Camouflage. It has invaded our everyday wardrobe; from dessert tan, to jungle green and an array of bewildering designs. 100 years ago next month, a maritime disaster helped bring urgency to improving military camouflage and several Iowans were among those joining the cause. This Iowa Archives special was prepared by IPR’s Rick Fredericksen.
Seventy years ago, Walt Disney was producing propaganda films during World War Two. This cartoon advocates a defensive tactic that goes back to the beginning of life.
“Camouflage is nothing new. It’s as old as nature. In fact nearly everything in nature uses some form of camouflage to conceal it from its enemies.”
The animated feature shows how deer and butterflies hide from predators, but how do you hide something as big as an ocean vessel with German submarines on the prowl? U-boats sank thousands of ships during the two world wars, including the most famous one of all.
“The Lusitania was thought to be unsinkable. She went down however with appalling swiftness. Torpedo closing on the starboard bow.”
That calamity, 100 years ago, prompted songs, movies and documentaries that have relived the horror on the Lusitania.
“1,201 men, women and children died.”
Camouflage advanced to the next level at this flash point of history. A 1915 song memorialized the haunting tragedy.
In the run up to World War One, counter measures included spectacular camouflage, designed not to hide ships, but to confuse enemy subs and make targeting less accurate. The navy created whole camouflage units to paint ships in wild designs known as “dazzle.” In Cedar Falls, Roy Behrens is an authority on camouflage.
“It was an attempt to disrupt the shape, to make it look like a crazy quilt, a hodgepodge, so that it interfered with knowing where the ship began and where the other end ended, or, more importantly, exactly which angle it was facing and thus where it was headed.”
Behrens is an author and teaches graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa.
“You should make it very difficult for a U-boat commander to accurately predict where that ship is going to be by the time the slow traveling torpedo gets there.”
Iowa artist Everett Warner from Vinton revolutionized the British innovation leading a corps of artists who painted optical illusions, turning “battleship gray” into wild geometric patterns, splotches and striping intended to distort reality. Like abstract art, there were many nonbelievers, but Professor Behrens thinks it saved lives.
“The research at MIT shows the most effective dazzle painted ships were wildly, profoundly effective, more so than anyone ever estimated before.”
The Iowa camouflage artist Everett Warner is also remembered for painting aerial landscapes when flying in a plane was still rare. Warner talked about his in flight pastels in a 1960s lecture.
“I had to crouch down in the open cockpit and keep my paint box low out of the air stream or it would have been carried right out of my hand.”
(Behrens) “And when people began to go up in airplanes and look at the landscape they suddenly said my goodness, this is so abstract we can’t believe it, we never imagined such patterns.”
(Warner) “After the landing the pilot asked me how it went. Okay, I said, it was difficult over the James River on account of the bumpy air. Huh. The air wasn’t bumpy, says the pilot, I let that second class cook take over the controls.”
Other Iowa artists left their mark as camoufleurs: Creston native Sherry Fry co-founded the American Camouflage Corps and specialized in concealing infantry weapons, even a young Grant Wood applied camouflage patterns to artillery, a dozen years before completing “American Gothic.”
The centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania will be observed on May 7th in Ireland where the ocean liner remains under the sea, and in Liverpool, England, the destination of the ill-fated ship’s 101st voyage from New York. For Iowa Archives, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.