BOOM, BOOM, HA, HA!
Gilbert trained as an Architectural Draftsman.
When the Second World War broke out, he was 26-years old and he immediately signed up. He was told he was being sent on a secret mission.
He was sent to a newly created unit of the US Army, the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion. They were top secret and were immediately nicknamed the ‘Ghost Army’. To his amazement he was immediately out in charge of 1,100 men, despite no military experience.
They were made up of artists, advertising men, engineers and many other ‘creative types’. They were to play a vital role in recapturing Europe from the Nazis.
They were told their job was deception – to use any possible trick to fool the Nazis. Their tools were visual, radio and sonic techniques – such as inflatable tanks, wooden planes, phony convoys, scripted (false) information released in bars and cafes – spreading disinformation.
There were three ‘arms’ to the unit – sonic, radio and visual. Gilbert was in charge of visual – which was full of artists. He said, “We even considered ourselves a strange outfit, which added to the mystique, along with the fact so few people knew we existed.”
Their first action was just after D-Day in 1944, being landed in Normandy. Their first job was to replace an American anti-aircraft unit that was needed elsewhere.
The original battery had been set up in a farmer’s field. Despite his hatred of the Nazi invaders, he was infuriated by the noise the battery made. When he saw they had gone he was delighted but when he saw they were replaced by another unit (the Ghost Army) he was enraged.
He stormed out to the false battery. He had no idea their 4 guns were made of rubber. He was so infuriated he punched one of the gun barrels. It bounced back into his face, sending him flying. Gilbert’s men were silent.
Suddenly the farmer jumped up and shouted, “Boom boom, ha ha.”. He then went into his farmhouse and brought everybody red wine. ‘Boom boom, ha ha’ became the motto of the Ghost Army.
Their next job was to project the sounds of convoys of tanks moving through France, Belgium and even, eventually, Germany. To do this they hid in nearby woods – and used their magic. They heard many locals say, “Did you see the tanks moving through town last night?”
Gilbert said, “They were not lying, they had just thought they were seeing them. Imagination is unbelievable.”
Nevertheless, the 603rd saw some genuine action. At the River Rhine, they were deployed to draw fire away from the real troops. They acted as a decoy, 20 miles south of the real crossing (which met with no resistance).
The 603rd drew some intense fire. “We came to the conclusion it was a suicide mission.”
It has been estimated that they saved 30,000 lives. Gilbert said, “I don’t believe that – but if we saved just one life, it was worth it.”
Throughout the war the 603rd had a very low casualty rate (3 deaths and 30 injured). Gilbert put that down to the fact that, apart from the Rhine, they were rarely in front line action and also the fact that they frightened the enemy.
When demobbed he married Molly Gold. They had one son, Richard.
After the war he returned to working in architecture, quickly establishing his own firm. He never advertised, considering it ‘immoral’ and relied on word of mouth. He was once approached by the state of New Jersey who said in a letter, “Following your inquiry, we would like you to design the New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry.”
He had no memory of any inquiry. His secretary checked past letters and they had once written to the State of New Jersey saying “We would be interested if you ever want to build any schools.”
His most famous building is the Utica Memorial Auditorium in New York (a.k.a. The Adirondack Bank Centre). It is well-known for its cable – suspended roof system. He also created buildings at West Point.
He was proud of the fact he was asked to design the Second World War Memorial, in Battery Park, Lower Manhattan. He said he was thrilled to do something to remember, “my comrades.”
Molly died in 1994.
He retired as an architect in January 2020, aged 105, after an 80-year career. He always drew in pencil. “I don’t use a computer. I can’t stand them.”
Their mission was classified for 50 years after the war. They were not even allowed to tell their wives.
They could only talk about it amongst themselves. It was finally unclassified in 1995, but Gilbert didn’t talk about it until all the other members of the Ghost Army had died.
“It was funny, it was distasteful, it was crazy. We did it to overcome a terrible, terrible enemy. And the fact that we did it so successfully is probably my biggest source of pride.”
He lived in Toronto in his final year, to be close to his son and his family. He described himself as a “proud Jew, a proud atheist and a proud liberal.” He was a member of Mensa.
The New York Times said of his architectural prowess, “It is impossible to underestimate the impact he had on our city.”
RIP –Redesigning Imitation Planes