‘Masters of Disguise’ at the Intrepid

By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the historic aircraft carrier moored on Manhattan’s West Side, could have taken the easy way out for its latest exhibit on camouflage. It could have pulled photos out of the archives showing ship camouflage in World War I and II—something most people are familiar with—found a nook on the main hangar deck to display them, and been done with it.

What Eric Boehm, the museum’s curator of aviation and aircraft restoration, did instead was give visitors a thorough and engaging history of camouflage in both the natural and the man-made world.

The entrance to “Masters of Disguise,” tucked into a starboard-side hallway, opens with a camouflage pattern shining down on the deck and an informative wall panel that explains that while camouflage was certainly used by early prehistoric man to hunt for food, it didn’t come into widespread use in the military until World War I. Camoufler is a French theater term that was originally used to describe getting dressed up for a role or a disguise. But in 1917, trying to gain any advantage it could on the barren battlefields of Flanders and the Somme, the French military came up with “camouflage,” which, by definition, “aims to hide its wearer or mislead pursuers.”

F4Step inside the entryway to the three small rooms that house the exhibit’s displays of photos, models and interactive kiosks and the first thing you see is a mannequin dressed in a modern-day ghillie suit—the cover made of netting and webbing, then adorned with local foliage to help snipers and scouts blend into their surroundings. The ghillie suit, a panel says, was first used in the Scottish Highlands by ghillies, Gaelic for “young helpers,” who stalked game. The suits were used by Lovat’s Scouts, a Scottish commando unit, in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and in World War I.

The ghillie suit is an example of obscuring camouflage, one of four types of camouflage discussed here. In the natural world, the best example of obscuring camouflage is that of the common wood frog, whose colors help it blend into its surroundings and make it less susceptible to predators. For humans on the ground, mottled patterns of greens and browns are a type of obscuring camouflage that breaks up the outline of a sniper creeping into a favorable firing position. Also on display here is a model of an F-4 painted in the green camo pattern that helped the aircraft blend into the jungle canopy of Vietnam.

In a small room to the right of the ghillie suit is the Intrepid’s display of mimicry camouflage, “which makes an object appear to be something very different from what it is.” Two of nature’s best examples of mimicry camo are those of the orchid mantis, which makes itself look like an orchid to lure prey, and of walking sticks, a class of insects that hide from predators by mimicking tree sticks.

DazzleShown here are photos of a Lockheed factory in Burbank, Calif., during World War II. Worried about a mainland attack from Japan following Pearl Harbor, West Coast arms factories camouflaged themselves to look like something else. In Burbank, overhead netting and false structures make the factory look from above like rural fields and farmhouses. Fast-forward to the late 20th century, and a model of the Navy’s F-18 Hornet shows that the bottom is painted exactly like the top, including shading that mimics a cockpit. The object: to fool attacking aircraft.

And then there’s an 8-foot-high, faux tree stump that visitors can actually crawl into. In the middle of the night during World War I, work crews would sneak into No Man’s Land and dig up tree stumps that had been partially destroyed by artillery barrages and replace them with metal fakes, which were then used as observation posts to direct artillery and report on troop movements.

The middle gallery focuses on disruptive camo, “visual cues that obscure an object’s true features.” The most famous examples of these are zebra stripes and those deceiving dazzle paint schemes on the sides of warships, conceived by Norman Wilkinson, a marine painter and Royal Navy sailor, during World War I to thwart U-boat attacks. Visitors can look into a periscope and see what a German sub commander would have seen, which is a dazzling pattern that makes you wonder in which direction the ship is heading, thus making torpedo targeting more difficult. Also on display here is a model, on loan from the Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler, of the RMS Mauretania, a passenger ship that was converted to a World War I transport, complete with puzzling side camouflage.

The last gallery looks at countershading camo. Abbott H. Thayer came up with Thayer’s Law around the turn of the 20th century. He found that when natural light falls on a uniformly shaped object, the top tends to appear lighter and the bottom darker. Some species, such as reef sharks, squirrels and mountain goats have different shading to make them less detectable. Man adapted Thayer’s Law to the F6F Hellcat, a carrier-based World War II fighter that had a three-color blue pattern to help it blend into its Pacific surroundings.

Today, of course, the camouflage used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has gone high-tech and is based on advanced scanning equipment and complex fractal elements that try to fool the human eye. A new Multicam pattern was developed by Crye Precision in New York, not far from the Intrepid, and takes into account the changing climates, altitudes and lighting that modern soldiers must fight in.

In short, this exhibit on not seeing is well worth seeing.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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