One day something unexpected happened. I got an email from a bloke in Canada named Scott McArthur. He said he’d seen my web page and loved it. In fact, he had a Stormtrooper costume of his own! A picture was attached, showing Scott in gleaming white TK armor standing next to a picturesque shore with a sunset behind him. I almost fell out of my chair. Not only was there another crazy armored fan out there, but he’d found my page. And his picture was awesome! Much better than Tom and me hanging around a Suncoast Video store.
I wrote Scott back, thanking him for the compliment and asking him if I could post the picture on the Detention Block 2551 website. He agreed. I took the opportunity to add a third character to the story and captioned the picture “TK814 relaxing on the shores of pleasure planet Fridegn Seven.”
Now we were cooking. The story was taking on even more life. Another character added so much more depth. I thought back to my second-ever Stormtrooper costuming rule: more Stormtroopers equals more sizzle! What if we could add more characters? How much of the story of the Empire could we tell?
My question was answered within the week. Three more Stormtroopers emailed me, all of them hailing the page and sharing their own costuming lives. My natural reply was, “Can I post your pic and give you a TK number too?” Three affirmatives came back. Three more characters to the story.
Before long I had ten photos posted on the now-crowded detention block. Captions told the story: “TK412 evading reprimand after a nasty trash compactor incident,” “TK326 takes time to secure a local gathering of Imperial citizens.” I was like a kid with a box of new toys. Here I had a squad of Stormtroopers holding down the fort. This was unbelievable.
Something in my head clicked and I thought back to my dad’s old flight school graduation book from World War II. As a kid I would stare wide-eyed in admiration at pages of aviators in their flight goggles and spiffy leather jackets. The aged leather book was a collection of super heroes. Romantic notions of aerial aces and their squadron sigils and bomb-nose-art came flooding back. The idea of a unit of soldiers took hold and made me think: wouldn’t the Empire in all its glory have something like that?
So the storytelling wheels started turning. What if the Stormtroopers were part of a squadron themselves? Well, they were infantry, that much was obvious: TIE pilots were the ones who would form up squadrons. The nomenclature pushed me instead to the term “Squad.” But if they were formed up in squads, wouldn’t they have exciting names like the famous “101st Airborne: Screaming Eagles,” the “Flying Tigers,” and “Attack Squadron 214: the Black Sheep?”
I knew I was on to something. But I also know everything is in a name. So I had to really think this one over. My first thought was that the Empire was super-huge. The movies made that clear. So if they had a unit number it was a big number. And whatever number should be a memorable one, and lend itself to working with a cool nickname. The first thing I thought of was “Fighting” as part of a unit name (that was used all the time in military history). So something starting with that word, and I thought that 500 was a good round number — plus, adding a number on the end would make it more realistic. So “Fighting 501st” came up. It sounded so good, I just couldn’t see improving on it.
But I wasn’t done there. The idea that we could be an Imperial unit from Star Wars just sent my head spinning. Who were these guys? What did they do? What was their claim to fame? If I was going to be a part of a fictional Stormtrooper unit, it was going to be doing something ultra cool. And who in the Empire was cooler than Vader himself? What if the unit worked FOR Vader? Oh man!
The movies, as always, were my best and truest source of inspiration. For some reason the moment I thought of us working for Vader I remembered some key moments in the trilogy: Vader preparing to meet the Rebel fighters with fighters of his own at the end of A New Hope. Where did they come from? He just turns and there are two TIE pilots ready for him to order around. In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader no sooner invades Echo Base than he’s flanked by a troupe of Snowtroopers. On Cloud City he has a dozen Stormtroopers on his heels just as he captures Han and Leia. And of course, the most epic moment was Vader sauntering into the Tantive IV, with his boys blasting a path ahead of him!
One thing was clear: Vader had men at his elbow any time he needed them. Who were those guys? How did he pick them? What if…wait for it…they were his own personal unit? What if they reported directly to him? What if they were kept off the books and out of the normal Imperial bureaucracy, so someone as hot-headed as Vader could order them around as he pleased?
I hastily wrote an opening crawl to the website:
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 generals who wonder how he manages to wage campaigns with little or no involvement in the normal ranks.
That was it. That was when I decided it. We would be the Fighting 501st: Vader’s Fist! No other idea would do.
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.