The Blue Max Project

© 2016 Thomas Emme Some Rights Reserved

Rupp's Skizzenbuch - Half Way There!!

I officially reached the halfway point for my art project "Rupp's Skizzenbuch".  This chapter by chapter serial that is a companion piece to align with Jack Hunter's "The Blue Max" will be published online starting on January 1, 2018.

I can say that with confidence because now I have January thru May "in the can" and much confidence that I will be thru to August before the end of the year.  Here is my calendar showing the publishing dates....I cover the dates with a poppy when they are finished.  

Image 1.jpg

Here is the table of contents for what is finished so far.  

If you want to take a closer look follow this link to the page itself



Each chapter will have a title slide that sets the theme and individual pages of the journal that tell the story.  The journal itself is a mix of text, photography and sketches that follow the story of "The Blue Max" from the perspective of Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp, a gray haired old campaigner who is just trying to survive the war.  The books story line goes from January 1918 to October 1918.  My intent is to extend that a bit to get to Armistice Day so that the serial will be a fitting way to close out the centennial.

The gallery below are a few sample pages from Chapter 12 so you can get a sense of what the serial will look like.  If you click on the images it will take you to a higher resolution version.


WWGeezer (aka Tom Emme)

Stachel's First Kill

"Stachel shouldered his way through the crowd.  The excited babble fell off to a murmur as he strode up to the wreck.  His service knife glinted as, with four sweeping motions, he cut away the RE-8's serial number.  Rolling up the piece of fabric and returning the knife to a pocket of his flying coat, he turned to regard the crowd.  Kettering was there.  Wordlessly, Stachel went to him.  He shoved the roll of khaki linen against Kettering's chest, than stalked away to get something to drink."

This key scene from Jack Hunter's novel "The Blue Max", took place in front of the Jasta's main office.  Stachel was frustrated because earlier in the day, his "first kill" had not been witnessed by anyone and could not be considered "official".  When he came upon this RE-8 on patrol and managed to injure the rear gunner and damage its engine, he decide to make a point by escorting the aircraft back to his aerodrome.  He showed his cruel side when, even though defenseless, he chose to shoot it down so that it crashed landed right on Captain Heidemann's doorstep.

One of the challenges in my project "Rupp's Skizzenbuch" is to capture key events in the story but have it believable that my main character Gerhardt Rupp was aware of them.  This one was easy.  Rupp as the Unteroffizier could have been at his desk and almost fallen out of his chair when a plane crashed so close to their offices.  When thinking about this chapter, I started thinking about Stachel shoving the canvas he cut out into Kettering's hand.  It was not much of a leap to consider that Kettering, on returning to the squad office, would have dropped it on Rupp's desk and said, " You might need this for your combat report, looks like Stachel got his first kill."

Wouldn't it be cool if I actually had the canvas with the RE-8's serial number on it?   It would be perfect for the Title Image for this Chapter.  Down the Rabbit Hole again.

I started my research looking at images of RE-8's to see where the serial was located.  It was pretty consistent, on the tail, a letter and three or four numbers.

I didn't want the canvas to be huge, so I opted for the version labelled "A 3930" because it fits between two horizontal supports in the tail section.  It also lines up with the description in the novel of cutting the canvas "in four sweeping motions".  Next I looked for a side view of the RE8 that was close to being to scale so I could determine the size of the tail piece.  I found this image and added a graphic scale.

I zoomed up on the tail and used the graphic scale to get rough dimensions for the canvas I was going to create.  I added some sample serial numbers  and plotted it at a large scale.  I flipped the orientation, because generally on the title pages the journal is on the right side of the desk.  I wanted to make sure the slope of the canvas showed.

At this point the "artifact" was becoming  precious to me.  Like the journal, when you work this hard to simulate an old object, you start believing it is real.  I needed a serial number, but didn't want to just make one up.   Clearly the aircraft in the novel was fictional.  I decided to try and find an actual serial number for a plane that was shot down around the time of Stachel's kill.  I bought Trevor Henshaw's book " The Sky their Battlefield" earlier this year and to be honest it has been sitting on my bookshelf barely opened.  It is a fascinating resource that names and indexes every recorded air fight and casualty for the British, Commonwealth and United States of America from World War I.  The journal entry is March 9th, and I was looking for a shot down RE-8 where both pilot and rear gunner were killed in action.  Sure enough I found one with the serial number B-835.  On March 11th, Lt. JA Convery and Lt. JLP Haynes were both killed in action while an Artillery Registration mission in an RE-8 near the town of Oppy, just north of Cambrai in France, not far from where Stachel's sortie occurred.

With a measurable template and a real serial number, it was time to get to work.  I bought a 24" x 18" canvas, drew up the template.  A visit to Home Depot for some custom mixed house paint got me the background color and the paint for the white letters.  I made some stencils for the letters I needed, spray mounted them onto the canvas and used  a dry sponge to dab on the white color for the letters.  As a final touch I used black wax ( for those chalk paint furniture experts out there) to age and streak the finish.  

