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April 23, 2009

Hiding a B-17 Bomber Factory

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of my childhood memories was the fake residential neighborhood that served as camouflage for Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle where B-17 bombers were assembled.

From ground level, it looked odd, the faux houses being shorter than normal houses and sitting right on top of what clearly was a large factory building next to a runway. This camouflage remained until a year or so after the war ended. In 1945 or 1946 my father, who worked for the Army Engineers during the war, was able to get atop the factory and take some snapshots. I did a quick search but couldn't find them, alas. If they do turn up, I'll scan and post them.

Below are some photos I grabbed off the Internet. Most likely, they were taken by Boeing or one of the armed services; during wartime, ordinary civilians would not have been allowed to do so.


This vertical view shows the setting of Plant 2 and the camouflage. The top of the photo faces north. At the lower left is the Duwamish River, the dark area at the upper right is Beacon Hill and to the left of it are railroad tracks. Today the Interstate 5 freeway runs along the edge of the hill in the wooded area shown in the photo.

To the left of the tracks is Boeing Field itself. The buildings on its right are related to the commercial aspect of the airfield, though Boeing did have a hangar there. To the left of the buildings and tarmac is grass, taxiways and the runway.

The white area near the upper center of the photo is a concrete area where newly built planes are placed while awaiting delivery to the Army. To the left of this is probably a parking lot for Boeing employees. At the lower right in the photo is what seems to be another concrete-paved delivery area. My impression is that it was an overflow area to be used when the other one was full.

Below the parking lot are two major streets. The one oriented diagonally is East Marginal Way which passes between Plant 2 and the airfield; it was closed to civilian traffic during the war, if memory serves. The other street, oriented more north-south and which is bridged over the Duwamish is First Avenue South.

And the dark square partly framed by those streets is Plant 2, surmounted by its camouflage neighborhood.



These oblique photos taken from, respectively, southwest and northwest of Plant 2 suggest what a low-level attacker might see. Such an attacker would be approaching rapidly -- perhaps between 200 and 300 miles per hour -- and likely would be dodging anti-aircraft fire. With only a few seconds to decide where to drop his bombs, it was the likely intent of the camouflage designers that those bombs would aimed at the clearly visible factory buildings to the south of Plant 2 and not what, at first and only glance, would seem to be a non-target. The same would apply to a high-altitude attacker, though in this case a bombardier would probably have more time to evaluate the setting.

The less-important factories near Plant 2 were probably left un-camouflaged because attackers expected to find an aircraft factory next to the airfield and they could serve as decoys whose destruction would be far less damaging to our war effort. However, there is the possibility that the nearby plants weren't camouflaged for reasons of cost.

Here is a closer look at the camouflage itself. Note the camouflage paint of the side of the factory near the bottom of the photo. This was an attempt to blend the false residential area with its surroundings. Perhaps netting would have been more effective.

This shows a fake deciduous tree. Fir trees and other evergreens are more common in the Puget Sound area than deciduous trees such as maples. On the other hand note the real residential area at the bottom of the view taken from the southwest. The trees here are deciduous, which tended to be the norm in built-up parts of Seattle. But such trees turn color over the summer and fall and are leafless over the winter. I do not know if any effort was made to adjust this part of the camouflage for the progression of seasons. My guess is that nothing was done because the risk of any serious attack on Seattle was slim by the fall of 1942.

I included this photo to give you a sense of scale which is provided by the women walking along a path. The houses appear to be about six or eight feel tall, which is how I remember them.



posted by Donald at April 23, 2009


Thank you. That was very intriguing.

Posted by: Tom West on April 23, 2009 8:22 AM

Very cool indeed. I would love to see your father's snaps if you find them, but these were cool, too!

Posted by: Upstate Guy on April 23, 2009 9:17 AM

It probably wasn't particularly pleasant to have been a worker in one of the less-vital, un-camoflagued buildings, knowing that if an attack occured you'd face being blown to bits while your fellow workers in Plant 2 would be safe.

Posted by: Peter on April 23, 2009 11:18 AM

That's cool. And weird and paranoid!

Posted by: omw on April 24, 2009 3:06 AM

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