Man has long imitated the protective blending principles of nature to conceal himself and his war equipment from enemy eyes. With the development of highly sensitive photographic and telescopic devices he is teaching Mother Nature one trick she is a little weak on deception.
A quail sitting quietly in the brush is well camouflaged by reason of the blending of its markings and coloration with its natural surroundings. The hunter may unsuspectingly pass within a few feet of the quarry. But the hunter has an edge on intelligence he makes a noise, the quail believes it is discovered, and gives itself away.
Carry this trick of deception to the sphere of warfare as practiced at the Engineer Aviation Unit Training Center, March Field, CA, and you have that modern blend of nature, art, engineering and shrewd psychology known as camouflage. Complete concealment of military installations is in many cases, particularly in combat areas, most difficult. Aerial photography, with its sensitive lenses and infrared filters, is an all-seeing eye. What it doesn't detect, our enemies will suspect, for the Axis partners also are masters of camouflage. When they know through other means that an installation exists in the area they will shrewdly attack the most innocent looking point.
For this game of wits the United States Air Force has as its principle players the Aviation Engineers, whose function is to construct, maintain, conceal and defend airfields and landing strips.
In the Tunisian campaign aviation engineers constructed more than a hundred airdromes. As many as eleven new fields were built in an area eleven miles deep. When the rainy season had passed, new fields were built in four days' time, and in several extreme cases, in twelve hours, with B-17s taking off 24 hours after the job was begun.
"Army Engineers," declared Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, Commanding Officer of the Northwest African Air Forces, "built airdromes faster than my forces could occupy them."
Because of their intensive combat training, aviation engineers also have done yeoman's work in the defense of airfields. Immediately upon assignment to the Corps of Engineers each man begins learning the efficient operation of rifles, carbines, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, hand grenades, and other offensive weapons. Infiltration courses where they simulate attacks under live machine gun fire, gas and demolitions condition them for the shock of battle. All their military training has the basic purpose of compelling every man to act calmly and with sound judgment regardless of the nature of attack.
Officers and enlisted men at March Field, where the Army has one of its largest aviation engineer camouflage training centers, will tell you that skill, initiative, perseverance and discipline are vital factors in camouflage. But what they will emphasize most is that the successful camoufleur must possess imagination.
This is the way one officer put it. "Take the old adage that to destroy an enemy you must know him, then look at the problem of aviation camouflage from the enemy's point of view. The fighting front will be ‘fluid', there will be no corner hardware store at which to buy supplies. An odd assortment of materials will have to serve the purpose. We won't have the time or materials to attempt complete concealment. Because of the speed of an approaching bomber and the limited time in which the bombardier has to find his target, total camouflage is not essential in most combat areas."
In level-flight precision bombing, the bomber approaches the target on a long straight line, continually checked by reference to landmarks, at an altitude of 18,000 to 35,000 feet and a speed of 200 to 400 mph. This means that a bombardier traveling at 30,000 feet and 200 mph must pick up the target at least 4½ miles away and then has only 35 seconds in which to adjust his bomb sight and drop his bombs.
"That one moment of confusion," aviation engineers say, "is enough to send the bombs wild. If the bombardier risks another try, anti-aircraft crews will have time to pump plenty of stuff at him and the interceptors will begin giving him a dressing down."
To gain that moment's confusion. the aviation engineers have a sizable bag of tricks that can be worked with whatever materials are at hand. Take, for example, the question of landmarks. Stream beds, hills and rock outcroppings are a problem. But the engineers can quickly and easily construct trees and shrubbery to spot over the landscape to confuse the enemy and to conceal gun emplacements, headquarters and so forth. At the March Field training center, Joshua trees and cactus are made of wire net coated with chicken feathers and painted; other trees are made of tin cans of which every Army camp has a plentiful supply and spray-painted; houses and rocks made of light timber and burlap are dotted over the terrain; and simulated access roads to dummy gun installations are scraped over the sand and sagebrush.
