Hollywood Illusionists Hide Aircraft Factories
In February 1942, U.S. Navy personnel tracked a Japanese submarine lurking just outside of San Francisco. A few nights later, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara and fired a few shells at an oil storage facility. With the memories of December 7th 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor still fresh, the threat of a Japanese invasion seemed more than possible, perhaps likely.
Fear of further Japanese attacks on vital installations along the Pacific coast, the War Department ordered the implementation of ‘passive defense measures,’ which included use of cover, concealment, camouflage and deception. The man selected to oversee this arduous task was Col. John F. Ohmer, a pioneer in camouflage, deception and misdirection techniques. At the time he commanded a camouflage training center at March Field east of Los Angeles.
Ohmer visited England during the Battle of Britain in late 1940, when the full force of the Luftwaffe was attempting to bring England to her knees. He witnessed first-hand how carefully made and positioned camouflage could be used. The camouflage caused the Luftwaffe to waste thousands of tons of bombs on empty fields.
With help of scenic designers, painters, art directors, landscape artists, animators, carpenters, lighting experts and prop men from major movie studios Colonel Ohmer began the task of disguising key factories and assembly plants that would be likely targets for a Japanese assault on the Pacific Coast. Facilities included the Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, and the Lockheed-Vega aircraft plant in Burbank.
As you can see in the top photo, Lockheed-Vega would have made a fairly obvious target. But after the illusionists finished their magic, it looked like a nice, friendly neighborhood as shown in the bottom photo.
The Lockheed-Vega plant was fully hidden beneath a complete suburb replete with rubber automobiles and peaceful rural neighborhood scenes painted on canvas. Hundreds of fake trees and shrubs were positioned to give the entire area a three dimensional appearance.
The entire factory was covered with a huge burlap tarpaulin, painted to resemble a rural landscape. On top of this were placed fake trees made from chicken wire covered in chicken feathers and then painted. There were even fake rubber cars and mock buildings. Air ducts for the bustling factory beneath were disguised as fire hydrants on empty streets. But the Hollywood illusionists knew that the scene couldn’t look too inanimate.
Maintaining the illusion of a neighborhood required careful timing and planning. The suburb had to show signs of life and activity. To do this, workers occasionally emerged to relocate automobiles, and through hidden trap doors in the canopy, appeared to take walks on hidden catwalks and pretended to do maintenance work. Flights over camouflaged areas tested positively as pilots were unable to identify the bases, factories and plants.
Thirty-four military air bases were also camouflaged, including March Field. This sometimes involved creating decoy air bases with aircraft made of canvas scraps, ration boxes, and burlap on chicken wire as well as flattened tin cans dominated the landscape. None of these aircraft looked real up close but looked great from a distance. Fake runways were made by burning grassy strips.
Soon orders came from other areas of the US. In Seattle, the gigantic 26-acre Boeing Aircraft complex ordered the same treatment, blanketing the plant under netting; disguising the area as a suburb complete with municipal buildings, parks, schools and homes.
As the war continued, the threat of Japanese invasion seemed unlikely, especially after the U.S. Navy dealt a crippling blow to the Japanese carrier task force at Midway Island. Eventually the camouflage would be removed but had the Japanese ever mounted an aerial attack it would have been fascinating to see if the camouflage netting would have proved successful.