In the middle of 1997 the 501st Squad was born. It was to no great fanfare. And it happened in no more glamorous a place than a flimsy little website hosted by Geocities called “Detention Block 2551.” Tom and I had made a good run of trooping in our Stormtrooper armor all over our hometown, from movie theaters to comic shops to daycare centers to state fairs. But while those events were fun, it was quickly becoming obvious that the concept of the 501st could only take root on the new frontier emerging in the nineties: the Internet.
By the end of the year, we already had a handful of complete strangers signed up as “members” of a roster that only existed in our collective heads. E-mails flew back and forth, talking of our love of Star Wars and sharing pictures of armor (and not all of it standard Stormtrooper armor!). There was Chris Lee in Nashville, who wanted to go by TK326, Arturo Delgado out of Chicago, who took the number TK412, Steve Hamedl out of Florida who was dubbed “707” and had more Star Wars costumes than I knew one person could own! Coast to coast we had action: Ron Chang, TR168, from Los Angeles brought in one of the first Royal Guards and Mathew Clayson rallied a whole crew of Snowtroopers. In New York we had Fred Modesta, TK414, and Bruce Macnair, TK669, who also had a Biker Scout!
International fans were signing in, too. Chris Toki, TK102, hit me up out of New Zealand; Erwin van Ooijen, TK203, signaled from the Netherlands; Marc Baier and Aron Mueller emailed me from Switzerland; and Will Johnson, TK716, rang in from Japan.
All of this new activity was amazing, but it already presented some challenges. First of all, how would we accommodate these new types of armor? I dubbed Stormtroopers “TK” simply because of that poor sod on the Death Star who was famously not at his post. “TK” sounded good and I just went with it. After all, who was I to question George Lucas’ naming scheme? But what about these other troopers?
One thing you have to know about me: I’m no genius. I’m pretty practical and I have a penchant to go mad scientist when an idea sounds like it has wings. So this part of the 501st birthing process was as glamorous as a caffeine-fueled Star Wars movie marathon that lasts late into the night. By the end of it I had jotted down some basic ideas that kept to the nomenclature of the “TK” two-digit prefix, but added flavor enough to describe other Imperial armor variants. And I decided it would work to let members keep a single ID number, but add the prefix to it for every costume they registered. Steve Hamedl could be TK707, TI707, TD707, and so on. He would just be a trooper with lots of cross-training!
I updated the website with new sections to the roster: Desert Troopers would be labeled “TD” and came from specialized training schools for their missions, Snowtroopers would be “TS”, Biker Scouts would be “TB.” You can just see the genius at work there.
But simple as the labeling process was, it would prove an important tool in helping the club feel multi-dimensional and scalable. What was a plain roster before now blossomed into ranks of every kind of trooper that Vader ever had at his command in the movies. There still weren’t a lot of us, but at least we looked like we had a trooper for every occasion.
Fresh from this burst of inspiration, I started to envision a world map to illustrate our new galactic presence, scant as it was. I pulled up a picture of the word and started pasting “TK” icons corresponding to where members lived. Stormtrooper helmets clustered around California, Florida, Southeastern US, and New York. Isolated blips shone defiantly from Europe and Japan. It was satisfying, but it left me with a hunger to see more, especially outside America.
Another thought tugged at me when I saw the map. How exactly would this all stick together, with everyone located so far apart? Would we ever see all these troopers together in one place? Would we ever see a cluster of ten or twenty troopers in one place and realize the excitement level I envisioned when I saw the fans’ reactions to just two of us? The concept of a unit with a name and a history was pretty cool, but how would we keep all these guys united under one banner?
An idea gnawed at the back of my head. The Roman Empire survived as long as it did, sending tribute back to Rome for the glory of the Empire, only as long as the concept of the Empire remained strong. And that strength was only as good as the roads that led back to it. The roads here were really long!
What I always thought made the Roman Empire work was the ability of the occupying garrisons to take the best the lands had to offer and make it their own. I had written a funny bit on the Detention Block website that hinted that we were an occupying force sent to Earth to monitor it for the Emperor. So it made sense that our troopers were manning garrisons all over the world. Just like that, I had a concept that would lend itself very effectively to the club’s future: every trooper would work harder for their own local communities than they ever would for an abstraction like a worldwide group, but the main group and its brand would be the unifying concept to help bring attention to every unit. And what better name for a large force than a garrison? Lucas even used it in The Empire Strikes Back when Vader says to Lando Calrissian, “Good. It would be unfortunate if I had to leave a garrison here.”
The pieces were in place. A structure was forming that would make for a flexible and well-organized club. Applicants for this 501st Squad were pouring in every week, with each new member proudly sharing pictures of themselves trooping in their hometowns. A mail forum on Geocities filled up with half a hundred troopers by year’s end and ideas poured in. These fans were smart and had ideas, too. I knew it would take a sound organizational system to keep this lightning in a bottle and every incentive to keep them rallied to this new banner. So far it was taking root. But for how long?
I approached Scott McArthur, the third ever trooper to call himself 501st, and asked him to design me a banner. I needed an icon to affix this new squad. I said simply that I wanted something that showed this group was made up of Stormtroopers ready to give all for Vader, a black and white and red sigil that would show our strength. Nothing fancy, just a bold image that told the world the Empire was here.
Scott put together the first ever version of the 501st logo: a Stormtrooper clutching his E11 blaster, ready to march. Some called it too plain, too straightforward and without any zing to create a buzz. I disagreed. It was a Stormtrooper, and that was all it needed to be. Ralph McQuarrie had already done the master work when he created that timeless image.
I eagerly took to the website and posted the logo. I rewrote the opening crawl of the page with fresh words:
“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 cross-disciplinary squad in the Empire, 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.”
It borrowed from words in the original text, but hammered home the power of the soldier. I wanted to leave no doubt that Star Wars was back, still strong after years of being absent in the pop culture landscape, and that it was just as powerful as ever. I commissioned embroidered patches of the logo and started printing up brochures. It seemed kind of pointless, building a brand around a club that didn’t really exist yet. But something told me it was better to go all-in than to just let the momentum die.
The next step would be to bring it all together, to rally the troopers in a show that would realize my early hope for a mass effect in public. All it would take would be a place and an event big enough that I could get several of us together, and then go for broke. I looked at the calendar for 1998. Atlanta, Georgia: DragonCon. Conventions were a place ruled by Star Trek and comic books and gaming, not so much by costuming or Star Wars. But that would have to be where the 501st made landfall and either conquered fandom or fizzled out forever.
Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.