WATERTOWN — Throughout life, Darrel Downing Rippeteau depended on a steadfast dedication to training and discipline for his success.
“Visualizing ahead about what is going to be happening, whether for a war maneuver or a job interview or a social event or whatever, was a major key to his success all through his life,” daughter Jane Rippeteau Heffron said.
The story of the “Ghost Army” may become more known through a bipartisan effort in the Senate.
In Army jargon, Mr. Rippeteau’s approach to success was adhering to what’s known as the Five Paragraph Field Order, something he first came across as an ROTC cadet in his home state of Nebraska. The U.S. military first formalized the “Five Paragraph” approach in the 1890s. It involves specific areas of information that a commander should impart when communicating instructions to subordinates in the field.
In boxes of his belongings that his family came across after his death in February 2016, Lt. Col. Rippeteau is, in a way, imparting instructions again, this time by some things he carefully plotted out, to be found and utilized for whatever mission that its finders, his sons and daughter, would see fit.
At Fort Drum, that latest mission will see results when a permanent museum exhibit opens next year focusing on the Army Experimental Station at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum). For decades, only those with top-level clearance knew the story of what they accomplished here.
“I believe I knew they had material, but I didn’t know the extent of the archival holdings,” Joseph E. “Sepp” Scanlin, 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum director, said on Monday of the family’s donation. “I was super excited when I saw not only some of the pictures, but some of the items I haven’t been able to fully go through yet, like the technical background information on what they were doing here.”
Mr. Rippeteau knew, but for years, he had to keep the classified program secret from his family.
“To my word, he never said a word about this,” said son Bruce Rippeteau.
Mrs. Rippeteau Heffron and Mr. Rippeteau, summer residents of the Thousand Islands area, met a Times reporter at Mr. Rippeteau’s summer home in Cape Vincent earlier this month to talk about their dad, his legacy and the upcoming permanent exhibit at Fort Drum. They are both seasonal residents. Mr. Rippeteau also has a home in Nebraska; Mrs. Heffron in London.
A third child, Darrel D. Rippeteau Jr., lives in Washington, D.C., where, following in his father’s trade, he works as an architect.
“My father absolutely didn’t discuss it for the obvious reasons that it was secret,” Darrel said in a phone interview. “After the term of secrecy ended, he was able to discuss it. I can recall, during my younger years, that my father had a way with words relating to his work in the past. Things kind of clicked after we found out he had been in this secret group.”
A leader and a builder
Darrel Downing Rippeteau was born in Clay Center, Neb., in 1917 and became a prominent architect in the north country and Northeast. He was a long-time resident of Watertown and became an extremely engaged civic leader. When he died in 2016 at the age of 99 in Florida, the Watertown Daily Times headlined the story of his death as the “Man who helped build Watertown.”
Mr. Rippeteau graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1941, with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and went on active duty in May 1942. He served as second lieutenant in the field artillery at Fort Sill, Okla., and was later appointed to the armored force school at Fort Knox, Ky., as an instructor in field artillery and tank destroyer tactics.
According to Times files, after a tour of duty with the 20th Armored Division, he was assigned to the Experimental Station at Pine Camp as operations and planning officer, directing research and development projects for the Signal Corps and Corps of Engineers.
“We have all kinds of memories of being out at Pine Camp,” Bruce Rippeteau said. “It wasn’t until the late 1990s that they were allowed to talk about it and guys started writing books about it.”
On Jan. 20, 1944, the U.S. Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops activated with the sole mission of deceiving German forces in the European theater during World War II. Known as “The Ghost Army,” these soldiers used inflatable tanks and artillery, sent false radio transmissions, and blasted audio recordings of troop movement and construction to create phantom forces that misled the enemy on American troop strength and locations.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops included a “sonic deception” combat unit — the 3132nd Signal Service Company — which activated and trained at the Army Experimental Station in March 1944 at Pine Camp, with the 3133rd Signal Service Company.
‘Secret soldiers’ revealed
One of the books on the special troops unit, “Secret Soldiers: The Story of World War II’s Heroic Army of Deception,” by Philip Gerard was published in 2002. It draws on reminiscences and papers of men who learned at Pine Camp the art of using props and sound effects to dupe the enemy. Mr. Gerard had extensive conversations with Darrel D. Rippeteau for the book.
“If Mr. Gerard’s book is a success and if it does what I understand it to be doing, for the first time a cohesive story of the entire 23rd Headquarters will be told,” Mr. Rippeteau told the Times shortly after the book’s release.
The task at Pine Camp was to focus on the sonic element of the secret program. It was the understanding of many of the unit’s veterans that talking about what happened on Pine Camp’s back ranges — the “ghosts” called it Sherwood Forest — was forbidden by the Pentagon until 1995.
