The pictures in this story may NOT be used or re-broadcast
without my express written permission. They are my intellectual property and
may be used in my 3rd book so please respect my property rights, thank you!
Scroll your cursor over the pictures for the descriptions.
This is the story of Lt. Paul Frank Baer and a 1916 WWI
Elgin Trench Watch that I recently purchased at a NAWCC Regional Mart that was
held in Dallas, Texas early in March of 2016. I had no idea who Lt. Baer was or
how important he is in American history until I got back home and started doing
some research. Honestly, I just thought that the engraving bearing his name and
unit that has been inscribed on the case back was cool so I made the purchase.
After a few minutes of research it became very clear how truly important Lt.
Baer is in our history. Lt. Paul Baer is the very first pilot in American
aerial combat history to achieve "ACE" status. In order to get
"ACE" status you must get five confirmed "kills". On March
11, 1918 Lt. Baer earned the Distinguished Service Cross from the United States
Army. He engaged SEVEN German bi-planes when he was all by himself. Think about
that for a moment, engaging with 7 on 1 odds. This guy had nerves of steel! The Distinguished Service Cross
is the second highest medal that soldier can earn from the US Army, second only
to the Medal of Honor. The French government awarded Lt. Baer the Croix de
Guerre. They also awarded him with their highest medal possible, the Legion
d'Honneur for his service that went above and beyond. Before serving in France
Lt. Baer voluntarily enlisted in the US Army and served under General Pershing
in the conflict with Poncho Villa in the American Southwest. He did not see
combat during this conflict, he was a truck driver. Lt. Baer was eager to serve
in the Great War theater in Europe and once again volunteered for service. He
received his flight training in France. Now there is some dispute whether he
was originally in the Lafayette Escodrille or the Lafayette Flying Corps.
Different authors on the subject disagree on this point. When the United States
entered WWI Lt. Baer transferred over to the 103d Aero Squadron (Pursuit).
During this time Lt. Baer had nine confirmed "kills" and seven
unconfirmed "kills". On May 22, 1918 he shot down his last German bi-plane.
In this aerial battle he was shot down himself, survived the crash and was
taken prisoner by the German forces. He was taken to a German prison came in
Prussia until the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. During his time in
the prison camp he attempted to escape several times. When the Germans
recaptured him it was not pleasant, the Germans beat him without mercy. After
the war Lt. Baer was active in the American Flying Club and took part in many
of their races and activities. Later he took a job with the United States
Department of Commerce as an Aeronautics Inspector in San Antonio, Texas.
Several years later he took a job in China flying a float plane. On December 9,
1930 his story came to and end. During take off on the Whangpoo River in China
his float plane hit the mast of a junk boat and crashed, Lt. Baer did not
survive the crash. His body was taken back to Ft. Wayne Indiana and he was
buried in Lindenwood Cemetery. With every line that I read about Lt. Baer I
grew to respect even more. A very courageous and brave man who served his
country with honor and distinction. Thank you for your service Lt. Baer, a true
patriot and American war hero!
I would like to thank Mr. Walter Font of the Ft. Wayne Historical Museum for these next two pictures. He really went above and beyond to get them for me. Yes, that is Lt. Baer wearing a WWI trench watch with a white dial and that has identical features and dimensions of the watch in question, including a Kitchener Strap that would have made the "train tracks" going across the case back. This picture is a very strong piece of evidence in my opinion, the picture was taken after the Great War when Lt. Baer returned back home from his decorated service.
Now onto the watch. NOBODY is disputing that this Elgin is
in FACT a genuine antique WWI trench watch, it is absolutely the real deal.
This is a 1916 WWI Elgin Trench Watch, 7 jewels, size 3/0s with a size jumping
spacer making it into a size 0s. This was a rather common practice of the day
on Elgin watches. Enamel shadow box military dial, correct size 0s military hands,
original glass crystal that has a bit of a purple hue due to the original
radium lum. Original factory crown, Mealy Manufacturing DUO crystal guard,
Philadelphia silverode case. The strap is not original to the watch, I put the
Kitchener Strap on the watch, it came off of another trench watch that also hand a
Philadelphia case so the bends on the leather at the lugs line up perfectly. I
only did mechanical repairs to this watch to get it up and running, it's
keeping great time once again. Hey it's an ELGIN! Absolutely nothing cosmetic
has been done to this watch, it has NOT been polished in any way form or
fashion. The case is how it was when I bought the watch.
Now onto the very important part that is being hotly debated
on the Internet watch forums, the engraving on the case back. This is an
incredibly popular subject on the forums with well over 10,000 page views in
the past 10 days. The engraving reads "P. Baer 103d Aero". Lt. Baer
was undoubtedly part of the 103d Aero Squadron, not a single person is denying
this fact. What is being debated is the engraving itself. Is it original to the
watch or was it added after the fact to give the watch false provenance? That
is the million dollar question. First, let me start out with this. I have
personally restored over 1,200 WWI American trench watches over the years. I
written two books about WWI American trench watches. The titles are "Elgin
Trench Watches of the Great War" and "Waltham Trench Watches of the
Great War". I have inspected several thousand more trench watches that I
was considering purchasing or inspected for other people. I have NEVER seen a
WWI trench watch that had a false engraving on the case back in order to give
the watch historical provenance. I have never read any stories or seen any
posts of this nature on any of the watch forums or magazines, neither has
anybody that I know in the watch community. Now, there is a first time for
everything in this world, anything is possible.
With that being said I was willing to go to extraordinary
lengths to see what I could discover about the engraving, is it the real deal
or is it bogus? I paced around my watch workshop for several hours thinking
long and hard about how I could get a better look at the engraving. The initial
pictures of the case back showing several different angles were okay and they
could be blown up and made larger but I wanted something better than that. Then
it came to me, take a look at the engraving under a microscope! I jumped on
ebay and came across something called a "3D digital electronic
microscope". Big fancy name but in essence it is simply a piece of
equipment with camera/video capability with a pretty powerful lens. It's rather
cumbersome to use due to the manual focus, that part is not electronic.
