Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dazzled by Dazzle

SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook (2012)

From an article in the New York Sun, April 21, 1918, magazine section, p. 12—

Astern of the gray transport steams another ship, the second vessel crazily camouflaged—as if the skipper had said to a boss painter, "Mike, you and your whole crew go ashore and get stewed to the eyes and then come aboard again and paint this ship as you see fit."


From an unsigned article in the Coconino Sun, Friday, January 3, 1919, p. 5—

The sailor, returning a trifle saturated, found his hitherto respected and respectable ship camouflaged in the most modern cubist style. Running his eye over the whole mess of conflicting squares, triangles, lines, circles and sundry other nameless blobs of paint which graced the sides of his "home," and blinking stupidly at the hideously screaming color scheme, he slowly raised his hand while the tears coursed down his cheeks and murmured wearily, "Never again."


From Herman Whitaker, German Shark: The American Navy in the Underseas War. Century Company, 1918, p. 17—

Barred, striped, blotched, smudged, ring-streaked with vivid pinks, arsenic greens, blowsy reds, violent blues, they [dazzle-camouflaged ships] looked like—like—like nothing in the world unless it be that most poisonous of drinks, a Frisco pousse-cafĂ©. All of the giraffes, zebras, leopards, and tigers ever assembled in the "World's Greatest Aggregation" exhibit conventional patterns in comparison with this destroyer camouflage. The exception to this blazing color scheme, a recent arrival from home, looked, in her dull lead paint, like a Puritan maiden that had fallen by accident into a blowsy company of painted Jezebels.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Toy Boat Camouflage

The photo above was published in the New York Tribune (May 11, 1919), p. 8, with the following caption: 

A corner of the model room of the camouflage section of the [US] Navy Department. Scale models of every type of vessel, decorated with the weirdest of designs, are kept here for test and experimental purposes. It is easy to imagine what undoubted joy would be Young America's were he once let loose in this toy shipyard. 

The person on the right is Harold Van Buskirk, the executive officer in charge of the Camouflage Section (which had two branches), while on the left is Everett L. Warner, who headed the Design Subsection in Washington DC. It was the Navy's responsibility to provide the camouflage designs for all American ships, both military and merchant, the plans for which were then sent out to teams of artists assigned to dock officers (called District Camoufleurs) at coastal harbors throughout the country. The District Camoufleur for Brooklyn NY was muralist William Andrew Mackay. Only recently, we discovered the following article from 1919, in which he is interviewed at length about his work as a camoufleur. [The photos on this blog post were not part of the original article.]


Two months earlier, the following article, written by Otis Peabody Swift, was published in the New York Evening World Daily Magazine (March 6, 1919) with the headline HOW A NEW YORK ARTIST, WITH TOY BOATS, WORKED OUT CAMOUFLAGE TO FOIL U-BOATS: In William Andrew Mackay's studio, sixty men under his direction worked night and day on designs of the United States Shipping Board, using diminutive models [like those shown here].

Now that the war is over many "mystery stories" of the war can at last be told. Perhaps one of the most interesting is the story of camouflage, the weird painting of seagoing ships that baffled and defeated the sea wolves of the submarines.

Camouflage, as developed in this war, is a product of American study and imagination. It is largely the result of the work of William Andrew Mackay, the New York artist and interior decorator, who for five years before the war experimented with the idea of protective coloration for American battleships. And the success of his plan is shown by the fact that of the 749 American vessels camouflaged according to the designs of the United States Shipping Board, supplied by the navy, only seven were sunk.

It was in the big studio workshop of the Mackay School of Camouflage at 345 East 33rd Street [in Manhattan] that the camouflage idea was developed. Here sixty men worked day and night disguising the American ships.

Along the walls of the big studio hang marine background paintings, showing the various color tints of the oceans. There are the long gray green wave of the North Atlantic, and the violet fog of the [English] Channel. There is the deep warm blue of the Gulf Stream, and the muddy brown of the Gironde delta. Against these backgrounds the camouflage effects were tested. Over in a corner stands a real periscope, manned by Skipper Mackay. And on tables, chairs, racks and shelves are dozens of nine- and ten-inch wooden models of merchant ships, awaiting their coat of camouflage.

