Camouflage

Aside from a dozen or so shells from the deck cannon of a Japanese sub that dId little damage to an oil field outside Santa Barbara, and a few hundred Japanese balloon bombs that started a small number of fires and killed a mother and five children in the northwest (versus the third of a million or so Japanese civilians killed by US bombings in 1945), the Japanese were never able to strike the west coast with anything at all, no air raids, no shelling. The Germans didn’t even manage that. Their U-boats sank ships within sight of the east and gulf coasts, but none ever took shots at anything on land. Planned long range bombers by the Japanese and Germans came to nothing. Americans got off very lucky, with just about every other belligerent in the war bombed by somebody, but aside from Britain no other country but the US thought that big four engine bombers would be of much use. There was no Nazi or Japanese B-17, and the Germans lost the war before they were able to construct a V-2 type rocket bomb that could cross the Atlantic or build a nuclear weapon for it to carry. Not that they weren’t working on it. The Japanese version of the bomb never even got past the conceptual stage. One gets the impression that neither the Japanese nor Hitler hadn’t thought this war thing out too clearly.

But we didn’t know any of that in 1941. Like Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, the Japanese army and navy seemed quite invincible for a while. It was assumed that flights of Japanese bombers would appear over Los Angeles (or San Francisco or San Diego), or the same carrier planes that surprised the sleepy sailors and soldiers in Hawaii on December 7 would appear unexpected about the west coast, or an armada of Japanese battleships would come out of the fog off a few miles off Long Beach firing enormous shells which could hit as far downtown LA. The Coast Artillery would fight it out with the battleships (you can see where the enormous cannon of the U.S. Coast Artillery were installed at Fort MacArthur above San Pedro). But there wasn’t much anybody could do to stop those big four engine Japanese bombers, which didn’t exist, though we couldn’t be sure of that. And we could have lost the Battle of Midway, all our carriers sunk instead of theirs, and the Japanese could sale a fleet of them up to the California coast and attack Los Angeles like they had Pearl Harbor. Sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but it was considered feasible to nervous planners then. War was on, unimaginably, and suddenly everyone on the West Coast was scared shitless.

So civil defense authorities and jumpy officials in the Pentagon ordered construction of vast camouflage netting to conceal acres and acres of aircraft manaufacurers and other vital facilities, and like magic entire suburban neighborhoods and parks and meadows instantly appeared, and large parts of America’s war effort looked as unbombworthy as a sleepy distant suburb. Meanwhile, invisible to anyone in a cockpit of a bomber a mile high, planes at this particular Douglas plant were produced by the thousands, part of the hundred thousand plus aircraft produced by Americans during the war. It was an enormous art project, really, and doubtless all sorts of artists (especially movie studio artists and set designers) suddenly found themselves classified as essential war workers and couldn’t be drafted as they were needed to create non-existent suburban neighborhoods nobody in their right mind would waste a bombload on.

I wonder if it was considered as weirdly cool and beautiful back then as it seems now. Did Rosie the Riveter admire the billowing cover overhead aesthetically? Or was it just another crazy war thing? Everything must’ve seemed crazy by that point. And then the war ended, the covers were taken down, rolled up and stored somewhere, forgotten. Nuclear bombs had made the whole idea kind of silly anyway. They incinerated city and suburbs alike, no respect for art.

The camouflaged Douglas factory in Santa Monica, 1945.

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