Is it a town or an aircraft plant? Actually, it’s both. In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor 7 December 1941, many feared an imminent Japanese invasion of California. In February 1942, two reports of Japanese submarines off the coast of California—and one actual shelling of a pier from a surfaced sub—spurred the U.S. War Department to implement passive defense measures for all vital installations along the Pacific Coast. Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, was essentially tasked to disguise California. The result was to camouflage war production plants. The pleasant-looking “town” depicted in this gallery is actually a model built on top of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation plant in Burbank, California.
Now You See It
This aerial view shows the main Lockheed Aircraft Corporation plant in Burbank, California, and the Lockheed Air Terminal in early 1942. Notice the runway overrun (foreground right) has already been painted with “rooftops” and “driveways.” Note the red shaded building on the left side of the photo. That is a reference point for the next photo.
Now You Don’t
With the camouflage netting and “buildings” in place by mid 1942, the Lockheed Aircraft plant has vanished, at least looking on from above. The red shaded building near the middle of the photo at the top is the same building that was highlighted in the previous photo. This image shows the scale of the ruse. Notice the wartime censor has cropped the photo to eliminate the runway completely.
Sleight of Hand
Maintaining the illusion of a neighborhood required effort. The suburb had to show signs of life and activity. To do this, workers occasionally emerged to pretend to do maintenance work. Some even took washing down from fake clotheslines later replaced them. Parked rubber automobiles were frequently moved to give the impression that drivers were using their cars daily and returning home from work.
Army-Navy "E" Award
Thousands of workers gather under camouflage netting, as the Lockheed Aircraft facility in Burbank, California, is presented with its Army-Navy “E” Award in ceremonies circa 1943. As a War Department press release from 5 December 1945 noted: “War workers in 4,283 of the nation’s top-flight war production facilities earned the Army-Navy “E” Award for their part in the defeat of the Axis Powers. … The Army-Navy “E” Award was granted only to facilities particularly outstanding in production for the War and Navy Departments.”
Just a Model
Hundreds of fake trees and shrubs gave the entire area atop the aircraft plant a three dimensional appearance. The fake trees and shrubs were created from chicken wire treated with an adhesive and covered with chicken feathers to provide a leafy texture. The entire tree or plant would then be painted in various shades of green along with spots of brown to show where the vegetation had died. Air ducts disguised as fire hydrants made it possible for the Lockheed employees to continue working underneath the huge camouflage umbrella.
Just a Big Set
The movie studios in Hollywood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Universal Pictures and others accepted the challenge to hide the war plants and offered scenic designers, painters, art directors, landscape artists, animators, carpenters, lighting experts, and propmasters. Most of the work at the Lockheed plant was done by artists at the Disney Studios, who would also provide nose art for aircraft prior to delivery.
Jump In And I'll Take Your Picture...
At the late 1945 press preview for the P-80A Shooting Star, an obviously unhappy child gets his picture taken while crouched in the aircraft’s exhaust. Note the remnants of the faux city on top of the office building and the camouflage netting over the ramp. This aircraft was one of 344 P-80A-1-LO aircraft built at the Burbank plant.
Sources for these captions include The Disguise of California by Dr. Dennis Casey, Spokesman Magazine, US Air Intelligence Agency, Lackland AFB, Texas, 2004, and the Lockheed Martin archives. Photos are from the Lockheed Martin archives.