Stormtroopers: deadly shock troops of the Emperor. Heartless, fearless, tenacious soldiers of unwavering loyalty who crush the enemies of the Galactic Empire. This archive commemorates the greatest of all Stormtrooper units: the legendary Fighting 501st Squad, known as 'Vader's Hand'. Commissioned after the fall of the Old Republic, the 501st distinguished itself in hunting down and destroying scores of Rebel cells and outposts. Their accomplishments won the attention of the Emperor's right-hand man, Lord Vader, who made them his personal guard. Whenever Vader's aims fall outside the realm of the Imperial bureaucracy, he calls upon the 501st to accomplish his bidding. The only corss-disciplinary squad in the Emipire, it is composed of every kind of trooper, pilot, scout, or driver. Whatever agenda Lord Vader pursues, he is assured of the specialized manpower to accomplish it. The 501st is ready to be deployed to his side at a moment's notice. This resource is a testimony to Vader's power and often baffles the generals who wonder how he manages to wage campaigns with little or no involvement in the normal ranks.
I wanted to really sell the bad-ass reputation of the unit and while simultaneously explaining the unique qualities of the group: elite squad, quickly deployed, Vader's boys, contains all the types of troopers you'd expect in the movies. Little did I know that would allow me to be flexible in the coming years as every kind of Imperial imaginable would sign up to join. One member offered the change to Vader's Fist (since there was already an Emperor's Hand). Good idea, we went with that. Scott MacArthur (our friend on the pleasure planet) designed a rudimentary logo for the squad. We were off and running!
So we were off and running and it didn't take long for fans to hear about us and join up. In 1998 we had 61 members. In 1999 we had 147. And our membership was scattered all over the world. Clusters formed around major cities, and the clusters were beginning to develop their own identities. Pretty soon I had to come up with a means of organizing the rabble, or else it would fragment. After all, why be a part of a club a thousand miles away when the only members you see are your fellow troopers at local events. I started by breaking the U.S. up into West, Central, and East regions to begin with. But this was mostly to get a handle on the membership lists. It occurred to me that to keep all tribute coming back to Rome, it was important to nurture the idea of local entities while stressing the importance of uniting them all under one banner. My theory was members would want to feel they were contributing to their local community as well as to something larger. It wouldn't take long for a group hundreds of miles away to hit on the idea of forming their own unit, then the whole thing would crumble and the benefit of one large body would be lost and hard to recover. At least this way people could express their individuality and still retain the identity of the 501st. In fact, an early aim of mine was to really sell the brand of 501st, get the name and the motto and the logo out there for everyone to see. I was worried before long we'd have the 502nd, 503rd, and so on. And how would anyone organize that?
I remember worrying a good bit about the organizational structure of the club. I even consulted my friend and fellow trooper, Alan Isom, who was in the military. My thinking was, we needed positions in the club so people could perform the work necessary, but I didn't want to start a pecking order with grandiose titles for fear of egos getting out of control and discouraging new members. I also tried to avoid ranks like those in the military, for fear of appearing disrespectful of titles that were earned in the real world. The same concern was there about the unit names. I didn't want to use terms like platoon or company or regiment. We had no idea how big we were going to get, so those names would constantly hinder us. And, again, I didn't want to use terms that made us seem paramilitary. And calling ourselves a Squad was quickly making no sense as we were far larger than any concept of a squad.
Eventually I figured it would be safe to use some archaic terms from the Roman Legion. Our squad would now be something much larger, with a term to reflect that. The term 'Legion' not only had no ties to real-world units, but had an old-world ring to it. And it didn't hurt that the term was even used in Return of the Jedi when referring to the stormtroopers on Endor! As for the regional units, the joke at the time was that we were stormtroopers occupying the planet Earth, so an occupational unit in Roman times that had a good ring to it was Garrisons. Still no ties to the military, and the name worked well. I immediately set out to carve up the U.S. into six Garrisons: North-West, South-West, Mid-West, Central, Southern, and Northeast. Over time, these were in turn carved up into smaller Garrisons to fit the needs of the regions. Smaller areas still within the Garrisons sometimes form their own identities, for which we revived the term 'Squads' and placed them under the Garrisons. And in parts of the world where only a few members lived but couldn't justify being called Garrisons, we created Outposts. Finally, as more and more categories of costumes appeared, it seemed like a good idea to create theme-based units organized around each category of costume. In other words, a unit just for our TIE pilots, a unit just for our Biker Scouts, etc. I thought of a unit that's put together for a specialized job and figured a name like Detachment sounded appropriate. Score one for movie references again, since it turns out Vader refers to a Detachment going down to Tattooine.
