The Fake Rooftop Town Built to Hide Boeing’s Factory from Potential Japanese Air Strikes, 1944
Deceiving the enemy as to what you are doing is not new. Trying to hide positions from observation is not new, trying to hide whole factories from aerial bombing during the Second World War was fairly new.
Boeing’s aircraft manufacturing facilities were critical to the war efforts of Allied forces. One B-17 Bomber cost a little over $200,000 to produce (that’s around $3,6 million in today’s economy).
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese submarines were spotted off San Francisco Bay and near Santa Barbara in 1942.
The West Coast was the next presumed target for the Japanese so the U.S. decided to hide its major wartime factories.
In 1936, Boeing Plant 2 was finished with a goal to build early prototypes of the B-17 Flying Fortress and the Boeing 307 Stratoliners.
At this time the floor was 60,000 square feet (5,600 m2). 600,000 square feet (56,000 m2) was added to the plant in May 1940 to support Boeing's production of 380 Douglas DB-7 light bombers.
By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the plant had been expanded to 1,776,000 square feet (165,000 m2). In total, 6,981 B-17s were produced in Plant 2.
John Stewart Detlie was the Hollywood set designer who helped to hide Boeing Plant No. 2. Using the same techniques as in movie towns, fake streets, sidewalks, trees, fences, cars, and houses were set in place to fool the would-be attackers.
The idea was to blend the facility into the surrounding neighbourhood across the river. This elaborate pretend town was nicknamed the “Boeing Wonderland” by the Seattle Daily Times on July 23, 1945.
Above, it could be mistaken for an idyllic residential area, so much so that it arguably looked a bit out of sync with its industrial surroundings.
Below, 30,000 men and women laboured away, constructing 300 bombers per month to support the international war effort.
The disguises consisted of painting what appeared to be streets and greenery on real runways and erecting entire faux subdivisions on factory rooftops.
Standard-issue camouflage netting stretched on massive wooden scaffolding served as the basic canvas on which the Hollywood artists painted contrasting colour detailing to suggest streets and other features.
The netting was foliage green, to begin with, but areas were sprayed in subtly different shades to give the scene a more realistic look. Some “lawns” in the subdivisions were painted brown to suggest that they had not been watered.
Dozens of fake houses, as well as schools and public buildings, were made of canvas. Hundreds of artificial shrubs and other ground details were created, using burlap over chicken wire matrices.
The movie industry illusionists developed a method of crafting trees using tar and feathers. Chicken wire was lightly coated with tar and then dipped in chicken feathers.
The finished product, which had a soft, leafy appearance, could be formed into a rigid structure of any shape and sprayed multiple shades of green.
Chimneys and vents in the roofs of the factory buildings were allowed to poke through the netting, and were painted to simulate fireplugs.
An elaborate system of underground walkways was constructed to allow for free movement across the plant, while the installation of air ducts provided proper ventilation.
Employees continued to do their work, encouraged by the placement of new bomb shelters and huge anti-aircraft guns, but were expected to play along with the illusion during their breaks, often walking back to their burlap bungalows to take down the laundry they had placed on clotheslines earlier in the day.
The fake houses and trees were not very tall; indeed, most of the buildings were no taller than six feet.
The reason was that the camouflage was designed to be seen from high above, not from ground level, and to be studied in minute detail only in the form of two-dimensional aerial photographs.
In practice, a bombardier would have no more than two minutes, if that, to view the target, and he would be looking straight down.
By the time production ceased in the building, the plant had built half of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, the Boeing 307 Stratoliners, the Boeing 377s, some of the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, Boeing B-50 Superfortresses, B-47 Stratojets, B-52 Stratofortresses, and the initial Boeing 737s.
In the 1980s, the plant was used as a machine shop but that was discontinued as work shifted to more modern facilities. The National Air and Space Museum’s Boeing 367-80 and the museum’s Boeing 307 were restored in the facility in 1990-2002. All remaining aircraft were removed from Plant 2 on September 18, 2010. Eventually, the main building fell into decay due to lack of adequate maintenance and earthquakes.
Broken water mains sometimes flooded the tunnels which led to other buildings on the site. Demolition began in late 2010.
Satellite buildings remain operational and on the footprint of the old plant are large tarmac lots for automobiles and aeroplanes.
Under an agreement with both state and federal governments as well as local Native American tribes, the company restored more than five acres of wetlands along the Duwamish River.