This Isn't a Real Neighborhood. Boeing Built It to Hide Its Factory During World War II

There has never been a more legendary Hollywood set than the one built in the middle of the war to escape the attack from Japanese forces.

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In Seattle, there are still people who worked at the Boeing factories during the 1940s and who cherish treasures that may have saved their lives. In their homes, these former engineers and company workers keep cardboard cars or trees, pieces of fabric that were used as lawns, or even street names that never existed. They’re part of what was once called Boeing Wonderland, the ghost town created during World War II.

To understand this moment in history, we need to go back a few years to when Boeing began its journey to becoming the monumental company it is today. Even Hollywood played a part in creating the most amazing Potemkin village ever made.

Plant 1 Is Too Small

Neighborhood 1 Boeing Plant 1, 1917.

In 1916, William Boeing founded the company and began operations in a modest factory on Lake Union in Seattle, Washington. The factory, known as Plant 1, is an important milestone in the history of aviation, as the first aircraft, including the Boeing Model 1 and the Model 2, were built there.

Plant 1 also played a crucial role in the production of U.S. military aircraft during World War I. After the war, however, Boeing focused on building commercial and military aircraft, leading to the launch of iconic models like the Boeing 247, the first modern multi-passenger airliner, and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a heavy bomber that proved key during World War II.

Neighborhood 2 An aerial view of Plant 1 in 1928.

Yet, in light of its success, Boeing’s historic Plant 1 soon required renovation due to the company’s rapid growth and transition from producing small wooden seaplanes to larger all-metal airframes in the 1930s.

This transition led to the need for a modern facility capable of accommodating the company’s dual focus on commercial aviation and the Air Force’s demand for war machines. As a result, Boeing Plant 2 was constructed in 1936 in Seattle. This new facility featured modern assembly lines for manufacturing and assembling airframe components in one location, while also providing access to an airfield for finished aircraft.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

Neighborhood 3 The beginning of the famous Japanese attack.

During World War II, enemy bombers didn’t fly over any U.S. city, except for Honolulu. However, at that time, it wasn’t obvious that Japanese bombers would never appear. In fact, people living on the West Coast weren’t convinced that this wouldn't happen.

The story changed completely on December 7, 1941. On that day, Japanese air and naval forces launched a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. In a coordinated series of air raids, Imperial Japanese Navy planes dropped torpedoes and bombs on U.S. warships anchored in the harbor, as well as on military installations ashore.

The attack resulted in the destruction of numerous U.S. warships, including the sinking of several battleships and cruisers, as well as significant damage to military installations. This sudden and devastating move led the U.S. to fully enter World War II, joining the Allies in their fight against the Axis Powers.

One of the immediate consequences of the famous attack was a certain fear among the American people. Previously, people living on the West Coast weren’t convinced that such an attack could happen, but now they were even less certain. Pearl Harbor was thousands of miles away from Japan, and if the enemy could launch a full-scale air attack in two waves on Honolulu and its surroundings, what would prevent them from doing the same, without warning, a few hundred miles away against any other major U.S. city?

Boeing Wonderland

Neighborhood 4 The company's Plant 2 in 1940.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt and William Knudsen, a mass production expert and former president of General Motors, realized that the U.S. aircraft manufacturing infrastructure was dangerously vulnerable. They were concerned that the consequences would be catastrophic if the same Japanese battle group targeted any of the buildings of the country’s largest aircraft manufacturers. They also suspected that the Japanese might have been aware of this vulnerability. Out all the factories, Boeing Plant 2 appeared to be the most accessible target.

To address this threat, Major John Francis Ohmer, Jr., was tasked with developing a unique West Coast camouflage plan. Ohmer, an amateur magician and photography enthusiast, was particularly interested in camouflage and its techniques. In fact, he had previously formed a camouflage unit within the Fourth Army in California in 1938. Amid fear and paranoia, Ohmer was tasked with developing an unconventional camouflage plan for the West Coast. The major was in for a surprise.