When a vessel was to be camouflaged a wooden model was first made up of the ship, exact in every detail. Then different types of camouflage were applied and tested through the periscope against the different marine backgrounds. It was the old sport of playing boats. Famous artists and architects, students in the school, sailed their toys across the maneuvering boards. There were over a hundred of these little ships, and they formed a navy that would delight a youngster's heart. Then when a satisfactory design, one well fitted to that particular vessel, had been decided upon the plans were sent to the shipyard or dry-dock, where the actual camouflage would be applied.

"Yes, this looks like a deserted battlefield to me," said Mr. Mackay at the studio yesterday. "It was here that the first work of camouflage was developed. In all, 749 vessels were camouflaged, and sixty men, artists, architects and designers, made this shop their headquarters, under direction of the United States Shipping Board, working over designs, testing colors, peering through the periscope at the wooden models, and then dashing off to try out some few effect on the vessels that, in a few days, would be depending upon our skill in the art of disguise to save them from the U-boats.

But let's go back to the beginning. Caesar invented camouflage. His tiriemes that sailed north to conquer the red-haired Britons were all painted green, and his crews were ordered to wear green suits to make them less visible. In Macbeth we find the soldiers carrying trees to conceal themselves on that day when Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane. But modern camouflage, as developed by the war, is the product of American study.

Seven years ago, when I was at Newport, I read a volume by Prof. Ogden N. Rood of Columbia University entitled Modern Chromatics. He pointed out that the gray of nature—the sky, rocks and trees—is a combination of red, green and violet. It then occurred to me that by blending these colors I might evolve a battleship gray that would make our dreadnoughts less visible. Commander J.O. Fisher, USN, had been working along similar lines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Together we experimented in 1915 on American submarines at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We painted them in stripes and bars, and there evolved the first principles on which modern camouflage is based.

When the United States entered the war I placed the results of these experiments before the Navy Department. I privately undertook to camouflage American merchant vessels, and also opened the Mackay School, where fifteen camoufleurs were trained for the navy. Then I was appointed District Camoufleur by the Shipping Hoard, and the big job began. Plans were supplied by the Shipping Board, and new types of camouflage were worked out at their Washington headquarters.

There was nothing haphazard about the art. Every ragged line, every crazy angle, jarring color, had a meaning. First you must understand that there are really two kinds of camouflage. There is the camouflage which attempts to make a boat less visible, and thereby permits it to escape the enemy, and that camouflage which, although the boat shows up plainly, deceives the enemy as to the course, speed and identity of the craft. The most successful method was a combination of both forms.

In England Commander Wilkinson RN had been working on the idea and had developed the dazzle system. This consisted of large black and white figures. It dazzled the sub. He could see the boat, but he couldn’t place his shot. There were just as many subs, and they saw just as many British boats, but they couldn't hit them. Before the camouflage was put on the Germans got fifty boats a week. Afterward the average was ten boats a week.

Here in the States we combined the dazzle idea with low visibility. There were many tricks to the trade. You see the subs would shoot up their periscope and got a look at the ship. They based their mathematical calculations on what they saw in that moment's glance. We painted a false bow wave along the side of the ship, which, by foreshortening, made the vessel seem farther away than it was. We broke down all vertical lines, destroying the ship's silhouette by which they ascertained identity. We painted on the false bow lines which her appear to be going in another direction.

Above The top photo is a plaster unpainted model of the SS Baxley. According to other sources, ship models for this purpose were usually made of wood. The bottom photo is the actual ship after its camouflage scheme was applied.

From time to time other more spectacular methods of camouflage were adopted. The Von Steuben came into port one day with a destroyer painted on her side. Other vessels painted SC [submarine chaser] boats on their sides, some painted superimposed bows on their sterns so you couldn't tell which end was which. Of course the cubist artist hailed camouflage as the logical development of beauty and art, and said that from now on all ships and houses and automobiles ought to be decorated that way. But camouflage was purely utilitarian—we forgot the artistic part. We didn't care how the ship looked if it could dodge the submarines.

