OVERLAND - The history behind the story
In the wake of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941, the War Department ordered Lt Gen John L De Witt, head of Western Defense Command, to find a way to protect critical military installations along the Pacific Coast. No one knew where the enemy might strike next, but the vast unprotected, un-camouflaged aviation factories just a few miles inland were obvious targets for a Japanese assault. Among those considered most vulnerable were the Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica, Boeing’s B-2 plant in Seattle and the Lockheed Aircraft factory in Burbank, California.
The Lockheed plant, with its subsidiary, Vega, and recently acquired air terminal, was one of the most strategic military facilities in the United States. In early 1942 Lockheed’s workforce (90,000 during peak production) was the largest of any US airframe manufacturer, occupying nearly 3.5 million square feet of floor space.
While the Army quickly set up barricades to keep out all but company employees from factory areas, windows were painted, electric lights were blacked out or dimmed and the building of bomb shelters began. Key personnel who had gathered at the Lockheed site to plan their broader defense strategy placed an urgent call to Col. John F. Ohmer, a pioneer in military camouflage, deception and misdirection techniques. Though the USAAF had originally rejected his ideas as too costly, Ohmer, an amateur magician and a photography hobbyist, was now given free reign and a limitless budget to protect the facilities from enemy air attack. His mission was simple: to make the entire Lockheed Aircraft plant disappear.
Using a technique he called “visual misinformation” he combined 2-dimensionally painted canvas with foreshortened 3-dimensional props to disguise the Lockheed plant as part of the California landscape. When photographed by air reconnaissance, he claimed, it would blend inconspicuously into its surroundings.
With a camouflage engineering battalion under his command Ohmer began recruiting set designers, construction engineers, carpenters, large-scale scenic painters, landscape artists and prop masters from nearby movie studios in Hollywood. Among those offering up their specialists for the camouflage workforce were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Universal Pictures.
Hangars and factory buildings were blanketed with acres of chicken wire, netting and painted canvas, transforming them into what to an observer flying at an altitude of 5,000 feet was an innocuous Burbank suburb with residential tree-lined streets and sidewalks. Hundreds of fake trees and shrubs crafted from wire armatures coated in tar and then dipped in spray-painted chicken feathers gave the area a leafy, three-dimensional appearance. It was an elaborate operation: some Army observers remarked that it looked like a Hollywood studio back lot. Buildings of all shapes and sizes—houses, schools and public buildings, were fashioned from timber and canvas. Most of the trees and buildings were not very tall, but appeared normal when viewed as a 2-dimensional aerial photograph due to the extremely shallow depth of field.
In case Japanese reconnaissance planes were secretly flying over Southern California, Ohmer’s team needed the ersatz neighborhood to show signs of life. Employees from the factory below would periodically emerge through hidden trap doors in the canopy to move the full-size inflated rubber automobiles around to suggest they were regularly being driven and re-parked. Workers hung laundry on clotheslines only to take it down again later the same day.
Though Hollywood and the Pentagon had at first seemed unlikely partners, the movie set-designers’ expertise proved invaluable in creating the grand illusion. Accustomed to budget and schedule constraints, they worked quickly and efficiently, but more importantly they understood the principles of stagecraft, artifice and visual deception, using their own techniques to fabricate landscapes that would appear realistic from a specified viewpoint, whether from the front row of a movie theater or the bomb bay of a Mitsubishi Ki-21.
The recruits included leading visionaries in the motion picture industry. John S. Detlie, an Oscar-nominated production designer and architect, led the effort to camouflage the vast Boeing aircraft plant in Seattle. Detlie, who was married to movie star Veronica Lake, left MGM in 1942 to manage the Boeing project as a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. Under his direction, the entire 26-acre Plant 2 was canopied with a suburban network of streets adorned with some 300 tar and feather trees, fifty-three homes, twenty-four garages, three greenhouses, a corner store, and a gas station. Detlie’s bogus town was dubbed “Wonderland” by Boeing employees below.
Warner Brothers, whose movie set designers had been instrumental in hiding the nearby Douglas Aircraft plant in Santa Monica under nearly five million square feet of chicken wire, was forced to give its own sound stages the same camouflage treatment fearing they may be mistaken for aircraft hangars.
In all, some thirty-four air bases along the Pacific Coast were camouflaged, but the elaborate subterfuge was never put to the test; no enemy planes ever flew over and the feared air raids never came.
The disguise of California ceased to be critical when in June 1942 the US Navy dealt a decisive blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, during which all four of Japan’s large aircraft carriers were sunk and Japan’s capacity to replace them was crippled by devastating casualties. The threat of a serious attack against the West Coast diminished then gradually vanished.
The camouflage programs that had been so rigorously implemented during 1942 were mostly removed by 1944. Some remained in place, but were largely forgotten. In the final months of WW2, Boeing and Douglas staged film and publicity photo shoots in which women form the factories were photographed in faux leisurely pursuits—gardening, sunbathing and picnicking—to show off the mystery villages that had until then remained officially classified. Prior to this, photography of them at ground level had been a criminal offense. The secrecy over the project was now lifted, but even before the photographs were published, crews were moving in to tear the camouflage structures down. Designed not to be seen, it was as if by making the fake towns publicly visible, the magic that had enabled them to exist could no longer support them.
Lockheed finally closed the Burbank plant in 1992. After the area was razed, the lot stood vacant for almost a decade, its redevelopment stalled by environmental concerns. The vast triangular plot lay completely flattened and eerily empty, like a mirage that had vanished. On maps and aerial photographs it looked as though it had been purposely blanked out.
Lockheed Air Terminal was renamed Bob Hope Airport in 2003, and the plant itself has since been replaced by the Empire Shopping Center: 900,000 square feet of major tenants, specialty shops, and restaurants. Apart from the occasional airplane motif on shopping mall signage, visitors might never guess that one of the largest aircraft production facilities in the US once occupied the space.
One tangible yet ultimately useless clue to the past remains: winding along the lower slopes of the Verdugo Mountains is a road named Lockheed View Drive. It offers a vantage point from which, ironically, the Lockheed plant can no longer be seen, having once more been made to disappear into Burbank’s suburban landscape.
Graham Rawle, September 2017