LOS ANGELES—Many people understand the engineer’s role in society. Among the definitions of engineer, the Oxford Dictionary lists one as “(verb) to skillfully or artfully arrange for an event or situation to occur.” This is certainly the definition most befitting of the myriad of challenging missions the Los Angeles District undertook in the days after Japanese forces bombed the Pearl Harbor Naval Air Base on Dec. 7, 1941.
Arguably the most notable of these endeavors was the mission to camouflage entire expanses of Los Angeles County. Japanese forces had done something that was unthinkable at the time—reaching Hawaii by fighter planes via naval carriers. This led defense officials to believe enemy forces potentially had the resources to reach the coast of California. Aside from concerns for public safety, officials believed the coastal area—specifically, that in Los Angeles—would be a strategic target for enemy forces for another reason: More than half of all American military aircraft were manufactured there.
The War Department put the Corps of Engineers in charge of creating solutions for passive protection for the aircraft factories as well as military installations and other critical facilities. The project scope included the construction of 278 separate items for protection at 17 industrial plants, encompassing acres upon acres of highly urbanized landscape.
Luckily, the District had an ace up its sleeve. Lt. Col. George Hazenbush, a veteran of World War I and a U.S. Army Reserve camouflage officer, was working locally in the motion picture industry. He was brought into the District on active duty to oversee the unprecedented task.
He quickly turned to his contacts in Hollywood who were well-versed in the art of transforming theater stages into film settings: set designers. Hazenbush and a team of engineers and Hollywood professionals devised a plan to cover entire factories in overhead nets and tactically-colored garlands. The team also developed paints that were nearly undetectable by infrared cameras.
“The know-how which the motion picture industry developed to persuade the American public to accept what they saw as reality was exactly what the country required to deceive the enemy by converting movie technology into camouflage techniques,” wrote Dr. Anthony Turhollow of the event in “A History of the Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: 1898-1965”.
Entire mock villages were built on top of the netting, complete with fake trees made with colored chicken feathers, which could replicate the motion of leaves blowing in the wind.
By May 1942, the District had nearly completed the project, using millions of square feet of netting. Although enemy forces never made it to California’s shores, the camouflage stayed a part of the Los Angeles landscape until the war ended in September 1945.