And they certainly did. It was so successful that we took to camouflaging SC boats, seaplanes and even houses and barracks on land where there was danger of air raids—as at Porto Corsino, Italy, and Dunkirk. The Germans got the idea and camouflaged their submarines, and camouflage got into vaudeville and the dictionary. Well, it's all over now. The ships are coming up the bay in their peacetime paint, and all the checkerboard ships and the Welsh rarebit decorations are a thing of the past. The big point is that it did the work. Of the 749 boats that were camouflaged in the second district only seven were sunk.”

Today Mr. Mackay is packing up the toy ships of the 33rd Street studio and is sending them to the Brooklyn Museum, where with the periscope and the deep sea background, they will afford the public an idea of how a wartime convoy looked at sea. And he is going to his bungalow at Coytesville, NJ, just atop the Palisades [Park], and forget all about ships while tramping round the woods with Patricia Mackay, aged seven, who has a toy boat collection that is the envy of every youngster in Jersey.

additional information

Monday, July 9, 2012

Mastheads for The Camoufleur

In a recent post, we talked about the discovery of three issues of a World War I camp newspaper, called The Camoufleur, published in the fall of 1917 by camouflage artists at Camp American University, near Washington DC. Reproduced above are three different logo-like masthead designs that were variously used in those issues. The top one was used on the front page of the first issue (dated October 31, 1917), and is signed by camouflage artist Walter Tubesing. The one at the bottom (uncredited) was used as the front page masthead for the remaining two issues, and the one in the center (also uncredited) appeared on the editorial page (page 2) of the second issue.

Other camoufleurs listed as having contributed to these issues include (in no particular order) William D. Foster (architect), J.D. Senger, Roy C. Jones (architect), Ralph E. Griswold (architect), Sheldon K. Viele (architect), V.P. Spaulding (architect), Fred H. Daniels (painter), G. Berliner, O. Accorsini, Kimon Nicholaides (drawing teacher, author), Bernard Hoyt (architect), I. Opfer, Everett A. Herter (architect and brother of diplomat Christian Herter), C.A. Lee, David C. Comstock (architect), (Wilmer) Bruce Rabenold (architect), Barry Faulkner (muralist and cousin of Abbott H. Thayer), Clifford C. Jones (architect), W. Pow (the unit's Sergeant Major), W. Nice, A.E. Cheeseman, B.L. Burman, S.N. Hartel (architect).

Other camoufleurs are also mentioned, but were apparently not on the newspaper staff. We'll be back with more names, graphic delights and juicy new discoveries in future postings. (Thanks again to librarian Nancy Cunningham for having shared these issues with us.)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Camoufleur | WWI Camp Newspaper

We've been greatly excited this week—and for good reason. A few days ago, we received a wonderful package from a Texas-based librarian named Nancy Cunningham. After seeing our blog, she sent an email, asking if we might be interested in three issues of a World War I camp newspaper called The Camoufleur. According to an editorial note, it was published by the "Camouflage Company of the 24th Engineers" [elsewhere I've seen it listed as Company F of the 25th Engineers, but before long it was reorganized as Company A of the 49th Engineers]. Also known as  the American Camouflage Corps, the unit was in training in 1917 at Camp American University, on the outskirts of Washington DC, preparing to go off to France.

We are so pleased to discover that these materials have somehow survived all these years (they are terribly fragile, and it's entirely possible that these are the only remaining copies). The first issue was published on October 31, 1917, with subsequent issues on November 17 and December 11 (most likely these were the only issues, because soon after the date of the third one, the unit sailed for Europe). Each issue consists of eight pages, measuring 11 inches wide by 13.75 inches in length, and printed on now-brittle newsprint. The front page of the second issue is shown above. The motto on the masthead reads "Seeing Was Believing."

Presumably all the contents of these issues (brief articles, updates on the camoufleurs' work, bad poetry, cartoons and comic drawings) were produced by the American artists and architects who were serving at US Army camoufleurs. Many of their names are included in the lists of contributors. Other names are mentioned because the same unit also produced and performed in a camouflage-themed stage comedy, titled Les Blagueurs (the jokers). With a cast of forty-one performers, the four-act comedy premiered at Camp American University, then traveled to Camp Meade (near Middletown PA) for repeat performances on November 23 and 24.