Now, I needed something to test it against or I would not
even know what I was looking at. So, I went through the bins in my shop and I
found an orphan case back that was also made by the Philadelphia Watch Case
Company. The metal composition is identical to the Lt. Baer watch,
"silverode". Silverode is an alloy consisting of nickel, zinc, copper
and manganese. Upon inspection of this orphan case back I was able to ascertain
that the Lt. Baer case back and the orphan case back were made only about one
year apart. The Lt. Baer case back was made in 1916 while the orphan case back
was made in 1917. Long story how I can tell the difference, but that is for
another time. I decided to send the orphan case back off to get engraved with
the same inscription. I took it over to Shannon Fine Jewelers in Houston Texas
on FM 1960. I just picked up the control case back yesterday afternoon, thanks
Larry! Now I have something to compare the Lt. Baer case back against under the
microscope. Once all of the testing has been completed I absolutely will
DESTROY this newly engraved case back. I am a member of the NAWCC and I take
the rules for counterfeit items very seriously! The ONLY reason I had a second
case back engraved was for educational purposes. It will NEVER be sold or
circulated into the public!
Under very high magnification I wanted to see what was
inside of the groves of the letters and numerals on the Lt. Baer case back. Was
it smooth and freshly done or was it pitted and actually had some age to it? I
can tell you this, if you hold both case backs in your finger tips and with
your thumb rub over the engravings you can definitely tell the difference, with
your eyes closed of course. The new engraved case back has very high ridges,
the Lt. Baer case back is MUCH smoother to the touch as if it has been worn
down. Time for the microscope test! First, is the newly engraved case back. As
you can clearly see the center groves of the engraving are almost white in
color with a black outline which are the high ridges that I mentioned. Now, on
the Lt. Baer engraving the center of the groves are black in color, an obvious
vast difference. I found this to be a bit odd because several people on the
watch forums are claiming that the Lt. Baer engraving has to be recently done.
So, I found a couple other Philadelphia Silverode or Keystone Silveroid case
back that were also engraved and I put them under the microscope, (Keystone
owned Philadelphia). They too were black in color in the center of the
engraving groves. These other cases are NOT newly done, they are old
engravings. In my opinion it would take years if not DECADES to get the enough
natural patina, dirt sweat buildup and anything else in there to give the
center of the groves this black color. Some have suggested that acid was
applied into the Lt. Baer case back in order to "age" it rapidly.
Well, putting acid onto a case back does NOT make the center groves turn black,
if fact it has the opposite effect. When I ran the "acid" test on one
of these genuinely older case back engravings it turned the center of the
engraving a lighter color, not a darker color. So much for that theory!
The "103d" has been brought up on the engraving by several people. Both 103d and 103rd and have been used in official documents so the point is moot. Don't beat it to death, both are considered correct.
Now the question of the font style has to be looked at very
hard! This is why I put many pictures of the case back onto the forums, I
wanted this watch put under very hard scrutiny intentionally. Several very
similar font styles had their beginnings around 1908 like News Gothic and News
Cycle of the Sans-Serif style of fonts. Others contend that the font is
something different like Helvetica, New Hermes or a Akizidenz-Grotesk
derivative. I see high-breds and characteristics of several of these fonts in
the Lt. Baer engraving. Folks are debating this point rather feverishly on the
forums, even getting rather nasty with each other about it. I honestly cannot
make up my mind on the font, I will leave that for YOU to decide for yourself.
Now when it comes to how it was engraved is another hotly contested issue. Most
watches from this era that had an engraving had it done by hand, but I have
seen a couple that also look like a machine did the work in the past and
recently. You don't see many engravings on watches from this era on cases that
are made of silverode. The VAST majority of the ones that were hand engraved
had sterling silver cases. Sterling silver is a MUCH softer metal when compared
to Silverode like the Lt. Baer Trench Watch. Sterling silver would be much
easier to engrave as well. But there is a double edged sword because of that.
Sterling silver is soft so the engravings wore down with ease. Silverode is
much harder so it will not wear down as fast as sterling silver. You must take
that fact into consideration! The technology for machine engraving was
certainly around during this period so once again make up your own mind. I am
not here to make absolutions in judgement on the engraving, I am only doing
this to show you the microscope test results. But, I will give my thoughts.
This engraving was not recently done in my opinion, it was done years ago.
When? That I cannot tell you. The black color inside of the engraving groves,
the much smoother finish on the high ridges of the groves when compared to the
newly engraved control test case and I don't see any file or tooling marks
where somebody tried lower the height of the ridges on the engraving. Plus, add in the picture of Lt. Baer wearing a trench watch of the same dimensions, case style, dial color and required strap to make the case back tracks in the very first picture. But, I implore
you to make up your own minds and draw your own conclusions when it comes to the engraving on the case back of this trench watch.
Contrary to popular belief all of the world's answers cannot be found on Google! About half of the mysteries that I have solved over the years when it comes to these incredible American trench watches had nothing to do with a computer. The answers were found in museums and libraries, not digitized documents that are only a few keystrokes away, it's a little bit harder than that folks. I highly suggest visiting the Elgin Historical Museum in Elgin Illinois, the Charles River Museum in Waltham Mass. the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia PA or the Ft. Wayne Historical Museum in Ft. Wayne Indiana just to name a few.
This has been a great learning experience for me. I hope
that you can take some of what you have read and bring it back to your own
watch collections in assisting you with future acquisitions.
Thank you for sharing your time with me!