World War II pilot sculpts lifesize monument to recognize fallen airmen

Photo courtesy of LestWeForget.org | Three figures from World War II veteran Fredric Arnold's "Lest We Forget" sculptural monument stand in clay before they are cast into bronze.

Twelve lifesize sculptures stand before a map in a briefing room. The figures are airmen, and their faces emphasize their youth. Each has his own story. This 20-by-22-foot monument, "Lest We Forget: The Mission," will be exhibited in the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and honors the more than 88,000 airmen who died during that war.

The monument was conceptualized and created by a 93-year-old WWII veteran and artist, Fredric Arnold. This Veterans Day, 70 years after the end of WWII, he nears the artwork's completion.

Making and displaying this masterwork, Fredric, once a Army Air Corps fighter pilot, is fulfilling the deathbed wish of a friend, fellow P-38 fighter pilot James Hagenback, to commemorate their comrades who died.

Fredric and Hagenback were the only two from their original flight-training group of 14 to survive the war. The other 12 men were: Alden Freng, Arthur Franke, Benjamin Liss, Bob Fisher, Clayton Lamb, Hobart Lamar, James Hamm, John Garcia, Marion Van Arsdell, Paul Lehocky, Robert Anderson and Robert Delp.

Airmen had the dubious distinction of hazardous work. Fredric recalled a visit from Gen. Jimmy Doolittle during which he reminded the men they were "100 percent expendable." Fredric, then a squadron leader, was shocked.

"I thought 'What's gonna happen to the morale?'" he said. "As it turned out, amazingly. . . it was wonderful! When you know that you're dead and you've got only a job to do, that's all that you're concerned about. I think that the seconds involved were very important in saving lives."

Fredric, who'd worked as a commercial artist before the war, used those skills to help save lives. In detailed ink-and-wash paintings, he illustrated fatal errors so pilots could avoid them.

But Fredric was not immune to burnout. After his 49th mission, Fredric said he felt "worn out."

"I wanted so badly to not do any more killing," he said.

At about that time, he said he was pulled into headquarters to speak with a general. Someone had passed along his ink-and-wash paintings.

"[The general] said, 'You did all these drawings?' . . . He said, 'What is this man doing being a fighter pilot for God's sake? He can get killed, and his talent is more important.' I said, 'I agree with you, General,'" Fredric said, laughing.

But talent wasn't the only thing protecting Fredric.

Marc Arnold, Fredric's son, said for public relations reasons, the military needed men to make it to 50 flights "to prove that it was possible.”

To make certain this would happen, Fredric said they sent him as a third spare for his final fighter pilot mission, which took place July 26, 1943.

Though they made it home safely, Fredric and Hagenback were still followed by the memory of airmen lost.

"They stayed in close contact, and they always felt a real debt of gratitude to the 12 who died because it really was mostly luck that resulted in their surviving," Marc said.

"We weren't any better than anybody else. That was foolish to think that," Fredric said.

"They felt a real kinship to those 12, and whenever they got together they would reminisce about the guys," Marc said. "They made a vow to each other that after one of them died, the last guy standing would do something to honor the other 12."

Decades later, Hagenback fell ill, and Fredric received a telephone call.

"His wife called me. . . . She said, 'Jim is dying and he wants to see you, can you come?' So my wife and I jumped into the car," Fredric said.

"Jim reminded him, 'You remember our vow? Now it's down to you,'" Marc said.

The fulfillment of that promise, made more than a decade ago, began to take form about five years ago. Passing by a series of vignettes he'd painted onto the original maps from the squadron's briefing room in North Africa (given to him as a going-away present), Fredric was struck by one that showed the pilots in a mission briefing.

"You don't see aeroplanes or any of that stuff," Fredric said.

"It wasn't about the aircraft or the tactics or anything like that. It was really about the men and the quiet courage that it took each day to leave the safety of the base and fly into combat," Marc said.

Fredric dove into his next project. It began with a maquette, essentially a small-scale model, of the vignette. This took several years.

Next came the task of translating the desktop model into 3,000 pounds of clay. For this, Fredric found an assistant, artist Sutton Betti, to help carve and mold the men, each about 250 pounds. Enlargement, completed in 2015, took about two years.

"My favorite part was getting the faces to each one in a way to commemorate and really know his feelings and what each of those 12 were thinking and the intensity that they had about the work and what we were doing," Fredric said. "I found that to be very important, and I enjoyed showing it. I could see it in my mind's eye and I knew that I was on the right track. I knew that I had the right thing."

Though the number 12 is significant, the figures are not exact likenesses nor do they represent the particular men of Fredric and Hagenback's squadron. Fredric said he avoided this because he didn't want to cause the families of the men further heartache.

This means instead, the figures received archetypal names--"Teenager," "Good-Lookin'," "Frenchy" and so on--and Fredric composed stories that were representative of how airmen served and died for each. Because the focus is on the people, rather than the mechanics, the National WWII Museum is a good fit, Fredric said.

The clay sculptures will be cast in bronze, and if everything goes according to plan, the monument will be on display in the National WWII Museum by the end of 2016.

"That is our goal, and that is Dad's goal and once it is finally put on display there, his vow will have been fulfilled," Marc said.

When visitors see the monument, Marc said they'll likely be struck by the vision of youth.

"It's a very emotional thing, and it's not just me," Marc said. "People who sit and study the sculptures in lifesize are astonished. They see how young these guys were. The WWII movies following the war were portrayed by big-name actors, and they were not 19, 20 years old. You had John Wayne as the guy in the cockpit. Those many movies may have obscured the fact that the guys doing this were 19, 20 and 21 years old."

For Fredric, the scale represents something that is hard to fathom--"the physical losses, the cost of war."

"It's not glorification. Hollywood used to get me so angry I couldn't go to a movie where it was so ridiculous compared to the truth. That's what my work has—to tell the truth," he said.

For learn more about the monument, visit www.LestWeForgetSculpture.org.