How the US mil­i­tary made a wartime fac­tory dis­ap­pear

Daily Express - - LETTERS - By Peter Sheri­dan

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. UK de­liv­ery is free.

TRANS­FORMED: Hol­ly­wood’s finest set de­sign­ers pro­duced the ru­ral idyll which hid the bomber work­ers, in­set

IN­DUS­TRIAL: The Lock­heed air­craft plant in Bur­bank was un­mis­tak­ably a fac­tory be­fore the cam­ou­flage in 1942

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