For a complete roster of the stormtroopers of the 501st squad in 1998 click on the link to the left.
September 3-6, 1998: Dragon*Con in Atlanta, GA becomes the first official event for the "501st Squadron." The first face-to-face meeting of members from across the country, and Albin recruits heavily. Sean Burgess, Mike Van Zweiten, Mike Glover, Shannon Wendlick, Steve Hamedl, Alan Isom, and Steve's cousin Gina (as Boushh) were the only ones there. Jeff and Kurt Allen brought their crew to the Star Wars costume contest that Saturday night and we all shared a collective chuckle at the sight of so many stormtroopers in one room. Then Bob Bean strolled in as Darth Vader and we all realized how good it all looked. Mat Clayson (Hi-Impact) and Matt Gauthier (TrooperExpert) were also in attendance, as well as Cheralyn Lambeth (as ANH Leia).
Dragoncon was the first ever meeting of the 501st Squad in person. That was not a fun time - here we were a bunch of costumers meeting up for the first time and I'm hawking this concept of a club. No one was buying it. Some of them even made fun of it. I couldn't GIVE away membership back then. Even Anthony Daniels thought we were idiots, judging by the way he looked at us. But we persevered through it all and now we're here today. Three cheers for perseverance and complete lack of shame.
Meeting of the Fetts. I was interested to see how my home-made Fett would stack up against Fetts bought over the internet. Mine's the one second from the right. Not too bad - I was very proud of my creation. Mike Glover, far left, made his own Jodo Kast armor, and went on to make Clone Trooper armor, making him one of the oldest 501st members around.
Our first group shot. That's (l to r) Mike Van Zweiten, Alan Isom, me (shorty), Jeff Allen, Berni (?), Rob Allen, and two unidentified troopers. Notice the 501st Squad logo I marked every one of my photos with. I want to say the first unidentified trooper is wearing Armor F/X armor. Not sure about the far right guy. Interesting helmet. Alan and I are wearing stuff made by Mike Chewpitch of Dogstar Collectibles. I'm not sure if they're even around anymore. Our armor is styrene, while the Armor F/X stuff is ABS.
That's Shannon Wendlick and Derek Smith as X-Wing pilots. I'm not sure who the guy on the far left is. Shannon liked to goof on our name 'Fighting 501st' and gave me hell about it. Derek ended up one of our members, and they're both friends I see once a year at DCon even today.
These are the only shots I have of the Masquerade that year, MC'd by Anthony Daniels whom we escorted onstage at the beginning of the show. Back then everyone was overwhelmed by the site of stormtroopers on the stage. Nowadays we server as sweepers for the Masquerade.
The finest moment of the weekend was the Star Wars costume contest. A bunch of us just showed up and when they started asking for contestants to walk in the troopers (who didn't know each other) started talking about going in together. I grabbed a cutie in a Princess Leia costume and asked her if she wanted to recreate the Tantive scene from A New Hope. She agreed and when we walked in as a squad the crowd went nuts. Right there we recaptured the intensity of that well-known scene and demonstrated how effective several stormtroopers could be in a presentation. It really encouraged me to work harder on the 501st concept. Leia was none other than Cheralyn Lambeth, who went on to become a pillar of the 501st and serves as its archivist now. She's also god-mother to one of my daughters! Funny how life works.
November 1998: Wookiee Cantina (Dale Mattson) opens web store (wookiee.com) to sell all kinds of sci-fi goods including trooper accessories. Somewhere around the beginning of 1999, the domain is appropriated by LFL. Reopens as Galaxy Trading in October 1999? Closes around April 2001.