Key Point: The idea was a good one, but one that proved largely unnecessary. Thankfully, Imperial Japan was never able to launch a major, full-scale bombing raid on the West coast.
When I was a young boy in Seattle, my father told me about a fake town that had been built on top of Boeing’s Plant 2 during the war. This naturally fired my imagination. What an ingenious way, I thought, to fool the enemy bombers that might being coming over the Emerald City to wreak havoc.
This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
He told me about it with exaggerated caution to underscore the fact that it had been top secret during the war. Nobody was supposed to talk about it, although everyone in town knew about this faux neighborhood that employees called “Wonderland.” By the time people “in the know” were allowed to talk about Wonderland, Boeing was tearing it down.
Wonderland was kept out of the newspapers until the war was almost over, but it was an open secret. Just as “Loose Lips Sank Ships,” loose lips could also bring Mitsubishi G4Ms swarming over that little neighborhood on East Marginal Way South.
Indeed, the entire monumental effort made to camouflage West Coast aircraft factories was an open secret. Tens of thousands of men and women went to work beneath bogus villages every day, quietly assuming that it was a vital necessity that was serving to protect their lives. At the same time, they knew that they dare not mention it.
In retrospect, we know that during World War II, enemy bombers never clouded the skies over any American city—except Honolulu, of course. In retrospect, too, we know a lot about what might have happened, but did not, during the war. At that time, though, it was not so obvious that Japanese bombers would never appear.
People living on the West Coast were not convinced that this could not, and would not, happen. Pearl Harbor is nearly 4,000 miles from Japan. If the enemy could launch a large-scale air raid in two waves on Honolulu and environs, what was stopping them from doing the same, also without warning, against any city from San Diego to Seattle?
The War Approaches the West Coast
Within a month of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured Manila and Hong Kong. Singapore fell about a month after that. The West Coast was jittery and very afraid. In 1942, nobody went anywhere near a beach without looking long and hard toward the horizon, half expecting to see a Japanese invasion fleet.
Few persons in authority were more shaken by the dread of a Japanese invasion than General John Lesesne DeWitt, the commander of the Fourth U.S. Army and the Western Defense Command, who imagined spies and saboteurs under every bush and used his overactive imagination to justify his draconian enforcement of Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of all Japanese American civilians—including those born in the United States—who lived in the West Coast states.
The nervous DeWitt even ordered that the 1942 Rose Bowl Game be relocated away from Pasadena for fear that the Japanese would bomb the venue. His biggest fear, though, was what a Japanese invasion might do to his career. He knew the troops under his command were entirely inadequate to meet a force such as the enemy had just used to invade and conquer the Philippines.
He was not alone in his concern. On February 23, the Japanese submarine I-17 shelled oil storage facilities about 10 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara, California. The following night, nervous gunners thought they saw an armada of Japanese bombers over Los Angeles, and the sky was illuminated with searchlights and exploding antiaircraft shells.
The people in the City of Angels had seen the newsreels of the London Blitz, and they knew that the Luftwaffe had leveled cities from Rotterdam to Coventry. Of course, they were well aware of what had happened in Hawaii in December. There was little reason not to believe that California’s Southland was getting its turn.
The government, specifically Navy Secretary Frank Knox, announced that the “Battle of Los Angeles” was a “false alarm,” and there is no evidence that it was not. However, even at the time, many people assumed that sinister government obfuscation was in motion. Today, the Battle of Los Angeles “cover-up” still rates its own small cadre of true believers whenever conspiracy theorists congregate.
Even if Los Angeles was a false alarm, Santa Barbara really happened. Then, just as those who had held their breath got up the nerve to exhale, the Japanese submarine I-25 attacked Fort Stevens in Washington state on two consecutive nights in June. Also in June, Japanese forces invaded and occupied the Aleutian islands of Kisksa and Attu, establishing a Japanese base on Alaska’s doorstep.
Meanwhile, a number of American merchant ships were being sunk off the West Coast of the United States. Attacks also came from the air. In September, Nobuo Fujita flew two bombing missions over southwestern Oregon in a submarine-launched Yokosuka E14Y floatplane.
These are the events that actually did happen. For each of these, there were a hundred widely believed rumors that are not chronicled in the history books, but which governed the perceptions of those who lived with them in the midst of mankind’s biggest war. It was a frightening moment in U.S. history.
These events, real and imagined, defined the apprehensive mood of the home front in 1942. The Axis armies seemed invulnerable abroad, and the West Coast felt too dreadfully exposed, especially to air attack.
Everyone—from the military planners at the War Department to the civilians on the street gazing nervously at the sky—knew that World War II was an air war. It was the first war in which air power played an essential role, and air power was proving itself to be a prominent and devastating weapon.
The National Defense Advisory Commission
Just as the enemy, especially the Luftwaffe, was wielding air power so effectively, military and industrial planners in the United States understood that America’s own aircraft production must be the highest of priorities.
In the spring of 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt had famously proclaimed that America should have 50,000 combat aircraft. Between them, the Navy and the Army Air Corps had less than a fifth that number, and most of these were trainers. To assure that the services had enough airplanes, production had to be ramped up. Aircraft factories suddenly became the most vital element in American defense procurement and in Roosevelt’s emergency mobilization of essential industries.
In May 1940, the administration created the National Defense Advisory Commission to oversee this industrial expansion, and Congress authorized funds for both the expansion of existing factories and construction of new facilities that would be government-owned and managed by a new bureaucracy known as the Defense Plant Corporation but operated by existing manufacturers.
To head this commission and to serve as commissioner of production, Roosevelt tapped William Signius “Big Bill” Knudsen. An expert on mass production and auto industry executive, Knudsen had been president of General Motors since 1937.
In 1940, nearly 90 percent of airframe manufacturing capacity measured in square feet of floor space was located in five states, with 65 percent along or near one of the coasts; California alone had 44 percent.
Of America’s five largest aircraft manufacturers by total aircraft weight, four—Douglas, Consolidated Vultee (with plants in San Diego and Downey), North American, and Lockheed—were located in Southern California, with their factories within five minutes flying time of the Pacific Ocean. The fifth, Boeing, was only about 100 miles inland from the Pacific in Seattle. On the East Coast, meanwhile, Grumman, Martin, and Republic were all closer to the Atlantic than Boeing was to the Pacific. Of the major American aircraft manufacturers, only Curtiss and Bell, in upstate New York, had their flagship factories more than an hour from the coast.
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and Knudsen realized that they had been right. America’s plane-making infrastructure was dangerously vulnerable. If the same carrier battle group that had zeroed in upon Pearl Harbor had been sitting 200 miles off the Malibu coast, Douglas, Consolidated Vultee, North American, and Lockheed would be out of business for months—or longer. They also realized that Japanese planners knew this as well.
The new Defense Plant Corporation factories were being built well inland, in states such as Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Texas, but in the dark days of early 1942, most of the industry was still exposed to the potential of enemy attack. Because everyone now had a graphic illustration of what could and did happen, protecting this vital manufacturing infrastructure was an even bigger priority than it had been on December 6.
Enter Major John Francis Ohmer, Jr., a man with a plan at a time when a plan was needed.
John Ohmer, Jr.’s Camouflage Scheme