Who Is He? A Long-Delayed Search for the Identity of the Airman Portrayed in a World War II Poster

Barbara Lewis Burger, who retired from the Still Picture Branch of the National Archives as a Senior Archivist, wrote today’s blog.  One of her areas of interest is photographic and graphic records of and about African Americans.

"Keep us flying! Buy War Bonds." (NAID 514823)
“Keep us flying! Buy War Bonds.” (NAID 514823)

Almost 30 years ago I submitted a proposal to National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) officials for permission to create a publication of images documenting the participation of African Americans in World War II. The pictures would be chosen from the holdings of the Still Picture Branch and selected to illustrate the various contributions made by black Americans serving in the military or supporting home front programs.  Fortunately, my proposal coincided with NARA’s plans for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in the war and was readily accepted.  I was given full range to research, select and arrange items from the holdings of the branch for a Select Audiovisual Records slide set publication.  World War II was a pivotal time in African American history and I tried to be as visually comprehensive as the photographic holdings would permit. The resulting slide set, Pictures of African Americans During World War II, was originally released in 1993.

The majority of Pictures of African Americans During World War II is devoted to images of African American men and women in all of the services both at home and overseas. A couple of dozen additional images document black experiences in support of the war effort on the home front.  Included in that group are three posters, including the subject of this blog— the eye-catching Keep us flying! Buy War Bonds. 

NAID 535815
“… the public school children of the South-Central District of Chicago purchased $263,148. 83 in war bonds and stamps…a huge check representing enough money for 125 jeeps, two pursuit planes and motorcycle was presented to Maj. C. Udell Turpin of the Illinois War Bond Sales staff.” (NAID 535815)

Posters played a key role in the government’s efforts to generate support for the war and to help finance the extraordinary costs of the war. A war bond poster featuring a member of the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military pilots and their support personnel, was an astute way to spark interest and generate enthusiasm for war bonds. Keep us flying! and a few other items featuring African American subjects are among wartime posters in the records of the World War II Posters, 1942-1945 (National Archives Identifier 513498).

I do not remember now, but at some point in the selection process, I came across a reference to “Lt. Robert W. Diez” as the airman in the Keep Us Flying! poster. Hoping to include the subject’s identity, I made every effort to find information about a Lt. Diez.  As it turned out, I found a few references to World War II servicemen with the surname Diez, including a Marine aviator. None, though, were associated with the Tuskegee Airmen.  So I added “probably Lt. Robert W. Diez” to the description. I was unable to find any references at that time to the artist.  Bear in mind that the research took place at a time when the Internet and the World Wide Web were still in their nascent stages. So eventually I put the problem aside, but not completely out of mind.

In late 2018, I decided to again search for information about the poster.  Within seconds of initiating an online search, I was astounded by the volume of information referring both to the airman and the artist. As it turns out, the chief reason I was unable to find out anything about the airman is because his surname may be Deiz not Diez. The majority of the references I came across, though, seemed to prefer the spelling Diez. The artist, if named, is usually identified as Betsy Graves Reyneau. Mrs. Reyneau is widely recognized for painting a series of oil portraits of distinguished African Americans.  A suffragette, she is also known for her involvement in social causes outside of the art world.

Coincidentally, examples of the artistic work of Mrs. Reyneau (1888-1964) are among the gift collections in the National Archives in the series “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin Painted by Two Women Artists”, ca. 1943- ca. 1963  (National Archives Identifier 559191).   Mrs. Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948), another prominent portraitist, is the other above-referenced artist. The series consists of photographic reproductions of their original paintings. The actual works of art, however, are in the collections of other repositories. While researching, I discovered that Mrs. Reyneau also painted a portrait of another Tuskegee Airman, William Ayers Campbell. That painting is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

portrait of Deiz by William Duffus
1LT Robert W. Diez, 1944 by W. Duffus (NAID 6343504)

Several sources identify Robert William Deiz as the airman in the Keep us flying! Buy War Bonds poster.  Indeed a gentleman with that name was a Tuskegee Airman. He was born on June 17, 1919, in Portland, Oregon. Further research revealed that he was the first of the two sons of Elnora and William Deiz. William Carlos Deiz (1881-1950) emigrated form from Kingston, Jamaica and Elnora Nonie Foster (1888-1975) was originally from Hastings, Nebraska. They married in 1918 in Vancouver, Washington.  U.S. census records suggest that Elnora and her parents relocated to Portland sometime after 1910; while U.S. naturalization documents indicate that William Deiz, a waiter on the railroad, was living in Portland possibly as early as 1913.

Oregon was an unwelcoming place for African Americans in its early years. Although Oregon excluded slavery, its 1857 Constitution also forbade African Americans from coming to, residing in, or owning property in the territory.  Despite those restrictions, black people did settle there.  Even though the restrictions on rights were repealed in 1926, other prohibitions, ordinances, and covenants were enacted through the years (Constitution of 1857, 2019). The Ku Klux Klan was also quite active for a time in the state. By the time the Deiz family settled in Portland, fewer than 2,000 African Americans resided in the city (Census, 1918). Many were drawn to the city because of the five transcontinental rail lines that ran through Portland. The trains and the supporting rail yards provided fairly dependable employment for many of the growing number of African American residents (Bureau of Planning, 1993). Over the succeeding years, the population grew, but even today, black Americans are less than six percent of the city’s residents (Census, 2018).

