Tuesday, November 19, 2013

US Women's Camouflage Corps

Above Photograph of members of the Women's Camouflage Corps applying disruptive (or dazzle) camouflage to an ambulance (c1918).


The following text is by Bessie Rowland James [journalist and wife of Marquis James], as originally published in her book For God, For Country, For Home. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1920, pp. 164-166. It has also been reprinted in Roy R. Behrens, ed., SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook. Dysart IA: Bobolink Books, 2011, pp. 286-293.—

The Camouflage Corps was formed by a group of artists, writers, stenographers, school teachers, debutantes, many sorts of women. The Corps was not the idea [of the National League for Women's Service], but when there was the nucleus of an organization, the members asked to be put under its direction. After consulting government officials and learning that there was a real need of women camoufleurs, the League took steps to complete the organization.

Like the Motor Corps, the Camouflage Corps had its captain and lieutenants. The commander, a corporal, was Anne Furman Goldsmith, an artist. Courses were arranged under the direction of Lieutenant H. Ledyard Towle, an artist, who was at that time training the first camouflage section of the Seventy-First Regiment. Large numbers of English and French women, safe locations many miles behind the battleline, were employed in France to camouflage the big guns, wagons, trucks, to make observers'  suits, and other equipment as well as the miles of wire netting used upon the roads. It was a kind of work women could do. It required, however, much technical training.

The course given by the Camouflage Corps covered not only training in camouflage, but drilling, boxing, pistol and rifle shooting. The first Corps was formed in March [1918], and when the training was completed a second one was organized, this time under the direction of the United States Shipping Board.

Women ship camoufleurs in Washington DC (c1918) *

For the training of both Corps, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., permitted the women to utilize the old Billings Estate on the Hudson River for developing screens to match the rocks, water, and trees. Part of the estate was used as a revolver range. The camoufleurs spent much time in attempting to design an observer's suit which would harmonize with any scenery and make the wearer practically undiscernible at a distance of twenty feet.

The camouflage of the front of the suit matched the trees; the back shaded into the rocks' reversed, the front merged with the grass and the back with ice and snow. By such an arrangement the observer's suit could be used in a variety of landscapes; but the Camouflage Corps was not satisfied. It sought to design a suit useful in any terrain.

About a dozen graduates of the Corps were employed by the navy, some in Washington to work out different plans of camouflage and others in the yards at Philadelphia. Perhaps the most spectacular work of the Corps was the camouflage of the [USS] Recruit, the big land battleship built in Union Square, New York City. This was a night's work for the women and was done at the request of the navy to further recruiting. The camouflage design was worked out in the classrooms of the Corps. One day at sundown New Yorkers saw the ship a tame, neutral gray. The next morning it wore a wild, fantastic design of many colors.

Tanks, ambulances, and trucks were camouflage at the request of different branches of the Government to encourage recruiting, for wherever the camoufleurs went in their uniforms, spreading their bright paints, a crowd was sure to gather.

* The officer in the top photograph is Harold Van Buskirk, who was the executive officer in charge of the US Navy Camouflage Section during World War I.

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