SNACing with the PEPs: Discovering Henry Reuterdahl and his Compelling Artistic Relationship with the U. S. Navy

Today’s post is by Sarah Rigdon, an Archives Technician in the Research Room in the National Archives at St. Louis, MO.

Like so many National Archives staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, I began searching for telework projects and creative ways to connect others with the records available to me in our Catalog, particularly in the custody of the National Archives at St. Louis. Enter SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context). SNAC is a free, online resource that helps its users discover biographical and historical information about persons, families, and organizations that are available across archival, library, and museum collections throughout the world. 

As a staff member at the central repository for personnel-related records for military service members and civilian employees of the United States Government, a large part of my work involves encountering fascinating individuals of all walks of life and the work that they performed in service to a variety of government organizations. As I learned more about SNAC, it seemed the perfect vessel for a telework project with the goal of highlighting already digitized records from my location and with the possibility of facilitating new discoveries for researchers interested in military records. For the project, my colleague, Alexa Kitchen (who has since moved on to a position at a different agency) and I chose to work with the Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP) records, a list of Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) for historically significant individuals, including persons identified as military heroes, political leaders, cultural figures, celebrities, and entertainers. Through this engaging work, I came across Swedish-born nautical artist and United States Naval Reserve Force (USNRF) Lieutenant Commander, Henry Reuterdahl.

Reuterdahl in 1917 on a skyscraper in New York’s Times Square from the series American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917 – 1918 (NAID 20807412).

Born in Malmö, Sweden in 1871, Henry Reuterdahl was a self-taught maritime artist who decided to remain in the United States after he was commissioned as an illustrator of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Reuterdahl was enamored with naval topics and developed a reputation for his expertise as an artist and his work as a correspondent during the Spanish-American War. Renowned for his gift of creating nautical artwork and ability as an author, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt selected him to travel with the Great White Fleet, the voyage of sixteen United States battleships circumnavigating the globe on a mission of international goodwill and putting on display the country’s growing naval might. As the Great White Fleet prepared to set sail, an article written by Reuterdahl was published in McClure’s Magazine. The article was critical of the design and functionality of the United States Navy’s new battleships and its bureaucratic system. Reuterdahl did not remain as part of the fleet tour, but his article contributed to an investigation and eventual reorganization of the Department of the Navy over the next five years.

Reuterdahl painting a Navy recruitment sign in New York’s Times Square from the series American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917 – 1918 (NAID 45538694).

By the outbreak of World War I, Henry Reuterdahl was highly acclaimed for his writing and artistry. With the United States’ entry into the war imminent, he volunteered his services to the cause of recruitment for the Navy and helped secure the participation of many other eminent American artists like him. Right away, Reuterdahl completed an ambitious project: a thirty foot by forty foot Navy recruitment mural seven stories above the pavement in New York City’s Times Square, featuring a Naval battleship firing salvos. 

Document outlining the importance of artists to the Navy and their various projects during World War I, Image 245 of Reuterdahl’s OMPF from the series Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 145764600).
Document outlining the contribution of artists to the Navy during World War I, Image 247 of Reuterdahl’s OMPF from the series Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 145764600).
Document outlining the importance of artists to the Navy during World War I, Image 249 of Reuterdahl’s OMPF from the series Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 145764600).

Early in the war effort, Reuterdahl also painted his now-famous All Together! Enlist in the Navy recruitment poster which the Navy widely reproduced. Recognizing the value of an artist of Reuterdahl’s caliber, in April 1917, the officer in charge of the Navy Publicity Bureau wasted no time requesting Reuterdahl be enrolled as a Lieutenant in order to formally focus his talents and services towards bolstering the Navy.

All Together! Enlist in the Navy poster from the series World War I Posters, 1917-1919 (NAID 512495).
Memo regarding Reuterdahl’s enrollment in the Navy, dated April 14, 1917, Image 1 of Reuterdahl’s OMPF from the series Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 145764600).

Throughout World War I, Reuterdahl travelled extensively as a poster artist for the Navy and the Liberty Bonds campaign. As part of the third Liberty Loan campaign, in April 1918, he collaborated on a giant battle depiction with American illustrator and painter, N. C. Wyeth before the Sub-Treasury building in New York City. For his invaluable commitment and service to the Navy during the war, he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

Reuterdahl and N.C. Wyeth putting the last touches on their painting before the Sub-Treasury building from the series American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918 (NAID 20807410).
Reuterdahl’s acceptance and oath of office as Lieutenant Commander in the USNRF. Image 80 of Reuterdahl’s OMPF from the series Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 145764600).

Reuterdahl was transferred to the retired list of officers from the USNRF in December 1921 and was finally honorably discharged from service on June 30, 1922. Tragically, Reuterdahl suffered from mental illness in the last few months of his life and died from bronchopneumonia on December 20, 1925. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia. 

Letter from Reuterdahl’s widow Pauline to Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur, Image 237 of Reuterdahl’s OMPF from the series Official Military Personnel Files, 1885-1998 (NAID 145764600).

To learn more about this maritime artist, visit Henry Reuterdahl’s SNAC entity.

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