Oldies & Odd­i­ties

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Camo by the acre

IN LATE 1942, a wooded tract of land in Hen­rico County, Virginia, five miles south­east of Rich­mond’s air­port, Byrd Field, was in­vaded by the U.S. Army’s 936th Cam­ou­flage Bat­tal­ion. Us­ing bull­doz­ers, the troops cut and graded dummy run­ways to cre­ate a near-ex­act imi­ta­tion of Byrd’s tri­an­gu­lar lay­out and maze of taxi­ways.

The field, recorded in land reg­istries as the Elko Tract, soon ap­peared to be pop­u­lated by air­craft, hangars, and ve­hi­cles—all fakes, as­sem­bled us­ing tech­niques dreamed up by Hol­ly­wood set di­rec­tors at the start of the war. The build­ings were can­vas back­drops. The trucks were cloth and wire, so light you could pick them up and carry them. The air­planes were ply­wood, propped on “land­ing gear” made from two-by-fours. Ser­vice­men trimmed the sur­round­ing brush to leave P-47–shaped sil­hou­ettes.

Con­structed in re­sponse to fear of at­tack by Ger­man air­craft, which were be­ing man­u­fac­tured with ever-in­creas­ing range, Virginia’s de­coy air­field was lit­tle more than a stage set, but its plan­ners hoped it was con­vinc­ing when viewed from on high by an anx­ious Luft­waffe bom­bardier. In the event of a night raid, Rich­mond’s city lights would be dark­ened. Then the dummy field, lit and ap­par­ently vul­ner­a­ble, could mis­lead the crew of ap­proach­ing air­craft into re­leas­ing their bombs, spar­ing the city of Rich­mond, its cru­cial ports, and its real air­field, which had re­cently been con­verted to a U.S. Army flight train­ing base. And should the ploy prove so con­vinc­ing, some of the field’s fake struc­tures con­cealed real anti-air­craft guns.

Camp life at the in­stal­la­tion, how­ever, was not staged. Sol­diers from the Army’s 1896th En­gi­neer­ing Aviation Bat­tal­ion were sta­tioned there; among their mis­sions was rou­tinely trundling things about to feign the ac­tiv­ity of a real air base. They later re­called cold win­ters in flimsy Quon­set huts.

Both Al­lied and Axis forces made con­sid­er­able use of sim­i­lar de­coys, of­ten suc­cess­fully di­vert­ing at­tacks, though one (pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal) tale re­counts a Nazi site where fake wooden air­planes were as­saulted by equally fake wooden Al­lied bombs, a wry way of telling the en­emy the ruse wasn’t work­ing. In Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia, a Lock­heed air­craft as­sem­bly plant was cam­ou­flaged to re­sem­ble sub­urbs from above; Boe­ing dis­guised a Seat­tle plant the same way. But such ef­forts were cur­tailed later in the war, when it be­came clear they were un­needed. Her­mann Go­er­ing’s “America Bomber” project never ma­te­ri­al­ized; the Nazis couldn’t carry blitzkrieg that far.

In March 1944, the 1896th was sent to the Pacific, where the troops built real air fields (wear­ing in­signias em­bla­zoned “L-K-O,” to honor their de­cep­tive ori­gins).

In the cold war years, the Virginia site was used as a bomb­ing tar­get. Mark­ings on sec­tional charts warned pi­lots of the “Dummy air­field— for bomb­ing prac­tice only.” Dubbed The Lost City by res­i­dents around Hen­rico (who cir­cu­late var­i­ous con­spir­acy the­o­ries about its ori­gins), the base’s most vis­i­ble re­mains, in­clud­ing roads lead­ing nowhere and an omi­nous wa­ter tower, were built af­ter the war, de­tri­tus from a failed at­tempt to build—of all things—a psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity.

The ad­join­ing grounds are now a mod­ern in­dus­trial park, pro­duc­ing semi­con­duc­tors and other mod­ern sun­dries. Yet when viewed from the air, stretches of the de­coy field’s tri­an­gu­lar run­ways still peek through the trees, and a marker along a nearby high­way re­veals this on­ces­e­cret tale of war and de­cep­tion.

Long ago re­turned to the city, the air­field that Elko’s fake de­fenses once pro­tected is to­day Rich­mond In­ter­na­tional Air­port; the mil­i­tary, in the form of a Virginia Na­tional Guard unit equipped with F-16s, de­parted in 2007. Now over­seas trav­el­ers ar­rive in Rich­mond daily—and only on the friendli­est of terms.


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