An online database of camouflage used by 
United State Naval Warships during WWII

The Development of Naval Camouflage 1914 – 1945
Part II: United States Navy – World War I

By Alan Raven


(Article reprinted courtesy of  Plastic Ship Modeler Magazine issue #96/4)




In the Victorian era, as with the British Navy, the American fleet was painted with a view to appearance and overall neatness, to show the flag and generally display pride, hence the adoption of white as the main color.  The Navy was in fact called “the Great White Fleet”, but as the European navies gradually began to change from colors that enhanced their appearance to ones that might reduce their visibility, beginning at the end of the 1890s, then the Americans also began to look at the adoption of different paint schemes.


Documents indicate that in June 1899 the Navy approached one Robert Brush of New York City, an artist, with a view to producing protective coloration, as it was then called.  The matter proved to be abortive.  The question of new colors for the fleet was dropped until, as a matter of routine, it was raised again in 1908, after had begun to change from white to medium gray, a color considered to be more warlike.  The party contacted this time was Abbot H. Thayer, who declined to respond.  In 1910 the Navy again approached Mr. Brush, who at this time was a partner of Thayer.  It appears that Brush and Thayer between them had very definite ideas on how to paint ships in order to substantially reduce their visibility, which they attributed to scientifically thought out methods and which  were the subject of patents.  Brush agreed to help the Navy, but imposed such a stringent conditions of secrecy that the Navy backed off.  Brush later relaxed his stance, but as a counter, asked for an amount of money so high that the Navy again withdrew.  While these negotiations were taking place Brush displayed a number of models painted up using his ideas; reports by observing officers stated that a degree of invisibility was achieved.


The question of warship color was left in abeyance until 1915 when the Bureau of Construction and Repair began experiments as to the best color for wartime.  These tests resulted in the adoption of a new gray color, one that was lighter, and this became the standard light gray from 1919 to 1941.  The new light gray, (know during the inter-war period as Standard Navy Gray #5), was selected because of the following:


I.                    That the ship be as invisible as possible to an observer on a surface ship and on a submarine.

II.                 The weather be mostly overcast, or hazy or foggy, as in the North Sea area.

III.               That the chosen gray was the best color under the above weather conditions.


Of the experiments performed, probably the most interesting was that carried out on the battleship OHIO in late 1916.  She was painted in what was described  as the “German Method”, whereby the lower parts  of the hull newer the waterline were panted a dark gray, followed by increasingly lighter tones on the higher parts, reaching a very light gray or white on the masts and yards.  Time, however did not allow for conclusive observations to be made, but OHIO’s captain reported in 1919 that the design and tones were very effective when new, especially on the masts and yards.




Soon after the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917, the question of camouflaging merchant vessels was addressed by the Bureau of War Risk Insurance of the Treasury Department.  It is interesting to note that it was as much a matter of money, (insurance rates), as it was of the safety of the vessels and their crews.  The main thrust of these efforts concentrated on promoting the idea of making a ship invisible to a U-Boat, and by doing so, reduce the chance of an attack.


Many ideas were submitted for camouflage of merchant ships, all of them by civilians.  In July 1917 the Submarine Defense Association decided to take on the evaluation of the various proposals in a professional and serious way, and to assist in the endeavor.  Mr. George Eastman placed the staff  of the Eastman Kodak Laboratory at the association’s disposal.  Of the twenty two suggestions put forward, five were selected as being of value and were worn by large numbers of merchant ships in the 1917 to early 1918 time frame.


A further stage of the camouflage history was reached on October 1, 1917 when the United States Treasury Department, through the Bureau of War-Risk Insurance, and upon the recommendation of the Ship Protection Committee of the United States Shipping Board, put into effect a notice requiring, under penalty of ˝% increase in war risk premium, the painting of vessels for protective purposes.  The measure was taken “with a view of minimizing the hazard  to vessels trading  to or from all ports in Europe and ports in the Mediterranean Coast of Africa and vice-versa”.  The regulations effecting visibility reads as follows:


“Each vessel shall be painted in accordance with one of the systems that are recommended by the Chairman of the Naval Consulting board and the Ship Protection Committee of the United States Shipping Board.  The following systems have been approved to date:”


The five camouflage systems that had been approved were those by William Mackay, Everett Warner, Maximilian Toch, Jerome Brush, and Louis Herzog, all residents of NYC.  Ship owners were free to use any one of the above systems.  If they desired to use a camouflage design of their own choosing then they had to first submit it for approval to the Chairman of the Naval Board.


Of the five selected systems or types, only the Warner type was designed solely to prevent identity, and to promote confusion in the mind of the U-Boat commander.  The remainder were designed to achieve invisibility, or a degree of invisibility.


Mackay described his system as follows: “A ship silhouetted against the horizon interrupts the horizon light.  If therefore, the ship can be made to return to an observer light equivalent to that which she is interrupting, she will merge into the horizon and become invisible.  Upon the degree of success with which such return is effected will depend on the relative reduction of her visibility.


White light is produced by the simultaneous and balanced action upon

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