War Sculptor

A copper-plumed hen struts through an open side door and into the sculptor’s studio. Oblivious, as chickens usually are, she bobs along the concrete floor, under the frozen gaze of a cigar-chomping 8-foot World War I doughboy. Hanging from a chain hoist is the torso of a one-armed soldier rescuing another from a battlefield somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan. The hen meanders beneath their anguished faces, along with those of a Civil War private and a World War II sailor, both awaiting limbs. On the workbench, a slope-shouldered infantryman from the Battle of Ia Drang – a bronze figure called “The Face of War” – hugs his knees and his M14, permanently staring 1,000 yards beyond the welding compressor, green Valvoline Oil sign and cast-iron stove. Upon the stove rests a human skull.

This is Douwe Blumberg’s war room. Part machine shop, part art studio, it’s perched in the green hills of northern Kentucky somewhere between Cincinnati and Lexington.

The story of how Douwe (pronounced “Dow”) got to this place and what he’s doing here is as complex as the six-month assignment he fulfilled in 2011 to sculpt, cast, deliver and install in New York City a 16-foot statue of a U.S. Special Forces soldier on a half-wild Afghan horse, just in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. 

“I said, ‘You know, it’s not possible,’” Blumberg recalls of the assignment he was offered by a group of Wall Street bankers who had lost friends in the terrorist attacks. “‘Even if I wasn’t doing anything else, it can’t be done,’” he says he told them. “‘Just sculpting it would take a year.’

“They said, ‘We don’t like to hear that. We have to have it to lead the 11/11/11 New York City Veterans Day Parade. We want it to be the lead element in this parade and put it on Ground Zero in six months.’”

“I said, ‘I am sorry. There is no one who wants to do this more than me, but it’s not possible.’” 

Blumberg’s complicated journey to northern Kentucky can be traced to World War II Holland. His mother, Marika Bothlingk, was the daughter of parents who hid a Jewish family in their Arnhem home during the Nazi occupation. The arrangement lasted about six months before the Gestapo found out. The Germans sent Blumberg’s grandfather to the concentration camp at Dachau, where he died. The Jewish family also disappeared during the Holocaust. Prior to that arrest and capture, as tensions mounted and bombs fell across occupied Europe, Marika and her mother had taken refuge in the countryside. When they returned to the battered city, their family’s patriarch was gone.

 “I grew up without a grandpa because of the Nazis,” Blumberg explains. “And my father and his two brothers served in World War II. I grew up with that all around me.” His family’s place in the big war planted in Blumberg a curiosity that would grow into a lifelong interest in military history.

After World War II, his grieving mother wandered Europe until friends in the United States offered her a place to go – Los Angeles – and a job as a seamstress. There, she met and married Irving Blumberg, a U.S. Navy veteran and schoolteacher. Both were amateur artists, and they raised their family in a TV-free home, embracing history, education, the arts and a physically active lifestyle.

Blumberg’s long road to Kentucky would pass through Beverly Hills High School, where he learned from a tattooed World War II Navy veteran named Al Spencer how to work with metal and make jewelry.  “He was very disciplined, and I was very interested,” Blumberg says. “I loved how multifaceted he was. As a machinist’s mate, he had to be able to make anything on that boat. And he could. He could do anything. So I learned to weld. I learned to cast. I learned to make molds. I did jewelry, but all my jewelry was very sculptural.”

He was good at it, went to art camps at the University of Southern California to hone his skills and won several awards. But his mother, who grew up riding horses in Holland, had also been taking him to Saturday riding lessons since he was a young boy. Blumberg’s budding talent in sculpture was suspended as horses seized his interests.
“I started hanging out in the barn and became an assistant trainer when I was like 15. I loved it. And I never stopped. I gave lessons and broke colts.”

Along his journey, Blumberg would detour through the stables and stalls of southern California, immersing himself in the equine industry, eventually acquiring a stable and training operation of his own. 

One day, a woman showed up and announced that she was a sculptor, commissioned to do a bronze of a horse in Blumberg’s stables. As she worked at the stall, he watched intently, remembering what he had learned from Spencer. He thought to himself, “I could do that.” 

So he began making bronze sculptures of horses. “People started commissioning me,” he says. “I did it on the side for about 10 years.” Eventually, he realized he was making a better income sculpting horses than feeding and training them. 