It is not exactly a museum quality, but I have to admit, when I pulled out my razor blade to cut out the numbers " in four sweeping motions" it was surreal experience for me.  It felt heavy and limp in my hands.  I crumpled it up a bit to make it look less perfect.  After taking these pictures I hung the canvas on the wall in my office, just the way a pilot would hang his trophy in the officers mess.  

I suppose at worse, it made me pause on a busy spring weekend to think about two young men who lost their lives in the Great War, almost 100 years ago. 

Salute Lt. Convery and Lt. Haynes.

Tom Emme



"Rupp's Skizzenbuch" Theme Pages

Things are picking up speed on the project.  

After cartooning out the release dates for the journal, I am more confident than ever that I can finish the project on time.  To further inspire me ( Project Manager's need lots of inspiration!).  I put up a bulletin board in my office.  For each chapter I finish I mark it with a poppy.  Still a long way to go, only one poppy on the board.

The prologue is done and I am working on the next four chapters as a group.  These chapters are an introduction to the story of "The Blue Max".   Rupp introduces his story, explains the status of the war, describes the town of Beauvin where the aerodrome is located and talks about the people that are his squadmates at Jasta 77.

Each chapter starts with a theme page that identifies what the chapter is about.  The journal itself will be presented in a flat, almost archival view, so the theme pages are a chance to have some fun, be more immersive and do a bit of story telling.  

A glass of wine from one of the local farms, a crusty cigar and a flickering can almost hear the booming artillery shells off in the distance, keeping Rupp up late at night while he sketches in his journal.


Finishing Strong

I had never attended an estate sale before.  

Sure I've been to garage sales where someone has sifted through their garage and back closets to fill folding tables with old clothes, bikes with flat tires and their obsolete VCR tape collection, but this was different.  A buddy at work, who regularly tracks estate sales, knew about my interests in aviation and pointed out that there was an estate sale this weekend for a retired WWII pilot.   That got my attention and after reviewing a few intriguing pictures online I decided to brave the wind and rain and head to Cameron Park first thing Saturday morning.

I may not have been to an estate sale before, but I was the trustee for my Mother's estate, so I do understand the fire drill the family must have gone through to get to this point.  It's one of those jobs that has to be done; carefully filtering through your parent's belongings, trying to figure out what to do with them and trying to make sure you don't throw something away that has value.  

"Value" is a relative term.  

Sometimes precious things have very little actual value.  Spend a few minutes on EBay and you will get my drift.  A silver comb set from my Grandmother's night stand, a silk ribbon from the Chicago World's Fair, old books with simple childhood sketches scribbled on the back page, all precious in their own way, saved by my Mother, but never put on display.  After a while, I felt like I was running an orphanage, trying to match up the perfect loving couple to adopt some random family artifact before it faced the city dump or the shelves of Goodwill.  If I was lucky I could find someone who cherished it and preserved it, just like Mom did.  In some ways these were artifacts of her life and if I placed them in a good home with someone who recognized their "value", in some ways it would extend her story. When I was succesful it made me feel like I was really doing the job that was entrusted to me as the Trustee.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I drove along under those threatening skies on the winding country roads east of Folsom Lake.  I decided that my approach to this estate sale was to focus on looking for small things that I could preserve that would extend the story of the person's home I was about to visit.

That story started to enfold right away.

Edward B. Fitch

Born in Kalamazoo Michigan in 1918, he was a retired Colonel in the Army Air Force who passed away in his home in Cameron Park in October just a few months ago.  He served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.  He flew 55 missions in Europe and 65 missions in Korea. During World War II he flew fighters, medium bombers, utility and cargo airplanes.  As his career continued he went on to fly jet fighters, KC-135 jet tankers, B-47 and B-52 bombers. In 1973 he retired and went to work for Boeing Aircraft Corporation as the Manager of Plans and Programs which included some time in Iran training aircrews for the Iranian Air Force.  In 1976 he retired to his home in Cameron Park to focus on "golfing, model building and restoring a 1955 Thunderbird".

Now I didn't know all this before I made it to the estate sale, but just the Google Maps view of his residence should have given me an inkling that aviation was an important part of the Colonel's life.

I had no idea that there was an airport in Cameron Park.

I was somewhat shocked when I started getting glimpses of an airstrip just off Cameron Park Drive.  This had to be a heck of a place to try and land an aircraft, especially on a windy day.   Small municipal airports are a dwindling resource in our country and this one is of an even rarer variety.  The Cameron Airpark Estates (note the Boeing Street label above) have extra wide streets and hanger sized garage doors to allow residents to actually taxi down their street to the airport.  This deserved further investigation, so I drove down a few of the streets and took a couple pictures.  The road was easily the equivalent of a four lane highway and most homes had hanger sized garage doors. Airplanes were sitting on driveways or inside garages.  I just can't imagine taking your evening walk and waiving at your neighbor as he taxis his Cessna through the neighborhood!

The Colonel's house was not along the airstrip, but maybe a half mile away.  

