The Legend of The Oriental Flying Dutchman

Like an eerie ghost ship sailing on a sandy sea, the Muroc-Maru was a full-scale wood, chicken wire, and tar model of a Japanese navy cruiser that stretched over 600 feet. Bombardiers and pilots, alike, used the mock-up for strafing, identification, and skip bombing practice.

The area we know today as Edwards Air Force Base has a very colorful history indeed.

Before the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1876, this area of the Mojave Desert was occupied by the occasional drifting prospector searching for wealth…and a few Joshua trees. In 1882, according to Edwards’ website, “the Santa Fe Railroad ran a line westward from Barstow toward Mojave and building a water stop at the edge of an immense dry lakebed.” The stop became known as “Rod” because the lakebed had been named Rodriguez Dry Lake, quite the mouthful.

As is the case with many family names in early 1900s America, Rodriguez was Anglicized to Rodgers and finally shorted to Rogers…hence the name most of us recognize today: Rogers Dry Lake.

Dryden Flight Research Center and Edwards Air Force Base next to the Rogers Dry Lake.
Dryden Flight Research Center and Edwards Air Force Base next to the Rogers Dry Lake.

When the Corum family arrived at the lakebed in 1910, they immediately set out to cultivate the area. They raised alfalfa and turkeys but they also began helping other homesteaders locate property for a fee of $1 per acre. As more settlers arrived, the Corum brothers began offering more services to residents, earning contracts for drilling water wells and clearing land. Later, they opened a general store and post office, the latter of which would prove to secure the family’s place in local history. The post office stop could not be named “Corum” because there was already a Coram, California. The family simply reversed the spelling of their name and called the stop “Muroc.” Over the next two decades, more and more settlers would set up homesteads in the area, all the while thinking that the nearby Rogers Dry Lakebed was useless.

How wrong they all were—the true historical significance of “Muroc” and Rogers Dry Lakebed was yet to be revealed.

Lt. Col. H.H. “Hap” Arnold, an Airman commanding March Field in Riverside, was first to realize the potential of the area to be a “natural aerodrome.” So, in September 1933, Arnold and a small advance party from March Field established the Muroc Bombing and Gunnery Range, a remote training site for the Army Air Corps that is now a small enclave within the present-day Edwards base.

As America entered World War II, the area was alive with activity. Because wartime military aviation needs overwhelmed Wright Field in Ohio, the training facility at the time, a new location was needed—one with good flying weather and one that offered privacy so that new top-secret airplanes could safely undergo testing. So a permanent base for training of combat flight crews was created. The Edwards’ website explains that in the spring of 1942, this area, along the north shore of Rogers and about six miles away from the training base at Muroc, was “activated as a separate post and designated Muroc Army Air Base…P-38s strafed the targets on the range as bomber crews and fighter pilots prepared to do battle overseas.”

Soon after, “a wooden hangar and rudimentary facilities sprang up and on Oct. 1, 1942, Bell test pilot Bob Stanley lifted the wheels of the Bell XP-59A Airacomet off the enormous, flat surface of the dry lakebed. The turbojet revolution had arrived.”

Still, one of the most visually impressive sights ever to grace the southwest area of Rogers Dry Lake, an area used for training P-38 Lightning fighter pilots, and B-24 Liberator and B-25 Mitchell bomber crews, has to be the Muroc-Maru.

Made to be bombed, the Muroc-Maru was a full-scale wooden model of a Japanese Navy Cruiser that stretched over 600 feet. It was designed as a recognition devise as well as a target for B-25 Mitchell bombers. Pilots and bombardiers used the mock-up for strafing, identification, and skip bombing practice.

Army Air Forces Temporary Building (Target) T-799 (the official name of the Muroc-Maru) was constructed for over $35,000 and built out of 4x4s and chicken wire. Builders then covered the structure with tar paper and coated it in ground up chicken feathers. Sand berms were used to make a wake, and, all together, it bore a striking resemblance to an Imperial Japanese Navy Takao-class cruiser.

In the 1963 book The Great California Deserts, W. Storrs Lee wrote a story called “Flying Dutchman at Muroc” and recounts that, as a target, the Muroc-Maru was such a hit with pilots that it continued to be improved. “Mounds of sand were skillfully packed around the ship to simulate ocean waves. Someone raised the Rising Sun on the aftermast. That did it. Many a passing motorist, unaware of the Army’s caprice, rubbed his eyes at what he hoped was only a mirage, and hurried on, half expecting the Japanese Navy to open fire before he could get out of range.”

These sightings prompted legends of an “Oriental Flying Dutchman” cruising the desert to begin circulating. Some bystanders claimed that the heat waves in the dry lake created a mirage effect that made the ship appear to be moving on water. It took years of bombing and environmental effects to actually change the external look of the mock ship, meaning that years after World War II was over, the Muroc-Maru still stood, some argue as a symbol of American courage and determination.

However, the Muroc-Maru was not long for this world. In 1950, this training tool was “sunk” because it was deemed a flight hazard by Army engineers. Her “lower decks” were still filled with duds and unexploded bombs—that meant that Army engineers were risking their lives by dismantling the Muroc-Maru. Purportedly, all that remains today are a few tons worth of nails and staples and some sand berms.

But successful testing and research trials at the base during the war years attracted a new type of research activity that would help shape the way the world viewed what would become Edwards Air Force Base, even after landmarks like the Muroc-Maru were gone. In 1946, the rocket-powered Bell X-1 was, according to Edwards’ website, “the first in a long series of experimental airplanes designed to prove or disprove aeronautical concepts—to probe the most challenging unknowns of flight and solve its mysteries.” That tradition of flight research continues today at Edwards, which was officially renamed in December of 1949 in honor of Capt. Glen W. Edwards, who was killed the previous year in the crash of the YB-49 Flying Wing jet bomber.

“The natural resource of Rogers Dry Lake has made possible the successful development and testing of generations of American aircraft leading to the Space Shuttle today,” says the National Park Service. “Because of this association with the History of American Aviation the Rogers Dry Lake is uniquely qualified for designation as a National Historic Landmark.”

We just wish landmarks like the Muroc-Maru were still around to remind us of the fact that, while Kern County has major connections to the history of aviation, we also played a huge role in the war effort at a time when our country needed a lot of support.

Photo courtesy of NASA

Sources: edwards.af.mil/; NPS.gov; histomil.com; klaxo.net/hofc

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