An important technique to overcome the problem of landmarks is the placing of dummy planes, trucks, tanks, tents and ammunition dumps at a distance from the real encampment. These decoys can be realistically fabricated in a matter of minutes.
Although runways and roads stand out like the news photographer's "X," engineers prove that these well-defined areas can be toned down with an asphalt or bituminous emulsion covered with chopped scrap rubber, dyed sawdust, colored slate granules, or asphalt chips. "These are good materials," the aviation engineers say. "They can be blended in with the terrain, they do not reflect light, and they do not add to the wear and tear on our tires." Improvisation the knack of making use of available materials comes in for a lot of consideration. Engineers have the most modern equipment in the world and a great deal of it, but with supply lines stretching thousands of miles over the world, they must be prepared to utilize makeshifts. It is one thing to spend weeks and months camouflaging an industrial plant on the home front quite another to conceal immediately a group of newly landed planes and guns in North Africa or Guadalcanal, with the enemy blasting away at your supplies. Just as soldiers on maneuvers are trained to do with little water, so camouflage engineers are taught to do without the most ordinary materials.
In exposed areas trees are often vitally important. In spite of Joyce Kilmer's famous song, engineers, too, can make a tree. If there's no available timber, they can collect a bunch of tin cans from the cook, wire them up on stakes and spray-paint them in a few minutes. Lacking cans, they can even use their hats and the "hat tree" is really something.
Early in this war dummy planes were made of plywood and even at a few feet defied detection. In the tropics you just don't find well stocked lumber yards, but you do find palms. Does a palm look like a Billy Mitchell? Well, it does when the engineers get through with it. They weave the palm fronds into the shape of a plane, support it off the ground so it will cast a shadow, and color it an olive drab shade with casein paint. Add a star on each wing, and at 3500 feet no Jap or German can tell it from the real thing.
A trick of camouflage is to group these dummies, together with dummy guns and dummy trucks, in a fairly exposed area and pretend that the enemy has caught the aviation engineers with their pants unhitched. Another example of improvisation is to carve the form of a plane on the ground to a depth of a few inches and apply black paint on the sides to simulate the shadow cast by the plane. Railroad tracks may be partially concealed by sowing weeds along the ties and tracks which are painted a color blending with the earth. With scrap lumber, gravel and paint, Army Engineers can extend a railroad siding beyond the camouflaged installation to a dummy or in any direction they wish enemy planes to follow. "Improvise, improvise," engineer instructors say. "There's a right way of doing a thing, and a dozen other pretty good ways too."
At March Field the three-dimensional problem of camouflage is studied by means of small-scale models. Sunlight and shadow are ever-changing, and a two-dimensional scheme does not take into account this telltale factor. In the design laboratory artists, draftsmen, model makers and carpenters combine to build from aerial photographs and sketches scale models of actual and hypothetical areas to be camouflaged. It's painstaking work, for contours and all essential details must be accurate.
"Of course," one Sergeant explained, "we don't overlook the value of experimental treatment at the actual job. This is a quick, and inexpensive method. Checking by aerial observation assures effective results."
One of the camoufleur's chief headaches is the shadow problem. Shadows frequently reveal more than the object which casts them. However, they may be broken by changing the profiles of the object with irregular silhouettes which will cast rough, rounded shadows more like those of nature. Dummy trees also can be used to interrupt shadowed areas.
"We have plenty of these rules," one camouflage officer remarked, "but we also have an exceptionally high IQ for the entire unit. The result good camouflage. The Corps of Engineers can use a lot more skillful, intelligent men, and the US Engineer Office in Los Angeles is doing its best to send us more volunteers to build up our organization.
"Consider," he continued, "the cost of a few yards of burlap, chicken wire, scrap lumber and paint balance this against the thousands of lives that camouflage has saved in combat zones, and you'll agree that giving Mother Nature a tip pays astronomical dividends."
This article was originally published in the November, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 5, pp 30-31, 56.
The original article includes 7 captioned photos.
Photos credited to US Army.