Birth of the American Graphic T-Shirt: The Las Vegas Gunnery School Official WWII Shirt


Corporal Alexander Le Gerda in his 1942 LIFE Appearance

Corporal Alexander Le Gerda in his 1942 LIFE Appearance

Corporal Alexander Le Gerda is the first person in history to be included in a popular magazine  wearing a  graphic t-shirt.  His photo made the July 13th, 1942 cover of LIFE Magazine cradling a .30 cal. machine gun and sporting a tight fitting athletic tee made by the American Athletic Co. in Los Angeles, CA.  An original version of this shirt recently sold (August, 2015) for over $1,000 USD.   The shirt depicts a winged horned toad shooting a .30 calibur machine gun perched upon a cloud.  The shirt is commonly reprinted but with incorrect colors for the mascot.  The true color is a yellow ocher, when some sites print the shirts with a light blue.   Screengrabs from the completed auction can be found here:

This original 1942 Las Vegas Gunnery School T-Shirt sold for $1,009 on August 23rd, 2015

This original 1942 Las Vegas Gunnery School T-Shirt sold for $1,009 on August 23rd, 2015

Original Laundry Instructions

Original Laundry Instructions

Closeup of Text Applique

Closeup of Text Applique

Winged Armadillo

Winged Horned Toad

American Athletic Co. Tag

American Athletic Co. Tag

Although spelled Le Gerda in the original 1942  LIFE article, Alexander’s surname is correctly spelled as Legerda in official government documents.  Among the multitude of internet sites dedicated to the poster child of the American graphic T-shirt, none delve into the life of Mr. Legerda.  Here at Portraitsofwar, we strive to dig out the details hidden in plain sight.

I first started with a social security death index search for Alexander Le Gerda.  The article mentions that Alexander was 23 at the time of the article, and I based my birth year search at 1919 to be safe.  No hits on ancestry for an Alexander Le Gerda…… but a solid hit for a LeGerda of the same first name.  Eventually rising to the rank of Sgt. with the 94th Bomb Group during WWII, LeGerda was born and raised in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania.  Lehigh Valley is generally located north of Philadelphia and west of New York City, and encompasses a handful of towns along the NY/PA border.

Alexander was born on April 24th, 1919 and passed away on August 3rd, 1998 at Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown, where he worked as a maintenance man for 1601 Realty.   His 1998 obit can be found below:

Alexander LeGerda; 79; Allentown; died Monday, Aug. 3, Sacred Heart Hospital; husband of Elizabeth “Shay” (Albert) LeGerda; married 52 years in June; maintenance man, 1601 Realty, Allentown, 14 years, retiring 1992; 1942, became first Lehigh Valley resident to have picture on cover of Life magazine, subject of a feature story about work in Army gunnery school in Las Vegas; born Topton; son of the late Elias and Mary (Krauss) LeGerda; member, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Allentown; Army Air Corps veteran, World War II; sergeant, 94th Bomber Group. Survivors: wife; daughter, Donna Shay LeGerda, wife of Aaron Kotzin, Soldotna, Alaska; sisters, Mary Shahda, New Orleans; Anna Noble, Quakertown; Helen Springer, Rosewood, Calif.; granddaughter. Weber Funeral Home, 502 Ridge Ave., Allentown.
[obituary, The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, Wednesday, August 5 1998, page A-11]

In the coming weeks, I hope to reach out to family members to see if any stories passed down from Alexander in regards to his time as a cover model for the Air Force Gunnery School.  I wonder if he was aware of his singular fame as the first person to wear a custom printed t-shirt in mass media?  These shirts were common during the war, and I have dozens of examples of uniquely printed unit-based and camp-based printed tees during the war, but this is the singular example of a popularization image of the soon-to-be popular graphic t-shirt.

The photos were taken by famed documentary photographer Eliot Elisofon and are available for viewing in the LIFE magazine archives.

Another View of Legerda

Another View of Legerda

Full Frontal

Full Frontal

6 thoughts on “Birth of the American Graphic T-Shirt: The Las Vegas Gunnery School Official WWII Shirt

  1. this story is about my great-uncle. It was sent to me by my mom who received it from her cousin. Imagine my surprise. I do have have an original Life magazine with his picture. Thank you for pursuing this story – you provided me with pictures I never saw before and some information I was not aware of.

  2. This was a cool read and it was great to see the additional pictures. Do you know where that shirt was auctioned? I’d love to find another original.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s