Things happened quickly after he sold the horse business and became a full-time artist. His first marriage ended, and he was suddenly a single parent supporting a family on his sculpting, which was gaining national attention. Among his clients was – and still is – horse-owning TV star William Shatner. Larger, more public projects started to come his way. Flocks of his sculpted birds began to take flight in Los Angeles, Colorado and Florida. A life-size herd of his wild horses was installed in Aurora, Colo. He sculpted an entryway for Vance Brand Airport in Longmont, Colo., and produced three pieces for the royal residence in Dubai. With a steady flow of work, he was able to leave California, build a home and studio in the heart of Kentucky horse country, marry again, raise his family and, time permitting, indulge his love of military history.

About a year after he settled there, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed everything.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Blumberg was at the Los Angeles International Airport, while several of his sculptures were in a truck heading to an art show in Chicago. “They closed the airport. No one was flying anywhere. So I went to stay with friends.”

He soaked up news coverage of the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. “I can’t say that I was surprised,” he recalls. “I have been a military history buff all my life, and being half Jewish, I was very aware of what was happening in Israel, very aware of the hatred that’s out there. I was surprised that it hadn’t happened yet.”

The story played out: global response to the attacks, al-Qaida’s admission of responsibility, America’s vow to hunt down Osama bin Laden and use force against regimes that harbor terrorists, and the deployment of U.S. special operations to northern Afghanistan to root out the enemy. When then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared on television holding a blurry photo of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers fighting on horseback in the earliest stages of the war on terrorism, Blumberg was riveted.

“Being a military history nut, an ex-horseman and a patriot, I was just blown away by the image of this 21st-century high-tech soldier on what could have been a 15th-century Afghan horse. It was iconic and ironic at the same time, on so many levels. First, the adaptability of these guys – they weren’t trained on horseback. They just climbed up and went … the first Americans to ride into combat on horses in over 50 years. So I see this picture and said, ‘I have to do this.’”

Not yet remarried, the single dad would put his daughters to bed at night and “start sculpting until 1 or 2 in the morning. At that time, Americans didn’t know what ‘special ops’ even meant. I did what research I could as a civilian and sculpted this 1:6 scale Green Beret on a horse. I knew horses really well. I was able to research the type of breeds they used and the tack they used. But nobody knew a lot about what our Special Forces looked like.”

In 2002, Blumberg rented a booth at an art show in Louisville and brought the initial horse-soldier sculpture, a work in progress, along with him. A Vietnam War veteran in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops sat down and watched him work. The man, who had his own booth selling sunglasses, mentioned that he had been a Green Beret. “I’m like, ‘You don’t look like a Green Beret.’ Anyway, I wrote him off.”

The next day, Lt. Col. Frank Hudson from the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell called Blumberg. “He says, ‘Joe told me about this thing you are working on. Those are my guys you are sculpting, and they just got back from that mission.’” Astonished, Blumberg sent some pictures to the lieutenant colonel.

“Douwe, quite frankly, had a lot of things wrong with the statue,” remembers Hudson, now retired from the Army and chief of the Special Forces Doctrine Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. “He had the guy wearing, as I recall, a regular Kevlar helmet. He had what looked like an M16, an A1 or A2. He had him wearing conventional-style web gear.”

Blumberg traveled to Fort Campbell and met some of the men who had just returned from Afghanistan, including Capt. Mark Nutsch, commander of ODA-595, one of Task Force Dagger’s A Teams. Nutsch and his team rode horseback throughout their mission of unconventional warfare, working alongside various resistance leaders who were fighting al-Qaida and Taliban forces long before 9/11. 

Nutsch looked at Blumberg’s sculpture and immediately formed an opinion. “It was completely inaccurate. It was incredibly detailed – a beautiful sculpture – but that initial statue was a docile horse with all four legs on the ground. The rider was wearing full body armor and carrying an M16 rifle. We did not wear body armor pretty much the entire duration of the three-month mission.”

Nutsch, raised on a Kansas cattle ranch not far from Fort Riley (home of the U.S. Cavalry Museum) and a college rodeo calf roper before joining the Army, assessed the statue one feature at a time. Discussion of horse, saddle and tack led to a critique of the soldier, uniform, weapons and gear. 

