12 January 2010
Warship in the Desert: The Muroc Maru
At the instruction of General Henry "Hap" Arnold, in 1933 Rogers Dry Lake in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles was chosen as a gunnery and bombing training range for the expanding US Army Air Forces. Set up six miles west of the town of Muroc by personnel from March Army Air Field in Riverside, a series of practice targets were set up throughout the dry lake bed site which included simulated structures, the outlines of naval ships for high level bombing practice, and even a track for a moving target. Retired elderly Keystone biplane bombers were set up as well on a simulated airfield. Two years after being established, a second site was set up on the dry lake bed just one mile north of the town of Muroc.
Initially needing only a caretaker group of 13 Army personnel, the Muroc bombing range operated as a branch of March Army Air Field and the size of visiting squadrons would result in groups of personnel of varying sizes temporarily taking up residence at Muroc. Not only bomber and attack squadrons passed through the range but fighter squadrons as well for ground strafing exercises. By the summer of 1941 the base had expanded considerably in anticipation of the coming war. By 1942 over 40,000 personnel were stationed at Muroc at any given time and this resulted in Muroc being established as an air base in its own right as Muroc AAF independent of March AAF.
One of the most unique targets at Muroc AAF was completed in March 1943 and was designated as "AAF Temporary Building (Target) T-799, a full-sized wooden mockup of a Japanese Atago-class heavy cruiser. It was made of wood and covered with chicken wire and tar paper. Over the tar paper it was covered with shredded chicken feathers to give the appearance of a solid warship. Constructed at the south end of Rogers Dry Lake, the target got the nickname "Muroc Maru" and cost the USAAF approximately $35,000, a hefty sum in those days for something to be used for target practice.
Sand berms were constructed around the Muroc Maru to simulate the bow wave and wake. Bomber crews practiced low-level skip bombing against the Muroc Maru. On particularly hot days, pilots reported that the mirage effect would give the appearance of the Muroc Maru sailing at sea. Due to the strong desert winds and temperature extremes, the chicken feather covering of the target wasn't as durable as the wood and chicken wire structure.
Flight testing of new aircraft began in 1942 at Muroc. Training activities ended at Muroc AAF in 1946 and with an independent US Air Force, it became Muroc AFB in 1948. The following year the base was renamed Edwards AFB.
As for the Muroc Maru, it was a declared a flight hazard and dismantled in 1950. Army engineers responsible for the dismantling weren't thrilled about the extent of unexploded ordinance in the structure of the target. Some of the sand berms remain at the site to this day as well as millions of nails and metal staples from the 1950 disassembly.
Source: X-Plane Crashes: Exploring Experimental Rocket Plane, and Spycraft Incidents, Accidents, and Crash Sites by Peter W. Merlin and Tony Moore. Specialty Press, 2008, p13-14.