How an Amateur Magician Made American Aircraft Factories Vanish During World War II

September 24, 2021Matt Fratus
World War II camouflage Boeing Plant coffee or die

Suzette Lamoureaux and Vern Manion examine one of the miniature bungalows in the “Boeing Wonderland.” Photo courtesy of Boeing.

Following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Maj. John Ohmer Jr. received an urgent call from the US Army. One of the leading experts of camouflage experimentation for Army bases on the entire West Coast, Ohmer was tasked by top leaders with disguising strategic aircraft manufacturing plants as ordinary California neighborhoods.

Ohmer created illusions for America’s five largest aircraft manufacturers situated in California and Washington. These manufacturing plants — from Douglas Aircraft Co., Consolidated Vultee (now Convair), North American Aviation, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing — were transformed to look like cities or towns from the air. 

The deceptive plan wasn’t a new concept. The British had successfully employed a similar tactic during the Battle of Britain. 

Hollywood set designers helped American aerospace companies camouflage their manufacturing plants to appear like ordinary neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

In 1940, a year after Germany invaded Poland, the powerful German Luftwaffe flew sorties over London, targeting strategic infrastructure and military bases. The Nazi warplanes strafed aircraft hangars and dropped bombs on airfields. The Germans believed their intelligence and superior airpower would cripple the British people’s morale. However, some of those German bombs were wasted, thanks to the clever efforts of the British “Starfish” and “Q” sites.

Starfish sites were decoy towns built to lure German bombers away from populated areas. These sites were designed to look like burning cities so that the second waves would harmlessly drop their ordnance on the imitation sites. Another deceptive defense was Q sites — also called K sites during daytime raids — which were decoy airfields used to divert German bombers away from military targets.

On this premise, Ohmer, an amateur magician and photography hobbyist, resourced the very best talent America had to offer in his mission to disguise American aircraft plants from enemy air raids. He was assisted by the helping hands from Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures, the Walt Disney Co., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Studios, and Universal Pictures.

Fake trees were made of chicken wire and feathers. Photo courtesy of Boeing.

“Airfields and parking lots were painted green and lined with plants to make them look like fields of alfalfa,” according to the Lockheed Martin website. “The main factory was covered with a canopy of chicken wire, netting and painted canvas to blend in with the surrounding grass. And fake trees were erected with spray-painted chicken feathers for leaves, some painted green to represent new growth and some brown to represent decaying patches.”

Lockheed Martin also devised an elaborate system of underground walkways to allow freedom of movement across the plant. It even installed air ducts to provide ventilation for ongoing operations.

In order to test the camouflage’s effectiveness, Ohmer took a War Department general on a reconnaissance flight over the Lockheed Martin site. Ohmer asked the general whether he could identify the plant from their vantage point, flying at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. The general said he could only see a California suburb. 

Once Lockheed Martin completed its masterful disguise, other American companies, such as Boeing, followed suit. Ohmer assigned his top recruit and Hollywood set designer, John Detile, to replicate what they’d built in California at Boeing’s 26-acre plant in Seattle. Boeing’s so-called “Plant 2” built B-17 and B-29 bombers. The massive facility was hidden using three-dimensional wire, plywood, and canvas structures that looked like trees, houses, and schools. 

The ingenious plan went off without a hitch, and the camouflaged secret cities were torn down when the war ended.

Read Next: The 5 Longest Confirmed Sniper Kills in History

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
uss milius
US Denies Chinese Claim It Drove Away American Destroyer

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said that a statement from China's Southern Theatre Command that it had fo...

March 23, 2023Associated Press
The Speed Project: Vet Team To Run in Lawless, Invite-Only Ultramarathon

For the first time, a team of (mostly) US veterans and active-duty service members will run in The S...

March 23, 2023Jenna Biter
uranium-based ammo ammunition Ukraine UK depleted uranium
A Look At the Uranium-Based Ammo the UK Will Send to Ukraine

The British defense ministry on Monday confirmed it would provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

March 23, 2023Associated Press
Zaporizhzhia Ukraine Russia
Ukraine: Russia Hits Apartments and Dorm, Killing Civilians

“Russia is shelling the city with bestial savagery,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegr...

March 22, 2023Associated Press
cold brew coffee soda float
The Bitter Barista's Cold Brew Coffee Soda Float

Today, we combine the best of both worlds with this indulgent recipe, smashing together our love of coffee and ice cream with a cold brew coffee soda float!

March 21, 2023Heather Lynn
abrams tanks ukraine
US Speeds Up Abrams Tank Delivery to Ukraine War Zone

The original plan was to send Ukraine 31 of the newer M1A2 Abrams, which could have taken a year or ...

March 21, 2023Associated Press
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved