Mysterious symbols discovered in basement revealed as WWI fighter squadron emblems
Decades ago, an unknown hand painted dozens of mysterious symbols on the basement walls of a stately home near the Brightwaters canal.
A rooster crowing in front of a sun as a snake dances. A bucking donkey kicking at the ground. A mythical griffin – half lion, half eagle – poised with one paw atop a capital letter L. A floating top hat with the American flag. An Uncle Sam in spats, with a bomb tucked under one arm.
When Randy Meyn discovered the 30 or so basement paintings during a renovation, he thought they were the remnants of a cult that held meetings inside the late 19th century home he bought in 1998.
"We thought it was Nazi sympathizers. There was also a black and red stripe that ran all around the basement," he said, recalling the spooky atmosphere.
When Meyn's friend, Islip Town Councilman John Cochrane, visited the home last summer, he knew immediately what he was looking at.
"Anytime you have a Navy or Army bar, they mark it with insignias," said Cochrane, a reserve Navy captain.
Brightwaters must have once had a military bar or possibly a speakeasy in this home, Cochrane said, and the strange paintings are aircraft decorations from different squadrons and battalions of the military drinkers. He wants to have military and local aviation museums examine the paintings for possible preservation.
"You preserve these, absolutely. There should be a plaque under each of these," Cochrane said.
Wood panels had covered the paintings until Meyn renovated the house and discovered them painted on the original bricks. He also removed the remnants of a 6-foot-long wooden bar.
The home sits on the Brightwaters canal, a known route for bootleggers bringing rum from the Great South Bay during Prohibition, said Islip Town historian Jack Whitehouse. Prohibition took effect in January 1920.
Though there is scant evidence of speakeasies around Islip, there was a naval air station in Bay Shore in the early 20th century.
"It was a big base, and certainly the townspeople got heavily involved with the base," Whitehouse said. "It was open from April 1917 to 1919. It went from a naval auxiliary base to the second-largest naval air station after Pensacola [Florida]. They ended up training well over 1,000 men as preliminary air pilots. They had a course around the Great South Bay."
Military historians said the insignias match those used by Army Air Corps squadrons during that era. Some of the identified symbols were used by "the 11th Bomb Squadron, 20th Bomb Squadron, 94th Fighter Squadron, and 95th Bomb Squadron," said historian Margaret Ream of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. "These units and their emblems all trace back to World War I."
She said the kicking donkey was the insignia of the 95th Bomb Squadron, and the stars-and-stripes hat was the insignia the 94th Fighter Squadron -- home of famous fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker.
"Insignia were very popular with squadrons," said Hill Goodspeed, a historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. "They were like a coat of arms."
Goodspeed said if the paintings were legitimately painted by World War I-era personnel, "it would be a pretty amazing find." Goodspeed and Ream, given email photos of the paintings, could not immediately identify all of the insignias, but Ream noted that obscure or previously undocumented insignias are possible.
Who painted the insignias remains unknown. According to property records, George Furman and John Weber sold the home in 1924 to James Osterhout, who then sold it in 1925 to Lionel and Edna Hermann. The Hermanns sold the house in 1945 to Otto H. Bauer and Elias Simon, who in turn sold it to Katherine Flynn.
Flynn's grandson Tim Flynn said the insignias provided a colorful atmosphere for playtime when he was a child.
"We used to play like there was a secret society, like spies, because they had a military feel to them, but we never knew what the heck they were," he said.
The fact the insignia have lasted this long is in part thanks to the contractor that Meyn hired a decade ago to renovate his basement. Intrigued by the symbols, Robert Neill of Brightwaters decided to paint carefully around the insignias.
"Based on the type of paint that was worked with, heavy enamel oil-based paint, I knew they were old. I knew they were done a long time ago," Neill said.
"The quality and the caliber of the paintings, they were clearly done by a talented guy in the crew, the guy who knew to make that insignia," he said. "There was enough of them that it would be a shame to cover it up."