Thursday, March 8, 2018

Camoufleur F.M. Watson Has Now Been Identified

US Ship Camoufleur Frank M. Watson (1928)
As explained in a couple of earlier posts, for years we have been trying to find the full name and identity of a World War I ship camouflage designer, nearly always cited as F.M. Watson, Chief Painter at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

At last, through the research efforts of Cathy Hyman of South Carolina, we have finally found our man. He was Frank Morris Watson, Sr. (1879-1966), from Portsmouth VA. Here is more about his life—

Frank Morris Watson, Sr. was born in Philadelphia PA on October 21, 1879 [in an earlier version of this posting, we listed his birth year as 1880, but it now appears to have been a year earlier). In the census for 1910, he listed his occupation as "house painter," but during World War I (possibly earlier), he was employed as Master Painter at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth VA. He listed the same occupation in 1941 or 1942, when he was 61 years old.

In the March 22, 1928, issue of The Times Herald (Port Huron MI), he was featured in a photograph (as shown above), holding an artist’s palette and mahlstick, standing beside a life-sized, full-figure painting of Christ. The caption below the photograph reads—

Thirteen weeks of painting in his spare time resulted in this nine-foot painting of Jesus Christ by Frank M. Watson, of Portsmouth, Va. Watson is shown with the painting which he presented to a Portsmouth church. He is not a professional painter (p. 11).

A decade earlier, while employed at the Norfolk Navy Yard, he designed a number of posters, fourteen of which have survived (although badly faded) and are posted on the website of the North Carolina Digital Collections. It appears they were used for the purpose of raising funds for the war through Liberty Loan subscriptions from Navy Yard employees. They are signed F.M.W. Navy Yard Norfolk VA.

In US Navy history, Frank M. Watson (who, until recently, had not been clearly identified and was cited in government records as “Watson”) was known only as the designer of what was commonly called the Watson-Norfolk System for ship camouflage (c1917). It consisted of two distinctly different patterns, one for each side of the ship. For a trial period, these were applied to two American ships, the USS Anniston (formerly the USS Montgomery), and the USS Nebraska.

Watson-Norfolk System (two sides of same ship)

There are no full-color photographs of these ships (color photography, as we know it, had not yet been perfected), but there are detailed black and white photographs that show why Watson’s camouflage plans were among the most unusual. They are made of boldly-colored zigzag shapes (on the port side) and abstract rainbow patterns (on the starboard), both of which make use of perspective illusions. Watson’s scheme plan was approved for use on merchant ships (along with five other proposals) but was soon replaced by another approach.

Additional photographs of ships that have been painted with the Watson-Norfolk camouflage plan are reproduced below, as is the gravestone of Frank M. and Gertrude A. Watson, at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens, Chesapeake City, VA.

He died in Portsmouth VA on April 28, 1966.

Note A slightly different version of this text has been provided to