“I had gone down there thinking this piece is finished, and I don’t need a lot more help,” Blumberg says. “I was so wrong. When they started pointing stuff out to me, and I was totally open to changing it, they realized that it was important to me to do this correctly. They started opening lockers and bringing out gear. They kept talking and talking. We were talking about the tack. (Capt. Nutsch) goes in the back room and comes back dragging a rubber body bag. He unzips it, and this smell comes out. He brings out all this indigenous tack. It was smelly – native fibers, sweat-soaked and dried, made out of dried sinew. He said, ‘This is what we rode in. This was a gift from the warlord to me. This is the watch I wore. And we’d layer our gear, and if we had to get off the horse we could dump the first layer, and the last layer was survival stuff if the shit hit the fan.’

“I got their phone numbers, and that was the beginning of a partnership. I was a phone call away from the dudes who had been there. So I went home and did a three-month re-sculpt.”

“There was a lot of back and forth between Douwe and the team,” Hudson says of those days. “I don’t know how many little tweaks he did to it, but he finally got an accurate depiction of the horse soldier. He was really willing to work with us to get it right.”

Ultimately, Blumberg got it right because the figure “signified adaptability and flexibility,” Nutsch says. Such characteristics were essential for U.S. Special Forces and the Northern Alliance to liberate six Afghanistan provinces of al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the months following 9/11. 

“I don’t partake of the arts much,” Nutsch says. “But I wanted to help Douwe tell the story.”

“Other military people look at these things and can spot mistakes in an instant,” Hudson says.
“I had an interesting experience once at the Wall in D.C. There was a group of Marines standing around this statue. One was blind. He kind of got up into the statue and was running his hands along it, and I was just watching him. He felt the bandolier the guy was carrying and he said, ‘We didn’t do it like this.’ The projectile is facing inward on that statue. He goes, ‘We always carried it with the primers facing inward, so when we hit the ground dirt wouldn’t get in the primer.’ It’s that level of detail people look at.”

After the soldiers approved the new piece, Blumberg cast 120 for sale to the public and another 120 to be sold at cost to members of the Special Forces. He then started getting calls from Vietnam Green Berets, elite soldiers from the Panama era and Desert Storm, and even some French and Ukrainian veterans who had fought alongside U.S. special operators. “They started inviting me to their reunions.”

Eight years later, Blumberg learned of a project to design and build a massive veterans memorial in Las Vegas, perhaps the largest of its kind in the West. He submitted a plan, made a personal presentation and was selected. His vision was to assemble 18 statues of figures representing different war eras in U.S. history, along with a family on the homefront (the elder male depicted in the cap of a veterans service organization), all surrounding a dramatic post-9/11 battlefield rescue.

The statuary would be set on a 2-acre plaza hemmed together by granite walls upon which would be etched inspirational quotes about military service. The monument would not be an abstract interpretation, nor would it depict the rock-ribbed American war hero. Each figure – Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and others – would have a human face and posture, adorned with well-researched uniforms, gear and weapons. 

Blumberg says he believes the memorial in Las Vegas will be appreciated by veterans in part because it was accomplished by veterans, not a government-appointed committee. “What was cool about this project is that it was started by some Special Forces dudes and a recon Marine,” he says. “They got the funding – real dudes who have been there. They went through hundreds of artists from all around the world. They chose five finalists. We all went to Vegas, did our interviews, and I got the job. There were two things that grabbed them: they saw a piece I had done long ago, just for myself, and they liked it; and they said to me, ‘The main reason you got it is because you get it.’”

Meanwhile, Blumberg had heard there was interest in converting his 18-inch horse soldier bronze into something much bigger. He took phone calls asking what such an enlargement would cost. He would quote figures, and months would go by. This went on for over three years, and he started the Las Vegas project. He was working on it when the call came from New York: “We’d like to fly you out and meet with you about your horse soldier statue. We’d like to talk about doing it large.”

