How the US military made a wartime factory disappear
IT WAS a suburban paradise. Pretty white houses dotted the lush green landscape, which was dappled with hedgerows and shrubs. Laundry hung out to dry behind white picket fences. Gardeners mowed manicured lawns, residents sunbathed, and cars moved lazily across broad tree-lined avenues set amid a verdant patchwork of farmland.
It was the height of the Second World War but this site on the outskirts of Los Angeles was a tranquil idyll. And it was all fake: every home, every tree, every piece of washing. Even the residents were actors.
This was one of the war’s little known and most unlikely exploits in camouflage. From the air it appeared to be a rural community sleepily going about its business. But beneath the illusion hid Lockheed’s biggest aircraft factory, where 94,000 workers toiled around the clock churning out B-17 bombers and P-38 Lightning fighter planes.
“This secret utopia existed abovewith the industry of war in a dirty factory beneath,” says British author Graham Rawle, who uses the hidden military facility that was the size of a small town as the setting for his latest book, Overland. A work of fiction, Rawle’s book draws its inspiration from the flights of imagination that transformed an industrial plant into a suburban dream when viewed from the air.
“It was an astonishing sleight of hand. Up in the air it would have looked to enemy aircraft like a picture-perfect suburb,” says Rawle.
Disguising the factory became a priority when America was dragged into the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Colonel John Ohmer, who the previous year had seen fields in England disguised as fake factories to lure Luftwaffe bombs during the Battle of Britain, was entrusted with the cover-up.
“He was an amateur magician and this was his greatest disappearing trick,” says Rawle.
Armed with a camouflage engineering battalion, Colonel Ohmer turned to Hollywood, recruiting set designers, painters, prop men and artists from studios including Disney, Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox.
Gin Los Angeles IANT factory buildings were hidden beneath acres of chicken wire, netting and a coarse fabric called burlap painted various shades of green. On this faux landscape were raised giant fake houses with red roofs, mounted on wooden frames.
Fake farms were erected complete with plaster animals, barns and silos. Hundreds of fake trees crafted from chicken wire were dotted across the rooftop greenery, with leaves made of chicken feathers spray-painted green and brown. Giant inflatable cars were parked outside the fake houses and washing lines were strung with laundry.
But maintaining the illusion required signs of life and activity. “Factory workers were employed to put up fake washing in the morning and take it down at night,” says Rawle. Actors were hired to sunbathe on the fake lawns outside their fake homes and workers performed fake gardening to fool anyone watching from the sky.
Catwalks were built above the factory so that workers could take strolls through the faux fields above and inflatable rubber vehicles were moved back and forth, as if residents were heading to work and returning home. Model animals were routinely moved around.
Air ducts were disguised as fire hydrants in the fake landscape above. An elaborate array of tunnels allowed workers to move around the factory’s buildings without being seen by any Japanese bombers overhead. The Lockheed factory runway was painted different shades of green to look like fields of wheat and barley and lined with fake trees. “It was so well disguised that pilots who took off couldn’t find it again and had to land elsewhere,” says Rawle.
Car parks were painted to look like fields of alfalfa from above and nearby roads were painted green. Knowing that Japanese bombers would be looking for an airport in the vicinity, engineers created a decoy one at a distance from the factory. Fake planes were crafted from canvas-covered chicken wire frames and tin cans. Wide strips of grass were burned to resemble fake runways from the sky.
“Warner Bros was so alarmed by the success of the Lockheed plant’s camouflage that they worried they might be mistaken for the aircraft factory by Japanese bombers so they in turn camouflaged their own buildings,” says Rawle.
Lockheed’s disguise was so impressive that the US military covered 35 other facilities with fake rural and suburban landscapes. Boeing Aircraft’s 26-acre plant in Seattle, Washington, was hidden beneath a fake town complete with houses, municipal buildings, schools and parks. The Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica, California, which made B-17 bombers, vanished beneath five million square feet of chicken wire and canvas displaying fake houses and trees. The largest hangar was disguised as a rolling hill.
But it is hard to imagine who the American military thought they were fooling when they decided to disguise a famous factory that had been there since 1928 and which thousands of local residents knew was hidden beneath the fake grass, trees and houses.
“We did think it was kind of funny,” recalled Mary Jane Strickland, one of the “Rosie the Riveter” workers on the plant’s Second World War assembly line.
“You walk out the door and you’re right on the main street in Burbank. It’s like – who doesn’t know it’s there? It was like a big secret that was not a secret at all.”
It was such a badly-kept secret that the Burbank Chamber of Commerce issued a book in 1944, at the height of the war, discussing in detail the “camouflage galore”.
FORMER Lockheed worker Bob Klinger said: “It had been a well-known factory before the war began so I guess they figured, ‘Well, the Japanese know it’s there but we’ll camouflage it and then they won’t be sure what they got.’ ”
America certainly feared imminent invasion in February, 1942, when a Japanese submarine was sighted outside San Francisco Bay. A few nights later another surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, firing a few shells at an oil storage facility.
Erroneous reports of enemy aircraft the following day led US artillery to blaze away for hours in the infamous “Battle of Los Angeles,” firing at non-existent aircraft.
But the spectre of Japanese invasion quickly receded and was never a real threat after America dealt a crippling blow to the Japanese carrier force in the Battle of Midway in June, 1942.
From the air the faux suburban landscape might have fooled any Japanese bomber looking for an aircraft factory – but the enemy never came.
“After the Second World War much of the camouflage was then removed and thrown away though scraps were still rotting away above the factory for decades after,” says Rawle, whose novel imagines two parallel worlds unfolding above and below the camouflage.
“The aircraft plant eventually closed in 1994. The Lockheed runways are now part of the Burbank commuter airport and the factory is now a sprawling shopping centre. Perhaps that is its ultimate disappearing act.”
To pre-order Overland by Graham Rawle, published by Chatto & Windus on March 22 at £14.99, call the Express Bookshop with your debit/credit card on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque or postal order payable to Express Bookshop to: Overland Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or on-line at expressbookshop. co.uk. UK delivery is free.