When the curious in the community wondered about strange noises of what many took for an entire division in training, they were encouraged to believe it. Decades later, it emerged that the Pentagon had hoped such false information would be passed to Hitler.
The AES was at Pine Camp for 15 months, from 1944 into 1945 and was secured behind fences around the “4800 area” off Route 26 toward Evans Mills. The post was generally believed to be inactive around 1944-45 because of the troops fighting overseas, although it was used as a training ground for armor units and internment camps for Italian and German prisoners of war.
Tape recorders were still in development, so instead of recording tape, “wire” recordings were used at the Pine Camp program. Magnetic recordings were made on thin steel or stainless steel wires and reels of them were used for the sound, amplified through “exponential horns” which, when placed in batteries of four, measured 6 feet square. Sounds ranged from the rumble of tanks to the barking of dogs and personnel movement.
At the end of the program in 1945, the unit’s formerly super-secret sound equipment was superseded by high fidelity sound equipment. The wire recorders were sold on the open market.
The technology was developed at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and civilian advisers were sent to Pine Camp to assist with the training.
A spokesman at Bell Labs was asked earlier this month if the company was able to develop any civilian applications from its work at Pine Camp. Spokesman Ed Eckert told the Times that the Bell Labs archives has no records on the sonic or acoustic deception projects of World War II.
When the operation closed up at Pine Camp, Mr. Rippeteau was transferred in 1945 to the office of the chief signal officer at the Pentagon.
Following World War II, Mr. Rippeteau settled in Watertown to run the regional office of the architecture-engineer firm Sargent Webster Crenshaw & Folley of Syracuse. He rose to managing partner of this awarding-winning firm, which was active mainly across the Northeast. Projects notably included the Justice Building on the New York State Capitol campus (Empire State Plaza) in Albany. He was involved in more than 3,000 projects, including schools across the north country as well as the Dulles State Office Building, the Watertown Municipal Building and the Watertown Daily Times building. He was made managing partner of the firm in 1974.
The 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum staff is making progress in developing an even-clearer narrative about the once super-secret organization at Pine Camp. Mr. Scanlin, the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum director, said that the recent donation of documents and photos from the Rippeteau family, received a few weeks ago, is shedding new light on the training. Their research will be part of a permanent exhibit, focusing on the AES and sonic deception training, when the museum opens at its new location next year.
The site of the new location, expected to open next summer, is outside of the installation fence, near the Gasoline Alley Gate, on Route 26.
“Basically, we just want to shine a light onto this amazing history of Pine Camp, and the innovative training that happened here,” Mr. Scanlin said in an Army news release. “To me, it’s seeing this continuity that Pine Camp and Fort Drum has continued to serve as a location for some pretty high-end, unique Army innovation.”
The new collection includes articles and newspaper clippings of the Ghost Army, a copy of the official history of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, various correspondences and photographs.
“The photos are interesting because they can be used for educational and display purposes,” Mr. Scanlin told the Times. “They’re ready to be used in a way the archival documents aren’t.”
Mr. Scanlin said that some of the most complex, technical training for the Ghost Army was conducted at Pine Camp.
“The unit mission for the AES was sonic deception, and this is where they turned the concept into reality in a tactical environment,” he said. “Soldiers would have had to learn how to use this highly technical equipment, and make it work in different environments and situations. We have pictures of soldiers angling speakers on an M-10 Tank Destroyer, so they practiced how they would project the sound over long distances.”
Bruce Rippeteau said the technology was put to use in the German theater near the end of the war by the Allies.
“It worked really well,” he said. “It worked so well, that the Germans returned fire.”
This meant that the sonic teams had to make a quick exit.
“They came back in the morning and everything was ripped to shreds from an artillery bombardment targeting what the Germans thought was real,” Mr. Rippeteau said. “The big picture of all of this is that it just introduced a lot of confusion on the battlefield. Nothing lasted very long. It worked best at night when nobody could test whether there was somebody out there or not.”
A synchronization of effort was required to produce sounds; vehicle movement on one track, personnel movement and chatter on another, and maybe a third audio track with other ambient sound — each on its own speaker system.
Mr. Scanlin said that all that noise wouldn’t be played on one track because people don’t hear that way, and authentic duplication of sound was paramount to mission success.
“I’m really interested in learning more about this technology, and the tactics and techniques they were trying to figure out here,” he said. “We’ve got access to some of that now. I think this is a really profound piece of the story that could have easily been hidden because of the classification. But now we’re beginning to know more about it.”
Virtually every unit in the “ghost” program disappeared from existence after the war. Those who served in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops were not allowed to talk about what they did, and it wasn’t until the 1990s when details of their story became declassified.
