Eugene Klawitter was born a few years too late to participate in World War II, but a trip to the Poynette artist’s downstairs shop is a bit like going back to the drawing boards of that epic, global conflict.
To the left is the mighty German battleship “Bismarck,” as well as the British battleship “Hood” that engaged it in a deadly naval struggle. Above it is a Soviet MIG fighter pilot, the Messerschmitt flown by German flying ace Erich Hartmann, and one of the famous U.S. “Flying Tigers” that fought over the skies of Burma. Around the corner is the battleship Wisconsin.
They are all accurately drawn to a small scale to allow them to be displayed on a wall, and look everything like actual schematics the original engineers used. Not too bad for a guy who got his modest artistic beginnings by copying maps as a kid.
Off to war
When Klawitter, 81, graduated from Portage High School in 1950, the Korean War was right around the corner. Getting involved seemed unavoidable, so the next spring, he and a few buddies went to the Air Force recruiting office, to perhaps avoid being drafted into the Army as an infantryman.
“I didn’t care too much about being 19 years old and gettin’ shot,” Klawitter said. “A day or so went by and I got the call, ‘You’re in the Air Force, and you’re going to have to pack your bags and get downtown tomorrow evening.’’
It was off to Milwaukee for a medical checkup and then a train bound for San Antonio, Texas, where he trained at Lackland Air Force Base as a mechanic, working on heavy duty earth-moving equipment. From there, he was sent to Yokota Air Force Base in Japan, where he spent the next two-and-a-half years working on pretty much any vehicle with wheels.
The base serviced a large fleet of B-29 bombers, which were regularly flying missions about 800 miles west, to North Korea.
“Bombers would leave around 4 o’clock in the evening and keep taking off until 7 or 8,” Klawitter said. “It got to where the bombers were coming and going so often, you didn’t even notice. It’s just like when you live next to traffic.”
Back at the motor pool, Klawitter and three Japanese mechanics under his command fixed everything imaginable: trucks, armored cars, bomb service trucks, even tugs for towing aircraft. When they weren’t busy fixing things, Klawitter was in charge of an antiaircraft gun crew, with four 50-caliber guns.
Marking his time
It was there in Japan where Klawitter became very familiar with the machines of war, down to their very nuts and bolts. He had never been much of an artist – he took a manual arts class in high school where he got some training – but he was always more of a woodworker.
As a mechanic working with a wide variety of vehicles, Klawitter needed to use numbers. Later, as an automobile mechanic for a dealership in Madison, he used math even more.
“We’d take motors apart, and you had to know diameter of cylinder and pistons and bearing,” he said. “It was a whole new ballgame then. I didn’t want to be a mechanic all my life.”
Soon, Klawitter started making designs on his own, using math. When Ray-o-Vac opened a plant in Portage, he went to work there, designing some products. Later, he worked for Joe Graber in Middleton, where he designed parts of bicycle carriers.
It was during his time as a superintendent at Falk Rubber in Sun Prairie, that he really started to get into drafting, though.
“I saw some drawing people did for a canning companies for a testing device machine to make sure there’s no leakage prior to putting anything in them,” Klawitter said. “It was a piece of metal with rubber on both sides, and I saw a drawing of that and I thought, ‘Well, that’s easy to do.’ I just kind of fell back on my work with Ray-o-Vac, and the work in the Air Force overseas on engines and stuff. You had to be pretty fussy on that stuff.”
At Falk, Klawitter worked on everything from welding to designing to drawing blueprints.
“I got to where I could draw things, and tell those people what it would cost to have it made,” he said. “I had a machine shop in Sun Prairie.”
To the drawing board
When Klawitter retired in 1994, he got back into woodworking.
“People wanted Christmas presents, clocks, Packer helmets, barometers, shelves, so I was pretty deep into making wooden things, and I just loved drawing,” he said.
A member of Portage VFW Post 1707, Klawitter used to make cabinets and things for the post, but then decided to try something else, more directed toward veterans. He started detailed, scale-model drawings of World War II aircraft and ships.
The first project several years ago was the battleship “Wisconsin.” Next was a four-foot drawing of the U.S. aircraft carrier “Hornet” which is displayed at the Poynette Area Public Library and took abut 400 hours to complete.
Since then, there have been more than a dozen more, including about a half-dozen fighter planes and even a “Big Boy” Union Pacific locomotive.
Some more military machines, of course, and maybe a Celtic cross in memory of his mother, who was Irish.
One thing for sure is that as busy as his extraordinary hobby keeps him, Klawitter isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
“I’ve had some heart problems, so I wanted to do things around the house that don’t make me huff and puff,” he said. “Being in the service, it was my thing. I did so much reading, I know where to go (for research).”