Technical Specs for Splitting the Axis: Design for a World War II Propaganda Poster
Blades, John G[reenleaf] W[hittier] (1894 – 1964). Assembly Diagram, circa 1942. Original art, pencil and paper, 16 x 20 inches. Signed, "John G. W. Blades / 305". Paint drip down left margin, paper toned, but generally sound otherwise. Shrink-wrapped on mounting board, as found.
A striking design for what appears to be an unpublished propaganda poster. Blades was a studio photographer in Asbury Park until 1942, when he joined the production drawing branch at Fort Monmouth. Established in 1917, Fort Monmouth was one of the chief sites of the US Army’s scientific research program. Important developments in radar, vacuum tubes, and communications – the first walkie-talkies were invented at Fort Monmouth, and it was there that Walter McAfee performed the calculations for Project Diana, a radar signal that bounced off the moon in 1946, widely considered the inaugural experiment of the Space Age. The Signal Corps conducted all its training at the Fort. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed as spies in 1953, met at Fort Monmouth in the 1940s.
Production and Drafting Group, Camp Evans, Fort Monmouth, 1943 (InfoAge)
Blades’s design was probably inspired by the National War Poster Competition sponsored by Artists for Victory (AFW), a national organization of artists based in New York City. The competition was organized around eight themes, including “Production,” “War Bonds,” “The Nature of the Enemy,” and “Deliver us from Evil.” A circular sent to 28,000 artists solicited over 2,200 entries submitted between 15 August and 22 October 1942. An exhibition of 200 designs from the competition was held at the Museum of Modern Art from 25 November 1942 to 3 January 1943. The exhibition traveled to the National Gallery of Art, the Carnegie Institute of Art, and throughout the United States.
In the present work, Blades combines the technical drawing standards of Fort Monmouth with the racialized propaganda of the war effort to offer a cartoon presenting engineering specifications for splitting the axis. In this Rube Goldbergesque diagram, "You and I" (3) expend Effort to bring an Axe (2) down upon the heads of "Axis Rats" (1) cleaving the skull of General Tojo as Adolph Hitler cries out in alarm. A sinking ship flounders to the left of Tojo, and one of the arrows of (1) points to the rippling water, suggesting the fate of another enemy vessel. The stereotypical representation of the Japanese enemy is par for the course in American propaganda art of World War II, but the extreme violence of the image is unusual.
The Production and Drafting Group, located at Camp Evans, was organized on 1 December 1942, after the competition was over. Nevertheless, the pattern of discoloration and the odd stain suggest that Blades’s work does appear to have been displayed at one point. Did it hang in the halls of Fort Monmouth? Oral histories of Camp Evans and other materials archived at InfoAge, a science museum in Wall, New Jersey, will likely flesh out the story of this intriguing piece.
John G. W. Blades, Studio Advertisement, Asbury Park Press, 11 November 1927
- Obituary, Asbury Park Press, 22 December 1964, p. 2
- A History of Army Communications and Electronics at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, 1917-2007 (Washington: GPO, 2010)
- Rejan, Wendy A. Fort Monmouth. Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
- Toon, Wendy, “Real war ammunition:” Artists for Victory, the National War Poster Competition, and the Hostile Imagination on the United States World War II Home Front,” Journal of American Culture 45: 1 (2022) 63-85.