Darrel Rippeteau, the Washington, D.C., architect, is also a Vietnam War veteran. He hopes the family’s donation brings a greater sense of appreciation for what goes into a military campaign.
“I suppose it’s true of many other major movements that not only is there a direct and overt action, but the things that are done behind the scenes and covertly to advance a cause are extraordinary,” he said.
It’s also notable, he said, that the “ghost” program was non-violent.
“They just expended their energies and did not achieve the goals they might have achieved by shooting up real tanks, real soldiers and bombing convoys and things of that nature,” he said. “To me, it’s so fascinating to try to skirt around the war and win that way.”
‘Adds to the story’
In 2002, Darrel D. Rippeteau, who retired from the local Army Reserves unit in 1977, met with James Neville, former Fort Drum curator, to donate a collection of material in the hopes that sharing information would draw further attention to those who served in these secretive units. At the time, Mr. Neville compared the amount of known history as having 50 pieces of a 3,000-piece puzzle.
With the recent donation, more is known about the program.
“Even today, there is so much we still don’t know,” Mr. Scanlin said. “But to me, what we have gotten from the family really adds to the story. Everyone sees the story from the operational perspective of what the Ghost Army did in northern Europe. We’ve really expanded the understanding of what the AES did here and what they contributed to the war.”
For example, Mr. Scanlin said that several photos from November 1944 included in the recent donation confirm that the Army’s “Oscar” paratrooper decoys were test-launched at Pine Camp during a demonstration for top military brass.
“They were clearly brought here to be used as part of a demonstration,” Mr. Scanlin said. “But I haven’t found in the documents where they helped to develop them. But I can’t imagine otherwise how they would come to be used here. As a demonstration, AES had some sort of a finger into the program.”
The German Army, Mr. Scanlin said, was the first to use dummy paratroopers in 1940 during the invasion of Holland and Belgium to incite panic. The British developed their own decoy called “Rupert” before the U.S. code named their own.
“Residents in this area were probably aware that this demonstration was happening, but they probably weren’t talking about it,” Mr. Scanlin said. “There was a war going on, and people had a better sense of national security — if someone said not to talk about something, it was highly likely you would not talk.”
The items recently donated to the Fort Drum museum were found at Darrel D. Rippeteau’s homes in Florida and Wellesley Island. Many of the photos have a personal touch.
“This is in his architectural hand-writing and on the back are other things written,” Mrs. Rippeteau Heffron said while holding one of the photos, many which are plaque-like, attached to a durable base layer. “He was very good at labeling things. We just kept finding pictures and we gave them to Sepp.”
The family also donated various files.
“My father was a meticulous record keeper,” Mrs. Rippeteau Heffron said. “There were caches.”
Bruce and Jane are seasonal residents of the Cape Vincent area. Bruce also has a home in Nebraska and Jane also resides in London, England. All three Rippeteau children are graduates of Watertown High School. Bruce is an acclaimed archaeologist who received his doctorate from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and studied a wide range of topics from Paleo-Indian pueblos to efforts to recover the ironclad USS Monitor and the H.L. Hunley submarine. He was state archaeologist for Colorado from 1976 to 1984 and for South Carolina from 1984 to 2004. He once served as vice president of the oil and gas exploration company Powers Elevation.
Jane Rippeteau Heffron graduated from the University of Rochester and received a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked at the Washington Post and at McGraw-Hill with its weekly magazine, Engineering News Record, the bible of the construction industry. She later worked for The Financial Times in London before running a publishing department for investment research at Citigroup.
Mr. Rippeteau is buried at the family’s Wellesley Island cemetery plot. He married Donna Doris Hiatt of Odell, Neb. in 1939; she died in 1988 and in 1991 he married C. Joyce Spencer of Washington, D.C. Joyce Rippeteau now resides at an assisted living facility in Fairport, Monroe County.
Their father, Bruce said, “set a good example of working hard as a business person.”
In 1971, St. Lawrence University, Canton, presented Darrell D. Rippeteau an Outstanding Citizen Award for his service to the north country. His community service included president of the Greater Watertown Chamber of Commerce, director of the National Bank of Northern New York (now Key Bank), president of the Northern New York-Fort Drum Chapter of the Association of the United States Army and trustee of the Jefferson County Historical Society.
He often stressed the beneficial connection between his military training and how it related to his professional success and his community involvement.
“He tried to send those values right down the chain,” his daughter said. “He was also involved in the community. He started this and he started that, helping here and helping there. But he still managed to enliven our lives.’’
She recalled “magical” times — from her dad piloting his Piper Cherokee (dubbed the Pterodactyl) with his awed children aloft with him to the down-to-Earth strolls and chats at his tree farms.
“It was all pretty magical stuff for us kids,” Jane said. “We had wonderful upbringings. We’re grateful for that. We could have the same conversations about my mom.”