The "Disguise" of California - Page 1
By Dr. Dennis Casey
Lackland AFB, Texas
[Editor's Note: This article was written by Dr. Dennis Casey and published in the
Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (AFISRA, formerly U.S. Air Intelligence Agency, USAIA)
August 2004 issue of Spokesman Magazine. This article has been reproduced here with the
written permission of the AFISRA. Photos are courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
Click on a thumbnail image, below, to open a larger version in a new window.
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In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese armed forces appeared
to be invincible. They maneuvered through the Pacific like a blitzkrieg demolishing any and all who opposed them.
When compared to earlier Nazi triumphs in Europe, it was impressive indeed. In just two months the Japanese
had conquered tremendous distances in the Pacific theater and had seized Guam, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore,
and numerous other locations. Resistance crumbled as they advanced.
Along the west coast but particularly in California, many feared an imminent Japanese
invasion. Many others agonized over America's lack of military preparation to propel such an invasion. One
general declared in private that about the only thing the United States had to stop a Japanese invasion of
California were a few platoons of Boy Scouts.
An aerial view of Maxwell AFB,
Alabama in 1937.
The Boeing Plant in Seattle,
Wash., before camouflage.
The Boeing Plant in Seattle,
Wash., after camouflage.
Isolationistic and anti-military policies in the 1920s had left an army that was only a
shadow of the size it had been at the conclusion of World War I. The successful conclusion of what was called
the war to end all wars suggested there was little need for much of a standing army. The bothersome buildup
of the fascist powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, during the 1930s did little to jar loose American isolationism.
Those concerned about a Japanese invasion of the west coast could not have known that
for years, the Japanese had been planning for a widespread conquest of the Pacific that focused on mass landings
between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Japanese timetable first called for the capture of Midway Island,
a tiny spot in the central Pacific held in 1941 by a small contingent of U.S. Marines. From there it was only
1,100 miles in a northeast direction to Hawaii. Japanese plans called for using Pearl Harbor as a base from
which an invasion fleet could be directed to California.
In February 1942, U.S. Navy monitors on the west coast tracked a Japanese submarine
skulking just outside San Francisco Bay. A few nights later another Japanese submarine surfaced off the Santa
Barbara coast and fired a few shells at an oil storage facility. One of the shells exploded on an ocean pier.
Suddenly, with these events, the war had come to California.
Part of the camouflage includes
mock-ups of entire "neighborhoods."
Plant and air field personnel
add realism to the scene.
Another "after" photo of the Boeing Plant in Seattle.
Panic soon erupted throughout the state and rumors were about pending attacks from the
sea by Japan. Newspaper stories and editorials excitedly urged all to be ready for a Japanese invasion. The two
submarine reports made it clear to the War Department in Washington that California was vulnerable and steps
would have to be taken to ensure its defense.
In the atmosphere of panic and worry throughout California with stories everywhere of
Japanese secret agents hiding behind every bush and tree, the War Department ordered Lt. Gen. John L. De
Witt, head of the Western Defense Command, to implement passive defense measures for all vital installations
along the Pacific Coast.
What did passive defense measures mean? General De Witt had essentially been instructed
to disguise California. The weight of this seemingly impossible assignment fell to Col. John F. Ohmer who was
stationed at March Field, located about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
The perspective of the "cars" and
"houses" as seen from near
ground level at Boeing in Seattle.
Cars belonging to Boeing staff
add realism to the "street" scene.
Personnel regularly move about
the "set" to add life to it.
Colonel Ohmer, who commanded a camouflage training center at March Field, was a
pioneer in camouflage, deception and misdirection techniques. During the Battle of Britain in late 1940, when
the full force of the Luftwaffe was attempting to bring England to her knees, Ohmer visited England and witnessed
first-hand how carefully made and positioned camouflage was, which caused the Luftwaffe to waste thousands
of tons of bombs on empty fields.
Months prior to Pearl Harbor, Colonel Ohmer decided to risk the displeasure of his superiors
by campaigning for the protective cover of primary American targets both at home and in the Pacific. His recounting
of British successes at concealing high value assets did not sway superiors in Washington.
One of the plans he presented to the War Department was designed to hide Wheeler Field,
a major air base near Pearl Harbor. As Ohmer suspected, his plan was rejected for being too costly, $56,210.
Weeks later when Wheeler and its neatly positioned aircraft were destroyed, this cost did
not seem at all out of line.
The Douglas Aircraft Company
at Santa Monica under wraps.
Douglas company personnel
carry on as usual under
The view from the ground at the
Douglas facility in Santa Monica.
In 1940, Ohmer's campaign to promote his cause turned to experimentation. Efforts to
demonstrate the value of camouflage took place at Maxwell Field, Alabama; Elgin Field, Florida; Langley Field
and Fort Eustis, Virginia; and Barksdale Field, Louisiana. On December 7, 1940, Goodyear Tire and Rubber
agreed to manufacture rubber decoy aircraft similar to those that had been used by the British for $1,000
Goodyear's plans indicated these rubber planes could be produced in significantly high
The War Department again turned down Ohmer's plans and related requests for funding.
He had hoped to scatter the dummy planes around the American air bases in Hawaii. Even a powerful letter
from Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, commander of the Hawaiian Department that asked for camouflage treatment of
the airfields received no action. Later, General Short would be singled out along with Admiral Husband E. Kimmel
to be the scapegoats for the Pearl Harbor disaster.
With the United States now at war and with the sudden concern from the War Department
that California might be vulnerable, Colonel Ohmer set out to disguise the state. To help him in this endeavor
were personnel in the engineer camouflage battalion at March Field. The soldiers, however, were not alone.
Boardwalks under the camouflage
for employee access.
The view of Santa Monica from
the roof of the Douglas Aircraft
A view of the "suburbs" from the
Douglas plant roof.
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This article was reproduced on this web site with the written permission of
Original COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Air Intelligence Agency and Gale Group
Images courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.