eventually it became known as the Ghost Army. Its mission was to stage frontline deceptions designed to dupe Hitler’s legions — and avoid getting killed by the audience while doing so. Instead of artillery and heavy weapons, it was equipped with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a world-class collection of sound-effects records, and a corps of radio operators trained in the art of impersonation. “Its complement was more theatrical than military,” Fox wrote long afterward, in an unpublished manuscript now cherished by his son Donald. “It was like a traveling road show that went up and down the front lines impersonating the real fighting outfits.”
Fox found himself right at home in this high-stakes off-Broadway show. After graduating from Princeton, he had set his sights on Hollywood. “He wanted to be the next Jimmy Stewart,” Donald Fox says. And why not? Like Stewart ’32, Fox had been a star of Triangle Club musicals that played in New York and other East Coast cities to great acclaim. In 1938 he portrayed King Charles II in the show Fol-De-Rol, directed by a young alum starting to make a name for himself on Broadway: José Ferrer ’33.
Upon arriving in Tinseltown, Fox signed on with NBC Radio. But the closest he came to stardom was writing commercials for Clapp’s Baby Foods and editing an in-house newsletter. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army and was selected for Officer Candidate School. Fox thought he was leaving showbiz behind, but his stage training soon would prove invaluable on the battlefields of Europe.
“Fred was a Hugh Grant personality,” says Al “Spike” Berry, who served with Fox. “He was very innovative and creative.” He was surrounded by plenty of other creative types, especially the artists handling visual deception. Among the unit’s 1,100 men was a 21-year-old with a perpetual grin from Indiana named Bill Blass, who later became a fashion icon. Art Kane was the Brooklyn kid who later would take a legendary photograph of 57 jazz greats on a stoop in Harlem. Ellsworth Kelly would gain fame as a painter and sculptor. They were just a few of the many artists, recording engineers, and others recruited for the unusual deception mission. Blessed with a sharp wit and a gentle, curious nature, Fox was quick to make friends with many of his fellow deceivers. Together they rehearsed for a dangerous world premiere on the European continent.
Once they landed in France, the men of the 23rd would be expected to conjure up phony convoys and phantom divisions to mislead the enemy about the strength and location of American units. To pull this off, they were equipped with truckloads of inflatable tanks, trucks, artillery, jeeps, and even airplanes — enough to simulate two divisions. Each lightweight dummy could be set up and taken down in about 20 minutes, and from several hundred yards away looked indistinguishable from the real thing. The men also had specially outfitted halftracks, carrying speakers with a range of 15 miles, that could project the sounds of armored columns moving in the darkness. Dozens of radio trucks could create faux networks that sounded utterly like the real thing to eavesdropping enemy officers. In theory, they could impersonate a division of 15,000 soldiers holding a spot in the line, while the fighting division was moving someplace else to launch a surprise attack. But Fox and his fellow performers had no idea if they could put on a show that would prove convincing to their German audience.