By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006
Louis Dalton Porter, who died June 28 of a heart attack at his Oxon Hill home at age 87, was an artist and sign painter who, for a portion of his career, did everything he could to make his work disappear.
As a "ghost soldier" with an Army camouflage battalion during World War II, he put his painterly skills to work as part of an extraordinary group of artists, actors, set designers and engineering wizards, many of whom were recruited from art schools, advertising agencies and other venues in which people were expected to think creatively. (The designer Bill Blass and the painter Ellsworth Kelly were also ghost soldiers.)
Required to have an IQ of at least 119, Mr. Porter and his fellow ghost soldiers were encouraged to use their brains and their talent to mislead, deceive and befuddle the German army. They were dispatched to Europe shortly after the Normandy invasion.
A contingent of only 1,100 men, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops pretended to be a much larger, more heavily armed unit. The formidable fighting force the Germans thought they were engaging was actually a group of creative types equipped with inflatable tanks and artillery, fake aircraft, cast-iron paratroopers and giant speakers mounted on half-tracks that broadcast the sounds of men, tanks, artillery and phony radio chatter.
The unit's elaborate ruses enticed German units into battle or deflected them from where larger U.S. combat units intended to be. According to Jack Kneece, author of "Ghost Army of World War II" (2001), the Germans thought they were up against a 30,000-man force.
"They were so successful that sometimes a huge German unit would surrender to them," Kneece said.
He explained that, as a painter, Mr. Porter would have been called on to create painstakingly realistic camouflage -- leaves, branches, shadows -- on materiel the unit was trying to hide and purposefully less realistic camouflage on dummy materiel, with the intention of drawing German fire.
The 23rd was successful on 21 operations, Kneece said. It was so successful and so worthy of emulation in later years that the Army kept its operations top-secret until 1996. Family members said that Mr. Porter maintained his code of silence until the top-secret designation was lifted.
Mr. Porter was born in Kaplan, La., and grew up in Biloxi, Miss., and Crowley, La. He moved to the Washington area shortly after the beginning of World War II to train with the 23rd at Fort Meade and Fort Belvoir.
After his discharge in 1945, he settled in Prince George's County and worked as a commercial sign maker for Hanlein Signs and Porter & Brady Signs. He later had his own company, Porter Signs, hand-lettering signs and painting architectural renderings.
He also applied the gold leaf to the domes of several government buildings and to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
He retired in 1986 to devote his time to oil painting and often exhibited his work at local art shows. He painted portraits, nature scenes and views of Fort Washington.
In 2003, Prince George's purchased his five-foot painted bluebird sculpture, "The Prince," as a coronation gift for its sister city, the Royal Bafokeng Nation, a tiny kingdom in South Africa.
In addition to his artwork, Mr. Porter wrote poetry, adopted stray cats and enjoyed golf, fishing and VFW reunions.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Catherine Porter of Oxon Hill; a daughter, Carole Pommer of Plano, Tex.; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.