In early 1942, the United States Navy was busy monitoring all activity off the coast of California, especially looking for Japanese submarines lurking around the San Francisco area. Japanese submarines were surfacing and targeting oil storage facilities. With Pearl Harbor still fresh in their minds, the threat of a Japanese was being taken very seriously by the U.S. military and navy forces.
The Western Defense Command was told they had to put in place passive defense measures along the Pacific coast. Colonel John F Omer was in charge of carrying out the orders as he was stationed just 60 miles from Los Angeles, he started what was called Operation California.
One of the main ideas behind this operation was to camouflage the state, to provide passive defenses to key buildings and protect schools. After testing camouflage on areas by flying over them with aircraft, the Colonel realized it was difficult to tell buildings apart or identify areas that had been camouflaged. This was vital as it meant he could effectively hide factories, bases, and plants from Japanese intelligence. Once he confirmed this was a perfect solution, orders were sent out to most of the country.
A massive camouflage operation happened in the Boeing Aircraft complex, 26 acres were covered: schools, parks, homes, and municipal buildings. So how did they do it you ask? Colonel Ohmer was a pioneer of deception and misdirection, he specialized in many camouflage techniques that are still studied and used today. Ohmer had visited England during the height of the Battle of Britain and saw how effective on-ground camouflage had been to hiding assets from the Luftwaffe bombers.
The way it worked primarily was with big camouflage netting on top of the building, and then planting shrubs and trees on top of the netting. This gave the illusion that the key building was a forest. The crazy part was many people helped get this camouflage together, even the famous studios from Hollywood joined in such as Disney, Paramount, MGM, Universal and 20th Century Fox – they all came together to offer the services of their set designers.
As the war continued the threat of a Japanese invasion lessened, especially after the U.S landed a massive blow against the Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway Island – it would have been interesting to see if the camouflage would have been successful. Though we can take happiness in the fact that we did never find out.