Lockheed During World War II: Operation Camouflage

Lockheed’s Burbank plant during World War II

During the afternoon of December 7, 1941, as word of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached California, some 53,000 Lockheed employees, spread across 150 Southern California communities, stepped outside their homes to watch as countless P-38 fighters and Hudson bombers streak across the sky.

In the wake of the attack, orders had been given to get every aircraft that could fly into the air. Some flew west to protect the nation against a potential Japanese attack on the coast. Others were guided inland to protect against feared strafing runs. And still others patrolled the skies to provide the nation a sense of security in a time of crisis.

Three days later, while company officials gathered at Lockheed’s Burbank plant to decide how best to ramp up production, the Army began setting up barricades around the facility and placed an urgent call to a Col. John F. Ohmer stationed at March Field, 70 miles away.

Ohmer’s mission? Find a way to disguise Lockheed’s plant—now one of the most strategic military facilities in the United States—to look like an ordinary California suburb.

The exterior of Building 61, Plant A-1, at the Union Air Terminal in Burbank, California during WWII.

Not Your Ordinary Suburb
Having watched the British successfully conceal their facilities during the Battle of Britain, Ohmer had returned to the United States in 1940 to campaign for the camouflaging of key military installations, including air bases near Pearl Harbor.

Although his ideas were initially rejected, in the wake of Pearl Harbor he was given authority to use whatever means necessary to protect the Lockheed plant. With a camouflage engineering battalion under his command, he began recruiting artists, set designers, and painters from nearby movie studios, including Disney, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox.

At the Lockheed plant, Ohmer began implementing his grand illusion. Airfields and parking lots were painted green and lined with plants to make them look like fields of alfalfa. 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.

An elaborate system of underground walkways was constructed to allow for free movement across the plant, while the installation of air ducts provided proper ventilation.

Employees continued to do their work, encouraged by the placement of new bomb shelters and huge anti-aircraft guns, but were expected to play along with the illusion during their breaks, often walking back to their burlap bungalows to take down the laundry they had placed on clotheslines earlier in the day.

Employees attending ceremony awarding Army and Navy 'E' pennant to Lockheed, under camouflage during WWII

The Ultimate Masquerade
Once completed, Ohmer decided to test his team’s work by taking a War Department general on a reconnaissance flight at 5,000 feet. He asked his guest to identify the plant, but all the general said he could see was suburb after California suburb.

Lockheed’s Burbank plant during World War II
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Sources and Additional Reading

  • Breuer, William B. Deceptions of World War II. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.
  • Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. “Peace, Prosperity, Peril.” In Of Men and Stars. Burbank, Calif.: Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, 1957.
  • Monroe, George Lynn. “The Burbank Community Book.” A.H. Cawston, 1944. http://wesclark.com/burbank/burbank_community_book.html#_Toc240430568, accessed September 24, 2012.