It snugged right up against the golf course.  The house had a long driveway that wrapped around a beautifully landscaped front yard complete with swimming pool and a tropical cabana.  I'm not sure why, but seeing the cabana and the bamboo made me start thinking about "The Right Stuff" with fighter pilots racing around with their girlfriends in convertibles on the beaches in Florida.  Clearly the Colonel had picked a nice comfortable nest and wedged himself between two of his favorite hobbies, flying and golfing.  Well done Colonel!  

As I entered the house, I was able to enjoy panoramic views of the golf course.  As expected rooms were  jammed with people, hoisting cardboard boxes carefully combing through things and grabbing whatever caught their attention. The decorator items had an international flavor, reflecting the travelling that the Colonel did in his 34 years in the military.  For fans of aviation there was plenty to look at.  Tables were full of dusty models, some still with fishing line attached that must have hung from the ceiling at one time.  Shelves were stacked with framed pictures on the top shelves and crammed with books about military history down below.  His love of aviation clearly spanned all eras because there were books, models and memorabilia from WWI all the way to current era jet fighters.

I picked up four things while I was there.  

The first was collection of ceramic tiles with nose art from various squadrons.  Not a rare item but I thought it would look good on the wall in my office at home.

The second was a metal model of a Spad VII Fighter sitting on a plastic box that was an AM radio.  The model itself came from Japan and was very well made.  I honestly think it got lost among all the plastic models on the table.  I felt lucky to get it.

The third item was something God must have wanted me to have.  

You go outside to get items priced by the Loud Guy with the cowboy hat who does the pricing.  Then he tells you to go inside and talk to the Crazy Cherokee Woman at the cash register inside the kitchen to pay.  She indeed did answer to "Crazy Cherokee Woman" and proceeded to give us historical facts about her tribe.  While you wait in line there were some glass cases and table displays of more precious items.  The line was long so I had some time to look at the items and I had seen this book of rendered images of World War I planes from 1965.  It was lovely, but I had no idea what things cost and decided my metal Spad was enough of a find so I passed it by.  

When I got up to the cash register, a rambling Shabby Guy came up with the book in his hand. 

Shabby Guy, "How much for this book?"

Crazy Cherokee Woman, "Ten Dollars." I gulped and kicked myself.

Shabby Guy, "Really?  I was thinking maybe five dollars."  Oh my god, I thought.

I jumped in.  "I'll buy it for ten dollars."

Shabby Guy.  "Here ya go." And he shoves the book into my hand with a sneer on his face.  

So that is how I bought this book.  Fate is more interesting than any rational strategy.  I guess now I understand how estate sales work.  

The surprise was that inside the book, carefully place between the pages were four prints from the Leach Corporation Heritage of the Air Series.  The Leach Corporation manufactured relay components for the aerospace industry and in 1959 they commissioned the first painting for an ad they placed in the "Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine".  They received such a favorable response they quickly commissioned another painting, and then another.  By 1966 the series comprised of a total of 45 paintings.  The images were enormously popular with many thousands of paintings distributed worldwide.  The Colonel must have stored them in this book because the page sizes where about the same.

Fate right?

Well I made it home and was feeling quite satisfied at my adventure.  

I did more research, found the obituary and some Air Force historical documents that filled in the edges and started to write this blog.  Married for 59 years, proceeded in death by his loving wife Evelyn. Two daughters and grandchildren and great grandchildren.  Interned at Arlington Cemetery. And then this sentence, "He was a fiercely independent and determined individual".  No question about that considering the 55 missions in Europe and 65 missions in Korea.  I saw the powered scooter in the garage, 98 years old and still living in his own home. Living alone probably eighteen years after his wife passed, in his dream home between the golf course and the airstrip.  It made you wonder what that that time was like.  Maybe it explained all those models.

There was one more artifact that I passed over in the garage.  

It was in a bin full of odds and ends, exacto blades and needle nose plyers.  It caught my attention.  I knew what it was for, but I left it in the bin.  When I returned home and started to write this blog, it kept nagging at me.  That night the winds really howled and I didn't sleep very well.  I woke up early and decided, the hell with it, I am going to go back and get it.  The storm was even worse for this second trip, but no cars in the street in front of the house.  Clearly for the collectors, all the good stuff was gone.  My heart raced a bit as I asked if I could go back in the garage.  I was worried that it would be gone.  I felt some relief when I saw it was still there.  

A simple tool, hand built out of rough lumber  A 2 x 4, with a 2 x 2 held in place by two brass screws and carefully routed so it could hold a magnifying glass.  

This was not fine wood working, but a pragmatic piece of carpentry for a diligent model maker, especially as your eyesight begins to fail.  This tool stuck in my head because it was the one item in the estate that he built himself, with his own hands, not from a model or a kit. 

As I held it I couldn't help but think that during his forty years of retirement, my whole adult life took shape.  I went to college, got married, had two kids, built a career.  As I approach 60 years old, friends and family are retiring around me and I wonder what will it be like.  If I am so blessed to make it there (knock on wood), what is the right way to do it?

