Marching with the Maker: A 501st Legion Reflection

Albin Johnson | January 17, 2013

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The recent holidays brought back some very special Star Wars memories to me. It was only six years ago on a cold New Year’s morning that over 200 armored men and women were gathered outside a hotel in Pasadena, clustered in squads that waited anxiously as large tour buses came and went like Imperial shuttles to take them away for a very special mission. That was the year George Lucas was named grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade. And he had made it clear from the very start what he wanted as grand marshal. He wanted Imperial Stormtroopers to march with him in the parade. A LOT of Stormtroopers.

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When the call went out to Legion Command several months earlier, they hardly knew how to process it. This was to be the single greatest mobilization of costumed Star Wars fans for any event outside of a convention. And the instructions from Lucasfilm were clear that they would not just come from southern California alone (which would have been much easier, logistically-speaking). No, the Maker wanted to honor fans from all over the world. All Garrisons were put on notice: keep this under wraps, submit your candidates capable of performing drills, and get ready to march.

And marching they did. A lot of it. Five days prior to the parade, 501st members flew in from every corner of the world to find themselves in boot camp. Drill captains from the US, UK, and Germany wasted no time teaching raw civilians how to stand straight, walk straight, keep time, turn sharp, and follow cadence all while wearing a helmet. Hotel courtyards became parade grounds. Talk amongst the Star Wars fans went quickly from “Did Han shoot first?” to “Which foot to step-off with first?”

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Evening time was no less exciting. For those who fought off the fatigue of the day, it was an all-too-brief moment for Star Wars fans, who knew one another only by TK numbers over the Internet, to meet and bond and learn something profound: No matter where they’re from, Star Wars fans are all the same in their passion for that galaxy far, far away. From Asia, Europe, Australia, and every corner of North America, they talked long into the night about their armor, their props, their adventures trooping for the Empire.

But one night the reverie was interrupted. A hush fell over the banquet room during the dinner. All eyes went to the podium as none other than George Lucas himself appeared to address the troops.

“The big invasion is in a few days,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t expect all of you to make it back. But that’s okay, because Stormtroopers are expendable.”

The troopers laughed and cheered. Fans who came from the other side of the world craned to see the man who started it all. Here he stood among us, the general rallying his army.

Underneath it all, the joke hit close to home for what many were thinking. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Were we ready? Could we truly march in armor and look as sharp as Stormtroopers are supposed to be? Were we going to totally embarrass Lucasfilm after all the trust they put in us?

But what had been a crowd of strangers just days before was now a corps, fueled by a sharp determination to not screw up. Troopers learned to rely on the man or woman marching in front of them, to the pace of the troopers on each side, to the sound of the Drill Captains’ whistles. Squads of eight quickly formed strong bonds as each person among them worked to keep each other accountable.

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And then it was zero hour. Buses came and went, taking the troopers to the step-off area. Whatever we learned, it was all we could rely on now. Dancers from the Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band shivered in their Twi’Lek costumes. Legion commander Mark Fordham, dressed as Vader, was keen enough to shelter the girls in his cape. A B1 bomber soared overhead, signaling the start of the show.

Time to march. Buckets went over heads. Drill captains shouted. The sound of two hundred boots rang off the pavement. The cheers of tens of thousands rose up as we entered Colorado Boulevard, flowers festooning the walls.

Right away my artificial leg was pounding, still aching after days of drilling. But I was the front-left corner of Alpha Company and had the longest strides to make for the wide right turn in front of the big cameras. Any misstep and we would look ridiculous. But when the moment came the company turned like top soldiers. We hit that turn like we wanted to conquer it. And in the straightaway our feet kept pounding and pounding and pounding.

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For five and a half miles the three companies of the 501st Legion pounded it out. At the end we were exhausted, bruised, and bloody. Sitting on the grass, eating an In-and-Out burger, I couldn’t believe how close the group had come together. It was a dream come true. And hopefully we made Star Wars fans everywhere proud.

So here it is six years later. Lucasfilm released a documentary on that weekend, titled Star Warriors, and included it in the Star Wars Blu-ray collection. It gives an intimate perspective on the people who traveled and participated in that great day and I highly recommend it to any fan.

For me, I guess even a film isn’t enough. So on January 1, I launched a project to recreate the Rose Parade as a large-scale diorama built completely out of LEGOs that will travel to Celebration conventions worldwide. I’m happy to say that many of the troopers from that day have sent in little LEGO likenesses of themselves, autographed with their TK numbers.

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If you’re reading this, then the call goes out to you too — send in a regular LEGO figure and we’ll put them in the stands in your name. You can be part of the fun this time around and part of an exhibit we hope to share with the world.

To learn more, drop on by the project website here: http://www.albinjohnson.com/501stLegion/diorama/index.html

So, Happy New Year to all my brothers and sisters who marched with me in Pasadena, and those who were there in spirit. If we proved anything, it’s that Star Wars fans can walk tall — especially in armor!

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.

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