We've talked about many of these artists before, in earlier postings on this blog, or on our websites, or in three books on the subject, FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002), CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009), and SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook. In the second issue (shown above) there is an article about a visit to the camouflage unit by US President Woodrow Wilson, Mrs. Wilson, Secretary of War Newton Baker, Commanding General John J. Pershing (although I'm no longer certain of that) and various other high-ranking officers and dignitaries on October 31, 1917. What the article fails to mention is that, by happenstance, among the visitors that day was the well-known portrait painter, John Singer Sargent. In fact, if you look at the front page of this issue, in the photograph on the left the President and Mrs. Wilson are in the foreground, while Sargent (circled in red) is standing in the background. (Incidently, according to The Camoufleur, the two soldiers in charge of the day's demonstrations were Iowa-born sculptor Sherry Edmundson Fry and New Hampshire muralist Barry Faulkner, a cousin of Abbott H. Thayer, the "father of camouflage.")

Below is another photograph of the same event taken at nearly the very same moment. It's available online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs website, but it was also distributed to newspapers throughout the country, and used in brief news stories about Wilson's reaction to the camoufleurs' demonstrations.

For example, the following news article, titled "President Wilson Is Fooled by Camouflage. Unable To See Soldier within Five Feet of Him," was published in the New York Tribune, November 15, 1917, p. 2—

Camouflage, that deceptive military art, fools others besides soldiers and airmen on the Western front. Right down in Washington it has hoodwinked n0less a person than the commander and chief [sic] of the army and navy, Woodrow Wilson.

The story of how this came about was told last night at the Fine Arts Building, in West Fifty-Seventh Street, by Captain Aymar Embury [in civilian life, a prominent architect], of the engineer corps, who told of the camouflage work that he and his men are doing at the experimental field at Washington Barracks, near the nation's capital.

The President was invited to a demonstration of camouflage at the field. With him came the Secretary of War and fourteen generals [among them, according to the article, Generals William P. Biddle, Saltsman, William M. Black, Winslow, Abbott, and Edwin B. Babbitt], and they were all fooled.

"Do you see the man?" Captain Embury asked the Chief Executive as he stood upon the field.

"What man?" Mr. Wilson asked, and refused to believe it when he was told that a soldier was concealed within five feet of him.

The captain blew a whistle and a soldier sprang, literally from the earth [from a hole in the ground, beneath a papier maché rock, as seen here in the foreground], to the President's delight.

They then asked Mr. Wilson if he could find the field gun concealed near by. He looked long and hard. There didn't seem enough cover for one, and he said so at last.

"And then," said Captain Embury last night, "A screen of foliage was swung aside and the gun went off. The President jumped. It was a good hearty jump. He seemed to cover about fourteen [feet? inches?] of ground."

But why was John Singer Sargent there? It turns out that Sargent had been at the White House that morning, painting a portrait of the President. During the sitting, the subject of military camouflage came up, and Sargent could not help but tell about his strange experience two years earlier, when he had offered to assist American painter Abbott H. Thayer in demonstrating the effectiveness of camouflage to the British Army's top brass in London (we'll share more on Thayer and that ill-fated effort in a future post). By coincidence, the President explained, he, the First Lady and others had been invited to a training camp that same afternoon to witness the clever inventions of the American Camouflage Corps. At Wilson's suggestion, Sargent joined the entourage.

As for the wealth of materials in these three issues of The Camoufleur, this is (as they say) only the tip of the iceberg. We've now scanned every page very carefully, to provide future researchers with access to digital files and printed facsimiles, and we will be publishing other highlights in future postings on this blog. Again, all this has thankfully come about through the wisdom and generosity of librarian Nancy Cunningham, who purchased these and assorted materials on eBay many years ago while looking for information about the 604th Engineers (in France, c1918), her grandfather's unit. These materials had been the property of Major William John Harrison (a medical officer), who had been a camp doctor during 1917 at Camp American University. For whatever reason, he never discarded these issues of this wonderfully odd publication.

One other note related to this: In an old issue of the Ogden Standard (Ogden UT), on January 19, 1918, p. 1, there is a substantial article on "Trench and Camp Newspapers for Our Soldiers." It focuses on two WWI American camp publications, of which one is The Camoufleur.