I never met Colonel Fitch, but he clearly was a hero in the first half of his life and it sure looks like he did a good job with the second half as well.  He achieved a lot, lived life with a passion and finished strong.  

I am going to hold on to that thought and this simple wooden tool.  It appears both things might come in handy in the future.





Making "Dreams" Come True and a New Year's Wish

"I am a piano player, but yet I'm not.  I am a painter, yet I'm not.  I am a novelist, but I'm still working on it."

Jack D. Hunter

Several years ago a few of my more artistic leaning siblings decided to replace the usual exchange of gifts with a themed annual "Christmas Art Challenge".  When my sister set this year's theme as a self-portrait, it took me about 30 seconds to remember the quote above from Jack D. Hunter, author of "The Blue Max".  

I have thought about that quote a lot over the last year as The Blue Max Project developed.  It has gone slowly, but I continue to push my knowledge of World War I history and my skill level at photography, graphic arts and writing.   I decided to put those skills to the test in the art challenge this year and searched for iconic images of writers, artists and World War I fighter pilots.  

These three caught my eye, not only for who they are, but for how the camera caught them in these portrait shots.

Ernest Hemingway sitting out in the middle of an open field on a rugged table typing away on his trusty Underwood.

Salvador Dali, not the usual goof ball funny-face, but laser focus on his painting.

And of course...Eddie Rickenbacker looking cocky and relaxed, sitting in his Spad cockpit.

The next challenge was photographing myself to fit correctly into the picture with minimal editing.  I used all my photography toys accumulated over the last couple years.  Light stands with high wattage florescent bulbs, camera on tripod, remote trigger, wireless SD card and the iPad.  I placed a white backdrop in my office, set up the tripod and lights and took test shots while holding a print of the portrait pictures and ipad in one hand and the remote trigger in the other.  I would take a shot, wait for the picture to stream to the iPad, check it out and adjust my position.  I'm glad my wife didn't come home in the middle of this, I'm sure she would have thought I lost my mind!

This proved to be the easy part.  I needed to be a better character actor to get the right expression on my face.  Needless to say it took a few tries. 







After much review I felt like I got images that hit the mark.  



All about the eyes....

All about the eyes....

Cocky and confident.....(and perhaps a bit goofy in my case!)

Cocky and confident.....(and perhaps a bit goofy in my case!)

I knew I needed four images and considering the title was "Dreams" I decided to pull the one image I could find of decent resolution from my childhood.  From the looks of it maybe a fifth grade class picture....just had to find a body to attach it to.

I don't remember ever having an apple on my desk, but close enough.

I don't remember ever having an apple on my desk, but close enough.

One last touch, I added some text on the black background.  Probably sending a little message about dreams, I picked pairs of words that resonated for me as I think of how I spend my time, old/young, now/later, self/others, give/take, past/present and fantasy/reality.

Put it all together and here is what you get.

So my wish for 2017?   Like everyone else, I struggle to find time to do all the things I should do, face challenges at work, be kind and caring towards my family and others, pay the bills, live a healthy lifestyle.

Your dreams might be a little silly....but yet they're not.  You have plenty of time to get to them...yet you might not.  Whatever your passion in life, find time in keep working on it!

The Making of "The Blue Max" Squad Photo

I have always been intrigued by this series of pictures of a group of German World War 1 pilots having a party.  I have not been able to find out much about the pictures other than the whole photo album was sold at auction some years ago.

I know for "The Blue Max Project" I want to have a mix of sketches and "faux" photographs to put in Rupp's journal and I was intrigued by the idea of trying to recreate a squad photo of the key characters in the book.  This effort will help with character development and create an aesthetic for what photographs look like in the sketchbook.   I decided to see if I could find enough of the right faces in these three photos to use.   There are so many characters in these photos, it didn't take long to get there.

Oberleutnant Karl-Heinz Kettering

Kettering was adjutant for the squad, and was responsible for introducing Bruno Stachel to the Jasta when he first arrived.  He was a tolerant and patient man who enjoyed making jokes and having a good time.

“the Jasta adjutant, was a  friar-bald, bell shaped man whose principal spare time interest was the collection of erotica…Kettering was a man of few pretensions, and if he had any notable characteristics in his make-up it was his willingness to accept the pretensions of others.”

Leutnant Ziegel - Mechanic

Ziegel was described as Jew with dark eyes and direct attitude.  He loved his aircraft more than the pilots who flew them and he wasn't afraid to show it.  A good friend of Kettering, they had long chats trying to figure out Bruno Stachel.

“He was a Bavarian, and as such he was direct”
“Ziegel opened his watering eyes.  His sobs were loud and dry.  “I’ve done it again.”
“Done what?”
“I’ve lost another of my machines.”

Hauptmann Otto Heidemann

He was a thoughtful and calculating. He had high standards and held his pilots to task.  He considered himself an excellent judge of character, but some felt his insight was flawed... that he couldn't see the forest for the trees. He was somewhat distracted from his role because he left behind Elfi a woman he loved dearly.  He was also the most accomplished and decorated ace in the squad.