The Deiz family made a home in Portland. Robert Deiz attended the city’s public schools. He graduated from (Benjamin) Franklin High School in 1937 and continued his education at the University of Oregon in Eugene. An excellent musician and athlete, he played in the school band and set track records at both institutions. He was also a pilot.  Robert Deiz took flying lessons through the Civilian Pilot Training Program, later War Training Service (CPTP/WTS). Not surprisingly, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces as an aviation cadet on January 24, 1942, and was sent to Tuskegee Army Air Field for training. A member of one of the earlier classes (SE-42-H), Robert Deiz graduated a 2nd Lieutenant on September 6, 1942, and was eventually sent overseas. From 1943 to 1944, he flew 93 missions with the 99th Fighter Squadron. He scored two confirmed victories while covering the Allied landings at Anzio, Italy. Lt. Deiz downed a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter on two consecutive days and returned to Oregon in 1944 as a war hero.

Based on all of the information found, Lt. Deiz appears to very likely be the airman in the poster. For me questions still remained. Is he positively the airman in the poster? What about the spelling of the name? Wanting to be as certain as possible, I continued to search for answers.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and quite a number of other institutions (federal, state, local and private) have a copy of the Keep us flying! Buy War Bonds poster among their holdings. A number of of the repositories identify the sitter as Diez, as does the NPG.  I contacted the National Portrait Gallery hoping for clarification. Fortunately the museum’s accession records contain an important November 3, 1989, memorandum about the creation of the poster.  The memo is a record of an NPG historian’s conversation with a Maj. Diez of Columbus, Ohio:

When I talked to him (Nov 2), he said that the poster was painted by Betsy Graves Renault [sic] in Tuskegee in 1943. The circumstances were that she was there to do an oil portrait of George Washington Carver (among the collections of the National Portrait Gallery) that was to be used as stamp; Diez had studied art while in school in Portland, Oregon, & when he heard that she was at the camp he asked to sit in while she painted. She told him that she was also supposed to paint one of the airmen for a war bond poster… She talked to the commandant, and he selected Diez.

 He said he doesn’t know of any black war bond tours; he did not participate in any.

Additional notes of an interview with an unnamed national historian of the Tuskegee Airmen indicate that: Diez was chosen because he was prototypic…he was dashing and handsome, and definitely black.

And there in the files of the National Portrait Gallery was the evidence I have been seeking!  Diez is Deiz. Robert William Deiz, who at that time was living in Columbus, is indeed the airman portrayed in the Keep us flying! Buy War Bonds poster. A 1994 Oregon Heritage magazine article about Robert Deiz corroborated that he lived in Columbus.  The article also referred to him as the subject of a war bonds poster.  Lastly, I consider a photograph taken around 1944 of Deiz’s mother and grandmother admiring a Keep us flying! poster as proof positive that Robert William Deiz is indeed the airman in the poster.

Upon his return to the United States, various accounts indicate that Lt. Deiz was assigned a position as an instructor at Tuskegee Army Air Field. After the war’s end, he continued his service with the newly formed U.S. Air Force as a test pilot and retired as a major in 1961. Afterwards he was employed in several occupations before retiring again sometime in the 1980’s.

On Monday, April 6, 1992, in Columbus, Ohio, Maj. Deiz suddenly collapsed and died from a heart attack. He left his wife, Ruby Butler Deiz, whom he married in 1943; a son Robert Everett Deiz, his brother Carl and other loved ones.  Ruby Deiz passed away years later on August 17, 2012, in West Bloomfield, Michigan. In an April 8, 1992, obituary in the Oregonian newspaper, an earlier observation by Maj. Deiz about his war experience was recounted:

Among those in control, some wanted to see us succeed, and others wanted us to fail. For a while, the ones who wanted to see us fail had the upper hand. We couldn’t get near combat. But combat came to us. Things didn’t go the way they were supposed to in Italy, and we got to fight after all. At Anzio, we got the job of protecting the beachhead. After that they couldn’t ignore us.

Major Robert William Deiz was inducted into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor in 2004.

On this Veterans Day 2019, let us remember and honor Maj. Robert William Deiz and the many brave men and women who have served in the U.S. military in war and peace.

Robert Deiz (Possibly a photograph that was sent to his father. An inscription is on verso). Unknown photographer, Bob Deiz, ca. 1943, gelatin silver print, 3 in x 2 in, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Photography Acquisition Fund, 2015.121.53.
1st Lt. Robert W. Deiz was one of the 99th Fighter Squadron pilots who shot down an (Focke-Wulf) Fw 190 on January 27, 1944. He downed another one the next day. Item: 141208-F-DW547-015JPG. National Museum of the United States Air Force.
A newspaper clipping from the Oregonian, January 30, 1944, p. 11
Portlanders Elnora Deiz and her mother Mollie Foster stand next to a war bonds poster featuring Elnora Deiz’s son, 1st Lt. Robert Deiz, known as the “Black Eagle.” Ca. 1944. Photo-Art Commercial Studios, Portland, Oregon. Rev. Lee Owen Stone Collection; Org. Lot 651; box 2, folder 1; CN 022273. Oregon Historical Society, Digital Collections.

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