Sunday, June 16, 2019

Camouflage Design of USS Indianapolis Cargo Ship

USS Indianapolis dazzle scheme (1918)
Above An attempted restoration of the top half of a nearly full-page article from the front page of the Magazine Section of the Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis IN), 1919. The war was nearly over, and the practice of camouflaging ships had all but ended. The top photograph is a montage of two views of the newly-built USS Indianapolis, showing its dazzle camouflage scheme (two different views of the starboard side). The dazzle plan is Type 17 Design D (thanks to Aryeh Wetherhorn).  This USS Indianapolis, a WWI cargo ship that was launched in 1918 and decommissioned in 1919, is not to be confused with the WWII heavy cruiser of the same name that was sunk in 1945. Of this cargo ship, I haven’t yet found photographs other than this. In the news article, the starboard side of another dazzle-camouflage ship is pictured in an elliptical frame. It is not the USS Indianapolis, which the article does not make clear. Instead, it’s a scheme (Type 3 Design C) that was applied to the USS Matilda Weems, views of which we’ve posted before.

Quoted below is a portion of the same article from the Indianapolis Star. It was written by an Indiana journalist, William Courtney Mattox, who worked for the Emergency Fleet Corporation during WWI.


W. Courtney Mattox, Acting Head of Publications Section, Emergency Fleet Corporation, Philadelphia, BIG SHIP CARRIES FAME OF INDIANAPOLIS OVERSEAS in Indianapolis Star, January 26, 1919—

One Last Camouflage
The picture of the Indianapolis shown here was made just before the vessel left the fitting-out berth at the Pusey & Jones yard. The big ship was dressed in war paint—the camouflage which has played such an interesting and important part in foiling Germany’s submarines. Incidentally, the Indianapolis was one of the last ships to be camouflaged before the armistice.

There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the purpose of camouflage. The weird painting of seemingly haphazard lines and splashes upon the sides of a ship is not the result of an artist’s fancy. It is not designed to hide the ship from the enemy, as the camouflage on guns, buildings and even roads in France was intended. Sharp contrasts in colors on a ship would serve rather to betray the presence of the vessel than to hide it from the enemy. It has been the popular notion that camouflage at sea had the same purpose as that upon land, but the real reason for the “crazy” painting of merchant vessels was to prevent the pirate hidden beneath the waves from determining speed and direction of the ship.

Painting Tested on Models
The scope of this work of camouflaging ships was much greater than the public ever knew. It is now permissible to tell that in various districts of the United States Shipping Board there were schools of camouflage under the direction of district camoufleurs. In these various districts theaters with periscope devices arranged for the observation of models were in constant use by the student camoufleurs. Small ship models were made and they became an important factor in the testing of camouflage designs. These models were painted in accordance with the tested designs of camouflage and then examined through a periscope under conditions very similar to those surrounding a German submarine sighting an allied vessel in the ocean.

 Camouflaged ship models in testing theater

One of the chief points was to get the model on a setting corresponding to the horizon at sea, so that the camoufleur, gazing through the periscope, would see the ship as if it were standing out against the skyline. It is much different to examine a camouflaged ship lying in a river harbor, with a background of buildings or land, than to size up the same ship from a periscope with a background of the sky.

It will be noted that the camouflage on the steamer Indianapolis is very deceptive. It causes the ship to appear much shorter than it really is. The stern is so painted that at first glance one would think that the end of the vessel is not rounded, as is usual with ships, but is built after a freakish design.

The real effect of this, however, would not be apparent until the vessel was seen through a periscope. The peculiar painting of the stern and the shortened or “squatty” effect produced by the design on the sides of the ship would make it almost impossible for an observer to tell what direction the ship is headed.