“One of the toughest and smartest fixtures you’ll find in the Imperial Air Service, my boy.  I grant you he doesn’t look like much, being the skinny little runt he is, but he’s got an ironbound belly and a head full of real soldier-type brains.”

Leutnant Von Klugermann

This was a tough one.  The nephew of the Graf and Grafin, he was considered an overweight aristocrat and a bit of a stuffed shirt.  He flew with Stachel many times and was the one that witnessed some of his cruelest behavior.  He is the one who started calling him "The Cobra".  I couldn't find a good match for him so I used the image below of a German soldier from WW2.

“The fat aristocrat with the perpetual pout.”

Leutnant Bruno Stachel

Easily my best match, this pilot had that vacant look of a man who is both handsome and hard to read.  Stachel was a severely flawed character who could be both brutally cruel and at the same time racked with insecurity.  He was socially awkward but driven to achieve fame and fortune.  Some feel Jack Hunter based this character on some of the officers he dealt with while gathering up Nazi war criminals towards the end of World War 2.

”wide set gray eyes, his close cropped fair hair”
”In specifics, the young face had been composed and the voice restrained, and the body,  although alert and postured, had hinted an underlying grace and dynamic integration of muscle and nerve.  The whole, though, had presented an interesting double image.  This lad, he felt, carried with him an unspoken- and perhaps even unrecognized – fear.”

Posing the squad.

It took a lot of careful editing to get these five characters to sit together nicely (maybe the digital world is not that different than the real world!).  I had to edit out hands and arms, paste in parts of other tunics and objects to make it work.  Once I was reasonably satisfied I added more detail.  If you look closely I edited the shoulder patches to "77" to match the Jasta number identified in "The Blood Order" (the sequel to "The Blue Max").  I also added the Pour Le Merite and other badges to Heidemann's tunic since he was the Hauptmann of the Jasta and a decorated ace.  I pushed Stachel a little bit away from the other men.  He would have been very uncomfortable with being asked to pose for a picture and probably needed a drink or two in him before he would have even considered it.

I was pleased with the final pose.  The goal here was not to replicate a perfect photo, just to catch the mood of the original photos above.  Trying to keep in mind that this is more of a graphic novel than a historical recreation.

Building the background.

Jasta 77 was located a short walk from the farm town of Beauvin.  The "officer's mess" was located in a three story house in the middle of the village.  The house was previously owned by the factory manager.  Now I needed to build the room inside the house as a backdrop for the photo.

I knew I had to start with the portrait described below.

“Over the mantel, a bewhiskered and fierce looking old man glared out from the heavily framed oils that captured him at least a century before.  Some wag had used crayon to fit him out in flying helmet and goggles”

With that done I gathered the objects I thought I might need to complete the backdrop.  A vintage sofa, the hearth, some appropriate "trophies" to hang on the wall and the hooks to hang them on. It was good fun piecing them all together.

Here is the final composition (Photoshop is a wonderful thing!).

Making the photograph look old.

I had taken a stab at trying to turn some flight sim screen shots into vintage photos in the past. I converted everything to black and white, matched the colors, added grain and blur until it looked about right.  Still didn't look like a real photo.  The breakthrough was a technique described in "How to Cheat in Photoshop Elements" by David Asch & Steve Caplin.  It had been sitting on my shelf for a few years and I picked it up looking for some help on how to create a vintage photo.  The technique they described involved taking aged paper, scanning it and placing it as a layer both above and below the image and setting the blend mode to "hard light".  I can't explain exactly why it works but you get all the texture and the image too.  I had some Epson Photo Paper that I intended to print on, but instead I cut it to the same size as the digital image, crumpled it and folded it in places, than aged it with coffee.  I glued it to a sheet to scan it.  I was sloppy and some of the glue got on my fingers so it made some imperfections on the surface too. In the end those imperfections added a lot, so I will be sure to do it on purpose next time!

And finally......

Once I had it pulled together,  I played around with light levels and saturation until it looked right.  I added a few of the flight sim screen shots too and gave them the same treatment.

Click above to see a higher resolution version.

Click above to see a higher resolution version.

"I am a piano player, but yet I'm not. I am a painter, yet I'm not.  I am a novelist, but I am still working on it." 

This is my favorite Jack Hunter quote.  

For "Rupp's Skizzenbuch" to work it needs to be a mix of journal writing, sketching and photographs.   Regarding the aesthetic of the journal, the photography was one of the last pieces of the puzzle.

Now it's about investing the time and telling the story to see where the story takes me as a writer, an artist, a photographer and as a person.  The first three I am and I am not.  The last one I am still working on.

PS: I have updated the credits to include any images used here....see the "About" section.









