War Comes To Santa Monica

November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Jacqueline Austin

Aircraft Factory Beneath A Fake Santa Monica

This morning my walk took me through southeast Santa Monica–past the former Museum of Flying, around Clover Park, around the edges of Santa Monica Airport, and down Airport Avenue to the new Museum of Flying (opened February 2011). Current changes to this neighborhood had me thinking about its history.

This neighborhood would not exist, were it not for the Douglas Aircraft factory. Most homes here were built in the late 1940s as housing for workers at the plant. Today everything is gentrified and xeriscaped, but in 1949 the homes were just tract houses, and returning soldiers and their families were glad to have them, as they were.

These soldiers were moving into, or returning to, a neighborhood which had been transformed. The little aircraft factory, built in 1921, had grown. Though the area was already well known–the first airplane to circumnavigate the globe (1924), a Douglas World Cruiser, had been built here–the factory had become a major military center during the war.  And now people affiliated with Douglas Aircraft were starting to move on, helping to form the Southern California aviation and aerospace industries.

It was in 1941 that Ocean Park had discovered its mission.  War came to Santa Monica in 1941, and the entire neighborhood was mobilized to fight. After Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was bombed on December 7th, and the United States declared war on December 8th, the entire west coast became part of the Pacific theater. The Santa Monica airport and plant, used for the fabrication and transportation of military aircraft, were prime targets. Nearby ports were placed under martial law. Rumors of incipient attack by air and sea quickly spread through Santa Monica. Then a Japanese submarine fired on Santa Barbara, hitting their pier. Every Santa Monica resident was called upon to do his or her patriotic duty. That duty included a camouflage operation headed by a Colonel John Ohmer, based 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Ohmer quickly summoned a renowned landscape architect, Edward Huntsman-Trout, to Santa Monica. A Harvard man with a great track record and unparalleled vision, Huntsman-Trout was too old for war, but he was delighted to use his enormous visual and structural vocabulary in service to Southern California. Called upon to do camouflage work in Ocean Park, he designed and engineered an entire fake neighborhood which was rendered in wood and burlap, painted convincingly and placed on top of the airplane factory. Many Hollywood film studios sent volunteer set builders and set decorators to help make things convincing. A fake hill was fabricated of wood and burlap. Pretend homes were raised, and supported by scaffolding and tension cables. Fake laundry was hung from fake burlap trees. Cars were parked nearby. A fake airplane manufacturing plant was erected next door.

Under the peaceful, false exterior buzzed a hive of military activity–men and women of Santa Monica, working together to defend the once sleepy beach town, from attack. Ocean Park was changed forever.

70 years later, as I finish my walk on this ground, I wonder if the history of Santa Monica is in any way indicative of its future. This town is again changing rapidly, in response to the challenges and threats we now face.

Today, we have no enemy firing shells at our pier. What we now have is trash in the Pico-Kentner storm drain. We have a threat of global terror. Another threat of economic destruction. Another war on education, and yet another war on social services.

These threats are to World War II as rising clouds are to a storm. But they are equally global, and no less serious. Do we need physical conflict before we can act? Can we mobilize as we did in World War II?  Or do we need a Pearl Harbor and a Colonel Ohmer to catalyze us into action–to bring the wars some of us are fighting, home to each and every resident here? Might those actions be as simple as to camouflage efforts already going on, in, say, education, so that these efforts can continue unimpeded past the threats?

More walks are needed, I guess, through various neighborhoods. Perhaps our answers can be found, someday, in our own back yards.

Thank you to Cynni Murphy and Imagine Santa Monica. All images are courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Archives, and were donated by the Museum of Flying (Museum of Flying Collection).

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.  Originally published in the Santa Monica Patch (AoL/Huffpo Local E-Newspaper), May 18, 2011.


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