Ed Note: Lynn Kennedy, of Bellow Falls, Vermont, wrote to the Greater Pittston Historical Society about her father, John H. Kennedy, who served in the top secret Ghost Army in World War II. This is his story, culled from research by Lynn and archives of the Pittston Gazette.
Pittston native John Kennedy served in a World War II Army unit so secretive it was kept classified for 40 years and stayed largely unknown to the public for 50. After the unit was declassified in the late 1980s, a series of newspaper and magazine articles and a few books, notably one by Jack Kneece, uncovered the “The Ghost Army of World War II.”
The 2013 a PBS documentary by Rick Beyer and later a book by Beyer and Liz Sayles gave the “The Ghost Army” world exposure. The mission of the “tactical deception” unit was to deceive the enemy by creating false troop movements and actions and disseminating misinformation.
Growing up in Pittston in the 1930s and ’40s, John Kennedy was part of a stanchly patriotic, civic-minded and well read Irish-Catholic family of entrepreneurs.
Kennedy’s parents, Joseph and Mary Fisher Kennedy ran a grocery store at 10 Radcliff St. in the city, where John H. grew up. His maternal grandparents Kate Allies Fisher and Aloysius M. Fisher owned a dairy near Wilkes-Barre.
The family of his paternal grandmother Anna Marie “Nancy” English Kennedy had a long history of military service. And John’s nephew, Frank Kennedy, taught at West Point and served in Korea, one of several sons of the extended family to serve in the military.
John’s uncle, James J. Kennedy, was mayor of Pittston in 1920. Another uncle, Kenneth J. English, was mayor from 1937-39. A third uncle, Frank P. Kennedy, was a newspaper correspondent for the Sunday Independent, Sunday Telegram and the Pittston Gazette. He was sued for libel by John Kehoe for a series of articles implicating the source of Kehoe’s income was more than it appeared to be.
Kennedy graduated from St. John’s High School, where he and his best friend, Jimmy Lynn, wrote their own newspaper, “The Morning Glory.” He played football for St. John’s and was halfback in the 1939 Thanksgiving “deluge” game against Pittston High. His backfield mates were Charles Reap and Joseph Hunt, who would be killed on the same day in World War II.
Kennedy was just 17 when he joined the Citizens’ Military Training Corps in Fort Meade, Maryland with seven other local boys: Joseph McCanna, Louis Pinola and Charles Garuba and Samuel Grow, Pittston, and William McDonnell, William Mackin and Bernard Schneck, of Exeter.
The CMTC was a summer military training program for young men to get a taste of military training and culture without the obligation of active duty.
After he graduated St. John’s, Kennedy moved to New York City, where he and his sister, Katherine Kennedy, started a newspaper ad agency. In 1941, John’s aunt, Mary Kennedy, heard a radio broadcast about an Army unit recruiting men with art talent for a special unit and told him about it.
Intrigued, Kennedy applied and was accepted into the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, the “Ghost Army.” Beyer, the documentary filmmaker, said Kennedy was the only Ghost Army soldier he met to be recruited through radio.
Kennedy was a sergeant in the 23rd, and while with the unit, he was active in the unique mission to deceive the Axis about the size and location of Allied troops. A few weeks after D-Day, the Ghost Army landed in France and until the end of the war, staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, using inflatable tanks, recorded sound, actors and other deceptions to create illusions, such as making 1,000 soldiers look like 30,000.
Discharged, Kennedy enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, where he met and married, Helen Schmidt, of Philadelphia. They bought an old farm house in Bucks County where they raised two daughters, Lisa and Lynn.
He worked at the art department of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin as a freelance artist and corporate art director for the international firm Towers Watson Wyatt.
In 1985, with John retired, the Kennedys moved to Vermont where he freelanced cartoon art, some of which was featured in The Saturday Evening Post, and a weekly series in a Vermont newspaper, the Herald of Randolph called “Local Color.”
Kennedy died at 91 in 2013. From his obituary in the Vermont Brattleboro Reformer “John loved gardening, music, playing baseball, tennis, the environment, landscaping, creative stone walls, nature, animals, his beloved friends, family, pets, and Vermont.”
Kennedy’s daughter, Lynn, is working with the Ghost Army Legacy Foundation to get Congress to award Gold Medals to surviving Ghost Army veterans and their families. The foundation raises money to encourage folks to write/contact their congressmen and senators to co-sign the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Bill, get it to committee and enacted.
To help, visit ghostarmy.org