The Isle of Lewis and the Great War

The Blue Max Project is still alive, just in hibernation while my wife and I spent a good part of our summer on a trip to Scotland.  Part of that trip took us to the Isle of Lewis, located at the far northwest corner of the Scottish Highlands.  In the port town of Stornoway I started up a conversation with a fishmonger in his shop.  Once he knew I was from the United States the conversation became political, talking about our elections and Donald Trump (who has cousins that live on the island).  I asked him his opinion about Brexit and got this quick response;

“Brexit?  Here’s what I think about Brexit.  There are a lot of dead Scotsman buried in the Fields of Flanders....and what did Europe do for us….nuthin!!”

Now if you can put the politics of that statement aside for a moment ( believe me there are plenty of Scottish people who voted to stay in the European Union) what stunned me about this statement was a 35 year old man speaking so passionately about the Great War.  I could visit a thousand butcher shops in California and talk politics until I was blue in the face and very unlikely that anyone I talked with would bring up World War 1 with such passion.   I didn’t know the Island’s history, but the rest of our visit made it very clear how personal the effects of the war were on these islanders.  I thought I would share with you some of the things I saw during the visit.

Along the northern coast, Lewis is green but barren, very few trees, with narrow roads that rise and fall through a series of small villages.  Most of the town signs are in Gaelic with an English translation below, names like Siadar and Aird Dhail.  After a mile or so you are on to the next town.  Almost every town of any size had a war memorial like this.  I am sure I saw at least five or six of them during our drive to Port Nis.

Photo courtesy of Bob Embleton on Wicki Commons

Photo courtesy of Bob Embleton on Wicki Commons

A shop owner explained to us that the community commemorated the centennial of the Great War by placing wreaths on their doors of homes where families had lost a relative in the war. She said it was humbling to see how many wreaths there were in their community. Afterwards they brought the wreaths to their towns memorials.  The memorials list the Lewismen who died during the war.  She mentioned that there was a small war museum at the Comunn Eachdraidh Nis ( their local community center) and my wife and I paid a visit.  
The mural on the side of the building made it clear what it was all about.

Inside was a small cafe. They had turned the dining area into a World War 1 exhibition.  It was a very personal display of artifacts, medals, documents and artwork by current residents. Each poppy painted on the wall had a serviceman's name next to it and the date he died during the war.

A local artist Dr. Margaret Ferguson was commissioned to do a single painting for the display, but produced ten portraits of soldiers like this one.  Her work is moving, the eyes of her subjects are piercing.

Here is an example of one of the medal sets on display.  The large copper medallion was referred to as the "dead penny" because it was what the family received if they lost a husband or son.  It has the soldiers name engraved on it.

This display was more of community effort more than a museum but it was full of heart and care. If you travel to the south east end of the island in the town of Stornoway there is a much more formal display.  The  War Memorial is located on the top of a 300 foot rise in the center of town.  There are long views of the island in all directions from this vantage point.  

The memorial takes the form of a Scottish Baronial tower.  The island started raising funds for the tower in 1920 and it was complete in 1924.  It had a central spiral staircase and four chambers with windows.  The windows in each chamber were oriented towards a single parish of the four main parishes of Lewis.  Bronze plaques were installed inside the chamber naming all the fallen Lewismen from their community.  Eventually moisture and rust forced the tower to be closed and the plaques were moved out into the stone circle you see in the foreground.
Close up the monument is impressive.

To understand the impact of this war on Lewis you have to look at some statistics.  The island population was around 29,000 in 1914 and 6,712 men enlisted.  Of those 6,712 enlisted 1,151 men died during the war.  That ratio was double the rate that occurred for the rest of the British Isles.  As if these losses were not enough,  in 1919 a ship returning sailors home from the war struck the Beasts of Holm,  a rock outcropping at the port of Stornoway.  This is the same port our ferry left from.  174 men drowned within eyesight of home after returning from the war.

The plaques themselves are sobering, names are listed alphabetically and for such a small community clearly you had brothers, sons and cousins that all knew each other.  This was one of several plaques for the parish of Uig.

While I was at the small museum I was looking at this medal display about Donald MacLeod.

It caught my eye because this young man died some 8 years after returning home,  He never fully recovering from being sprayed with chlorine gas.  My wife’s  grandfather served with the 7th Battalion of the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders and we was also gassed during the war and he told me about it the first time I met him in the simple direct language of a native born Scotsman.... "Awful stuff." he said.  While I was looking at the display a mom came up with her young son and said "See those medals?  Those were earned by the great uncle of the man's house we are staying at." 

All this combined with the comments by the man at the fish shop made me realize that on Lewis the Great War is not about history, it is real and personal.  They lost a generation of men in their community and they still grieve. They also paint and teach and get angry and remember.  

As a foreigner visiting their community they helped me remember too and that was a gift I had not expected to receive during this trip.


Part 2 - Last Letter Home

Part 2 "Letters Home" From the Lafayette Flying Corps  

Click here to read Part 1

This is not the blog I intended to write.

I had some ideas for the blog that involved some artwork from the era and this book, but I thought I ought to finish reading the book first.  I have been working extra hours lately, so it sat on my bed stand for a long time.  Most nights I fell asleep after reading just a few paragraphs.  Finally I accepted that it is a book of letters and I might as well read them one letter at a time.  The letters are written by Alan H. Nichols, a college student from Stanford University in California who volunteered to serve in France in February of 1917.  Reading it this way had greater impact on me than I expected.