Neighborhood 5 Boeing Wonderland.

Ohmer’s proximity to Hollywood provided him with access to an incredible pool of talent. For example, he had direct connections to some of the best film set designers and large-scale scenic painters in the world. Additionally, all the major studios were more than willing to offer their services for the war effort. Ohmer selected top talent from Columbia, Twentieth Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Disney, and Universal Studios.

As the right-hand man for the upcoming project, Ohmer hired John Stewart Detlie, a renowned production designer and art director who had worked on over twenty films in the industry. Detlie had previously worked on classic musicals of the late 1930s with celebrities like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald. However, his new assignment was entirely different. He was tasked with building the best set he had ever designed, one that would deceive the enemy during wartime.

The Biggest Set in the History of Warfare

Neighborhood 6 Boeing Wonderland.

The plan was to disguise Boeing’s aircraft factory, Plant 2, so that it would resemble a nondescript suburban neighborhood from the perspective of a Japanese pilot flying at an altitude of 5,000 feet. This involved painting what appeared to be streets and vegetation on real runways and creating fake subdivisions on the factory’s rooftops. Standard camouflage nets, stretched over large wooden scaffolding, served as the base for Hollywood artists to paint colored details and contrasts to suggest streets and other features.

For instance, the grid was painted green, but areas were sprayed in subtly different shades to give the scene a more realistic look. Some plots of “grass” in the subdivisions were painted brown to suggest that they had not been watered and were drying out. Dozens of fake houses, schools, and public buildings were constructed wit canvas. Additionally, hundreds of artificial trees and ground details were created using various industry techniques.

Neighborhood 7 Boeing Wonderland.

Hollywood illusionists developed a method of creating fake trees using tar and feathers. They would lightly coat wire mesh with tar and then dip it in chicken feathers. The finished product had a soft, leafy appearance and could be molded into any shape. It was then sprayed in multiple shades of green to look more realistic. As if by magic, the fake suburb had suddenly nature surrounding it. Additionally, builders constructed factory chimneys and vents that went through the netting and painted them to look like fire hydrants.

Within a few months, they had built a realistic-looking fake city with at least three main streets, alleys, and driveways. The streets even had funny names, such as Synthetic Street, which intersected with Burlap Boulevard. This was done in the hope that, in the event of a Japanese attack, pilots flying thousands of feet in the air wouldn’t be able to read the names.

Neighborhood 8 Boeing Wonderland.

During 1942 and early 1943, U.S. Army personnel manning anti-aircraft guns at Wonderland were housed on the roof of Floor 2, one of at least two fake houses constructed to house real people.

Another remarkable aspect was the scale on which everything was built. Although the houses and trees respected the scale of their real-life counterparts, they were smaller in elevation. In other words, almost nothing exceeded 6 to 8 feet in height. Of course, the enemy was never going to notice this, anyway. The cars parked on the streets were also made of wood and were about 1.6 feet high.

Neighborhood 9 Boeing Wonderland.

We could continue discussing the specifics of the impressive scenario, but I believe readers probably have a good understanding of it. In the end, the Japanese never advanced that far, and the fear and anxiety of those months gradually faded. Despite being a badly kept secret, the existence of fake neighborhoods in Seattle remained undisclosed. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 1945 that it was officially revealed. Boeing confirmed existence of the neighborhood itself in an announcement in June.

Neighborhood 10 Boeing Wonderland.

In mid-July, almost a month before the Japanese government announced its unconditional surrender to the Allies, the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that it had already awarded contracts to civilian firms to dismantle the ghost town.

In 1946, Hollywood’s most improbable and extraordinary stage was dismantled. Boeing Plant 2 was uncovered again as Wonderland closed the curtain to the applause of hundreds of people who made it possible.

Image | | Boeing| Lockheed Martin | National Archives and Records Administration | IMDb | Public domain

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