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"Ghost Army" storms the Stadium

November 7, 2013

Mike Carey, technical assistant, left, and Dennis Tancrell, technical director both at the Stadium Theatre, lift an inflatable replica World War II-era Sherman tank backstage before the start of the premiere of ‘The Ghost Army’ documentary film, by Rick Beyer, about the little-known deception unit. The secret unit’s mission was to confuse the enemy, providing a cover for real troops as they moved into battle. (Photo by Ernest A. Brown)

WOONSOCKET – Richard D. Fazzio, 88, knows plenty about Woonsocket’s role in World War II after participating in the first wave landings on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

But Fazzio was interested in learning more about Woonsocket’s role in the military deceptions the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops orchestrated during the fighting in Europe and went to the Stadium Theatre Thursday evening for the Rhode Island premiere of Rick Beyer’s documentary film “The Ghost Army.”

The film covers how the artists and technicians of the 23rd’s member units staged a series of illusions to confuse the enemy about the strength and location of U.S. forces fighting in Europe.

The 23rd’s work included using inflatable tanks and half-track truck decoys that were developed by the U.S. Rubber Company’s Woonsocket operations and produced in the city and at other locations around the country to either draw enemy fire or change planned routes of attack.

Even though Fazzio returned to Woonsocket after the war and raised his family in the city, the story of the Ghost Army was something he only learned about more recently.

“I think it is great, we need to get a little more recognition for what the city did during the war,” Fazzio said while enjoying a reception put on in the lobby of the theater before the showing of the film with local veteran historian and retired Halliwell Elementary Principal Eugene Peloquin.

Fazzio never saw a Ghost Army inflatable tank during his World War II service but he did see the barrage balloons produced in Woonsocket that supported steel cables of the D-Day landing ships as a deterrent to German fighter planes.

“Those balloons saved a lot of guys from being strafed by German planes coming in low,” he said.

A U.S. Navy coxswain in charge of a Higgins boat landing craft, Fazzio and the three other members of his crew, Bob Brien, Wally Lawton, and Gabriel Balies, were aboard one of the D-Day ships and he remembers seeing “Made in Woonsocket,” printed on some of the balloons protecting the invasion fleet.

The local connection to war production is the only good memory he has of that day. His crew’s assignment on June 6th was to take a squad of 30 soldiers ashore to Omaha Beach during the first wave of the invasion and he can only describe that experience as “horrendous” even today. Fazzio believes none of soldiers on his boat survived the landing. He caught a round under his right arm while steering the craft during the battle and only drove halfway back to his ship before giving the helm to another crewmember.

If the Ghost Army’s inflatable tanks and trucks reduced the number of U.S. casualties in the ground fighting that followed D-Day, Fazzio believes that role should also be remembered with a film like that produced by Beyer.

“It’s like having the film, Saving Private Ryan, for D-Day,” he said. “That showed exactly the way it was,” he said.

Peloquin, who had been just 12 while his brother Raymond and brother-in-law Eugene Godin fought with the Army’s 83rd infantry division during the invasion of Europe, said he only learned of Woonsocket’s role with the Ghost Army years after the war ended.

“During the last 15 years there have been a number of articles written about the U.S. Rubber Co.’s role but the information was very sparse and only more recently has more of it been made available,” he said.

As part of the Stadium premiere, Beyer and his wife, Marilyn Rea Beyer, produced a short film on Woonsocket’s role in the Ghost Army deceptions that was shown just before the main documentary appeared on the big screen.

Among the images was an interview with Therese Ricard Blais, a high school student during the war who had worked on painting the rubber tanks.

Her daughter-in-law, Irene Blais said Thursday that Therese was never told what she was actually working on at the plant as part of her student shift employment. “They thought they were making targets. They didn’t know it was for a secret project,” Blais said.

Eugene Arsenault, 87, and his brother Edward, 89, both veterans of World War II said they also had been unaware of Woonsocket connection to wartime deceptions in Europe and were looking forward to seeing Beyer’s film.

Eugene had even worked for the U.S. Rubber Co. before the war and was surprised those items had been made here. “I never saw them during the war but I’m sure they saved lives,” Eugene said.

Edward said he has his own “intense” memories of the war but does believe that part of history like the Ghost Army should be retained for future generations. “They were good at camouflage and I think the tanks look like the real thing and would confuse the enemy,” he said.

The premiere drew a big crowd of area residents, sponsors and veterans and that left Beyer, a native of East Providence and now of Lexington, Mass., feeling great about having come to Woonsocket for the showing.

“It preserves a history and it preserves the memory of what the soldiers of the Ghost Army units and what the workers of the U.S. Rubber Co. did and it should not be forgotten,” Beyer said of his project. “It is an important part of Woonsocket History and it is an important part of the Ghost Army’s history,” Beyer said of Woonsocket’s role in Ghost Army production.

A special treat for area residents watching the movie at the Stadium came after the screen went dark.

Robert Billington of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council has been working on his own Ghost project since convincing Beyer to come to the city for a local showing with the help of Call/Times Publisher Mary Lynn Bosiak, and a list of sponsors and volunteers and it appeared as full-size replica of an inflatable tank hidden behind the screen as documentary ended.

“I think it brings all the credit back to the history of the city and the people who worked for the U.S. Rubber Co.,” Billington said of the replica tank.

The staff of the city’s Museum of Work and Culture, co-managers Anne Conway and Raymond H. Bacon, a retired city social studies teacher, have been keeping the memory of city’s role in World War II alive and that work will continue on Veteran’s Day, when a special exhibit on the Ghost Army created by Beyer and sponsored by the Tourism Council is unveiled at the Museum after Veteran’s Day observances are held at Market Square.

Billington said it all began when he was telling his son, Navy Lt. Commander Ryan Billington about the city war production during a visit to Maryland and looked up the U.S. Rubber Co. on the web. He found a site about Beyer’s Ghost Army production and exhibition show and decided immediately it had to be brought to the city.
“I couldn’t wait to tell Ray Bacon about it when I got home,” he said.

With the help of sponsors such as the Soucy Insurance Agency, Twin River, Athena’s, Hope Global, the Rhode Island Commanderie, L’il General Stores, and the Call/Times, Billington was able to raise $6,000 and have the replica tank created by Toni McKay, a balloon artist working with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“We raised the money in secret and what we wanted to do is unveil this peculiar part of Woonsocket’s story, the history of Alice Mill, on stage at the Stadium,” he said. The tank will be on display at the Museum of Work & Culture with Beyer’s exhibit and also be going on the road for other premiere’s of the film, Billington said.

Bosiak said the creation of the tank was added surprise for the showcasing of a chapter of Woonsocket history and added she was “very excited” about being part of that event. “The food is great, the crowd is wonderful and tonight has exceeded our expectations for sure,” she said.

Conway said about 170 people bought tickets for the reception in addition to viewing the movie and got the chance to sample menu items from River Falls, Kay's and the Lodge, and Vintage Restaurant. She also was anxious for the tank to be revealed at the end of the film. “I think it is going to be a wonderful surprise,” Conway said.

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