Spoiler Alert...he dies after serving overseas for sixteen months.

I am not being flippant about this.  The book begins with his obituary from a Palo Alto newspaper, so from the outset you know that he does not survive. Considering that a fighter pilot's life expectancy was measured in weeks not months during World War I in some ways it is surprising that he lasted so long.

 Click here to read his obituary

This is not one of those autobiography's written by a WWI pilot some twenty years later, his stories fine-tuned over the years, taking the reader on a visceral roller coaster ride complete with ripped canvas flapping and lewis guns blasting.

No.... this is much more real.  Letter by letter you follow his journey, seeing history through one man's eyes. In the back of your mind you know the clock is ticking. 

The book begins in February of 1917 and is divided into five parts.

Taking Leave  ( 2 months of travel to get from San Francisco to France ). February to March the letters are all about patriotism and adventure as this twenty year old first travels across the United States and then the Atlantic Ocean on his way to France. Chatty notes about the food, the scenery and snowball fights by the side of the train.

At the Front ( 4 months in the American Field Service on an ambulance crew ). When he arrives in France at first he feels like a celebrity, greeted with cheers by French nationals thrilled to see the US finally joining the fight. Those highs are balanced with long periods of boredom and eventually, the realities of war. He describes giving a man a ride in the morning on his way to the Front, only to transport him back, bleeding and broken, to the hospital at the end of the day.  He monitors news from the States, wondering when his country will formally enter the war.  When it finally happens he is embarrassed to not be more actively fighting for his country.

"Any French ambulancer is either a disabled man or one physically unfit - because all others are fighting.  Now the French soldiers, since the United States is in the war, can't help thinking of us except in much the same light, even if they don't say so.  All this praise and speech making about us makes me positively ashamed of myself."

In June he goes for a ride with a pilot just outside of Paris and is thrilled by the experience.  He is sure the voices are calling him to the skies.  His writes a long letter to his parents and tries to explain to his family how there is such a demand for pilots that he can join the Franco-American forces and get trained to fly immediately.  He is assured that the forces will eventually be taken over by the United States Army.  He tries to convince his family that this service is no more risky than any other.

"I can see no reason why a conservative pilot who doesn't try to pull off any stunts or get drunk before flying and all that sort of thing shouldn't come thru in flying colors."

To Fly ( 3 months of training to become a pilot ). In July he heads to Avord for training.  He describes his training in great detail over the next four months.  I will post more about that later but in October he was "brevetted", earned his wings and became a corporal in the French Army. He was one of some 209 American pilots who were members of the Lafayette Flying Core.  This was the name given to American pilots who served in the French Aviation Service. When the US entered the war, some pilots transferred back into the United States Air Service, but a number chose to stay with the French, including Alan.

Chasse Pilot Training ( 2 months of training to become a chasse pilot ).  In French to "chasse" is to hunt.  Now that Alan's initial training is complete, he trains to be a fighter pilot.  He is flying Nieuports and learning how to shoot a machine gun and how to survive a vrille (a "corkscrew" or spin ). His brother Jack is also overseas and trying to decide where he can serve.  Alan's zeal for the war has become more pragmatic and he tries to advise his brother to go back home.

"I'm going to do my best to advise Jack to go home.  At least that's the way I feel now.  He's only 19.  There are stacks of men here for aviation, many of them waiting, at their own expense to be sent to Tours.....If the younger men are needed they'll be much more valuable later than now."  

He writes about what he might do after the war.  He realizes he is almost 21 years old now with no training.  A banker, an engineer, a newspaper man, forestry, aviation, the automobile industry, he runs through the options in his letter.  He even foreshadows something he may have gotten to see if he had survived the war.

"I think if an expedition to the moon is organized I'll join.  I never in my life have felt more at sea, the first real opportunity that offers itself in some line will decide my whole life - unless something else does before then."

Something else does come up....and by Christmas his chasse training is complete and he is assigned to Escadrille No. 98 and moved to the Front. 

Chasse Pilot ( 6 months on the front ).  So this is where the aviation adventure starts right? Not exactly. The pages on the calendar for January, February and March peel off and fall to the floor. Days are filled with bad weather, boredom, moving from place to place at a moment's notice.  As spring begins the weather clears and he starts flying more regularly. Close calls, flashes of enemy planes, opportunity and jammed guns at the crucial moment.  The letters get shorter with bigger gaps between them.  You can feel he is getting tired and frustrated.  He wonders if he will ever be back with "the boys in tan".  In the end he chooses to stay with the French because he feels he will see more active duty there.  He so wants to "get his first Boche".  Finally in mid-May he gets into a dogfight by himself with an Albatros at high altitude.

"We started around in flat circles, but neither could get behind each other.  Somebody had to break, and it was he. He drove straight away, turned and came head on, a trifle above me.  I saw his luminous bullets passing overhead, as he had an enormous correction to make to allow for our speeds.  To avoid running into me he had to redress and pass over my head, and all I had to do was pull up and pump the lead into the underside of the body."

