Toy Photos of War that Fooled the World for 50 Years

“The most extraordinary photographs ever taken of air flights in war.”

-The Illustrated London News

Wesley David Archer was an American Air Force Pilot in WWI. He enlisted in 1917, but his time in active duty ended when his plane was shot down in October of 1918. The photographs he took while flying are said to be quite good, but those are not the photographs we’re going to discuss today.

In 1927, after a stint as a set designer and modler for productions, Archer and his friend began building models.

Death in the Air

“Feel in no mood to write to-night. Sick of war and everything connected with it.”

The diary of an unnamed pilot. A German camera found and fixed up. An attempt at buidling a darkroom. And all the fights and missing friends in between.

Death in the Air: The War Diary and Photographs of a Flying Corps Pilot was published in 1933, 2 years after the photographs had been exhibited, as part of the Cockburn-Lange colelction, in an exhibition of aviation art.

The book earned the widowed wife of this pilot 20,000 depresison dollars.

The Reveal

John W. Charlton was asked by Archer in the 1950s to hold onto his WWI items. In 1983, 18 years after Archer’s death, Charlton gifted those items to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

While a CIA photo expert had deemed the images within this book fake in the 1950s, and Time Life Laboratory deemed them as fake in 1979, it wasn’t until these items were received by the Smithsonian, that there was any proof of this.

Within the suitcases were the original photographs from the Cockburn-Lange collection, photo negatives, letters, a Colt automatic that had been used in war, a 1918 camera and WWI aviator uniforms. In looking into this matter, Smithsonian employees Peter Grosz and Karl Schneide discovered images of Archer building the models for these photographs, and actual images he took during war.

See bits of the collection for yourself here.

Wesley David Archer

Archer had been at war. He knew what it was like, and knew the slang. His letters home are said to have been very well written. He’d also taken images while flying. He had all the knowledge necessary to make fake aviation images and write a fake war diary. And maybe the diary took a good chunk of inspiration from things he, and those he knew, had gone through. But that we may never know.

Archer tried to enlist for WWII, but was denied because of a hernia. He and his wife moved to Havana in 1952 where he suffered a stroke. He died 3 years later and was given a funeral with full military honors. His wife kept his secret. She died in 1959.

Wesley D. Archer’s Hare Aerial Patent Field Camera, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum collection


Your Turn

Pick an event in your life. It doesn’t have to be as adventuresome as war. Choose your first day at school, the birth of your child, a shopping trip, a hike, whatever you’d like, then tell us the story through a photograph. Set a scene to recreate the colors, feel, or look of the moment. If you choose to share online use #wdastorychallenge


You must cite this page if you use information directly from it –

“Toy Photos of War That Fooled the World for 50 Years.” Tourmaline ., 27 May 2020,

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