They wanted a 16-foot version, and they wanted it done in six months, in time to lead the 2011 Veterans Day Parade. To accomplish such a feat, Blumberg would need to physically move to the foundry in Oklahoma that casts his sculptures into metal, and work there, to reduce transportation time. He would need to ask for a hiatus from the Las Vegas project, which he had just started. He and his wife, Marci, were hosting two Latvian orphans for the summer, and he would need to leave her for days at a time to manage that responsibility without him. He also needed help from another professional sculptor who, it just so happened, was available. To transport and install such a monument would require help from police, utility and transportation officials in New York, and he honestly wondered what kind of reception a weapon-wielding horseback soldier would receive at the scene of the deadliest attack on America since Pearl Harbor. It took a crane just to get the statue off the trailer. “It was absolutely nuts,” Blumberg says. “There was no time to waste. There was not a single minute for a mistake or a disaster to occur.”

Six months later, Blumberg and the finished statue were rolling down Broadway, en route to a ceremony and temporary installation near the site of the attacks. Among those summoned to help get the statue there was a group of New York City ironworkers who had helped to build the World Trade Center in the early 1970s and, after the attacks, helped demolish its ruins. Incorporated into the figure was a piece of iron from the fallen towers, which had been sent to Blumberg by the New York Port Authority. 

“It’s sticking out of the base so people can touch it and feel it,” he explains, adding that Special Forces soldiers actually carried pieces of the World Trade Center during their deployments to Afghanistan, burying them at various locations as they hunted terrorists in late 2001.

“The official name is ‘America’s Response Monument,’ and it’s to honor U.S. special operations – not just Green Berets – America’s response to 9/11. That was Task Force Dagger.”

Exhausted, but with his six-month mission complete, Blumberg returned to Kentucky and resumed work on the Las Vegas Veterans Memorial, now nearly complete.

“My basic concept was to create something that was national in scope and scale, not a memorial to a specific era or conflict,” he says. “I wanted to create something for all veterans ... to honor the veteran experience, service and sacrifice, regardless of time. All veterans deserve the same respect. I wanted to pierce through history somehow, to show that there is a continuity of commitment by veterans and their families throughout time. I wanted to show that service in the Revolutionary War was similar to service in World War I, which is similar to service now. Men and women heed the call. They leave their homes. They go away. They do all the things that veterans do, and they come home and put their lives together, and they raise the next generation who will hopefully step up to secure our freedoms. I wanted to try to show that.”

The figures, to be arranged chronologically in a semicircle on state-owned property on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, are 7 to 8 feet tall and “cast in a silver material, so they have this rather ghost-like presence,” Blumberg says. “They are supposed to be looking through time. Their gaze intersects at the center of the plaza where there is a modern vignette from today’s era, four figures who are sculpted in bronze and very tightly, whereas the others are sculpted very loosely. It’s a rescue scene. There’s a guy helping another guy off the field. And there’s a female chopper crew chief assisting. There’s a special operator who is covering them. And all the veterans of the past are watching, basically, the creation of the next generation of veterans who will, in time, join them.”

Ground was broken last fall, and the memorial is scheduled to be dedicated in May. 

In October, The American Legion National Executive Committee passed a resolution commending the Las Vegas Veterans Memorial, describing it as “national in scope” and recognizing that it “conveys a message of honor, remembrance and the timeless common bond of military service.” Blumberg brought one of the figures – the World War I doughboy – to American Legion National Headquarters in Indianapolis and displayed it in the lobby during the National Executive Committee’s Fall Meetings.

“We wanted to build a multigenerational memorial,” says Scott Tiano, a post-9/11 Marine Corps veteran and executive director of the
$2.2 million project. “We wanted it to really display a common bond of service from one generation to the next. We wanted it to be a place of healing and reflection for our veterans. It’s not only a memorial for us as veterans, but it’s also a memorial for all.”

Tiano is enthusiastic about the educational value of the plaza for young people. “Kids can walk through 200 years of history and see how uniforms change, how weapons change, over time,” he says.

That was one of Blumberg’s highest priorities. “It’s like traveling through time. I wanted there to be a large educational component because current generations don’t understand what our history is about, and they should. There’s a plaque by each figure that explains where each came from. We are surrounding people with time, with history. I’m hoping it will affect them. I also wanted to create a place our veterans could go to and relate to. I wanted it be something they would get and find interesting. I think we need to respect veterans in the conceptions of our monuments. When we leave them out of consideration, because we have all our art degrees and letters after our names, we’re disrespecting the very people we are supposed to be honoring. It’s a great responsibility, I think, to do them justice.” 

 

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.