He describes the entire dogfight in great detail in a letter to his brother Jack dated May 17th.   On May 18th he writes an identical letter to his Mom and Dad and ends with this.

"As a result of this, I will someday sport a nice Croix de Guerre with palm - an Army citation, which is the reward for a Boche brought down single handed.  I only hope to high heaven I don't wake up now and find it isn't true.  If it's a dream, it is certainly a vivid one!" 

This was the last letter he wrote.  On June 1st he was patrolling between Compiegne and Soissons and was separated from his squad.  He was injured while dogfighting with a German two seater. He managed to land the plane in a field near the town of Verrines just south of the Forest of Compiegne and was carried three miles to the hospital.  He was alert and calm.  He had been shot in the back and the hospital was overwhelmed with the injured.  He died on June 4, 1918.

So sure, I should have seen this coming, however......

More letters from friends, nurses and squad mates.  They struggled to get his personal effects and photo collection back to his family.  In their letters they try to help his family understand and accept that there son was gone by sharing what few details they have about his death.  His brother Jack was in France when he got the news, sitting on a bench, reading the mail he had just picked up the Red Cross Headquarters.

"With a stopped heart I read the first few lines, that my brother had been wounded in the abdomen by a bullet, had landed his plane and been carried to the hospital.  My first thought was that now he would have a chance to go home and recover.

The next page revealed the simple, terrible truth...

Bottomless grief, black despair, utter darkness, welled up in me - crushing and overwhelming in its weight."

So night by night, letter by letter I had followed this young pilot on his journey.  I could see the pages dwindling and knew the story was almost over.  For those last few letters, I was quite awake and had found a quiet spot in my home so I could read them slowly and carefully.  

I was on the brink of tears, but the last letter....that's the one that did me in.  

I had not expected it. It was written in 1992, almost 75 years after his death and it was written by another Alan H Nichols.  This was Jack's son, Alan's nephew and he wrote this letter after reading the collection of letters that made up this book.  He sent the letter to his deceased uncle care of the Memorial de l'Escadrille Lafayette.

The last letter is a letter of hope.  

His nephew explains how his uncle shaped his life, even after his death. He still lives in the area and is an accomplished lawyer, writer and traveller.  His uncle never made it to the moon, but his short life had a lasting impact on his nephew and the world around him.

(This letter is from "Letters Home" Copyright © 1993 by Nancy Ann Nichols)




How the Kaiser helped me build a Book Plate

Sometimes my project takes me to strange places.  

My goal was to develop a book plate for the front of Rupp's Skizzenbuch.  I had a mental image of a pair of columns with a German and English soldier trying to attack each other.  I consider Rupp a bit of a doodler and wanted it to be creative.  I was also searching for images that someone who was artistic might reference from the era he lived in. 

I started searching for historical images and immediately found some good sources.  In the 1890's as part of national art competition the National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument was built to honor Kaiser Wilhelm I in Berlin.  His grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II was actively involved in the development and you can read more about it in Wikipedia. 

National Kaiser Wilhelm Monument

The monument was torn down in 1949 by the GDR (German Democratic Republic).  The base still exists and apparently there is a ladder down to an underground vault where daring artists sometimes place their work.  I ran into this amazing image that was just what I needed for the top of my book plate

The next thing I need are the columns.  I searched under German Monuments / German Columns and the Altar of Pergamon in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin popped up.  The altar, sometimes called the Altar of Zeus was discovered by a German Engineer, Carl Humann in 1878.  Germany negotiated with Turkey for the rights to the artifacts and it was transported to Berlin.  A museum was built to house it in 1901 and was rebuilt in the 1930's.  The Pergamon Museum is still active, but it sounds like this display is currently closed while the room housing it is rebuilt.  Here is the wicki link.

Pergamon Altar

The base of the altar depicts the Giants battle with the Olympian Gods (seems appropriate!).  I found this drawn image of the columns and used them to create the structural frame of my Book Plate.

So next I needed the actual soldiers.  I found multiple images and pieced together mock ups in Photoshop.  This is a bit like animation in Monte Python, simple copy and paste of arms,  legs and bodies in the right position.  I pulled from about four different images.  I want to make sure I credit Paul Thompson's copywrited image below.  You can see more of his wonderful creations at

I expecially liked the image of the German soldier throwing the fish....easy to switch out the fish for the hand grenade ( although I was tempted to keep the fish)

So when you put them all together you get an image like this.

Now this is just a source to sketch over.  I took this image out of Photoshop and into Sketchbook Pro.  The goal is just to create a "light line" source that I can ink over so that it looks like a sketch by Rupp.  Here is how the final source drawing looks.

So I will print this very lightly on cardstock, age with tea or coffee and ink on top to create the Book Plate. I won't share the final version in the blog ( need to save something for the final), but thought you might enjoy seeing the process I go through. 

Thanks for the help Kaiser!