OLEAN — Painstakingly hand-crafted down to the smallest of details — even colored to closely match the vegetation — a local map of Pearl Harbor is on display at the U.S. Navy Museum to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack that launched America into World War II.
Earl McElfresh, proprietor of Olean’s McElfresh Map Co., recalls taking months to create the map for the attack’s 60th anniversary at the behest of the History Book Club. Analyzing aerial photos taken of military bases and surrounding areas on Oahu, Hawaii, he methodically drew and watercolored the landscape where nearly 2,500 American soldiers and sailors died and more than 1,000 others were injured Dec. 7, 1941.
After first being on display at the Washington Navy Yard museum, the map will then move along with a traveling history exhibit.
“It’s really nice because this is the actual U.S. Navy,” McElfresh said Monday. “These are the real people. Apparently, our map of Pearl Harbor was the most accurate and illustrative they could find. It was unexpected.”
McElfresh — well known in his niche as a Civil War mapmaker, historian and author — also has forayed into other theaters of World War II. Particularly popular is his map detailing the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
It takes much research. But never having been to Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only challenge of the project.
“This was very complicated topography,” said McElfresh, who documented roads, bases, water channels and hills. “A Civil War mapmaker would have a basis map to work from. They would create a grid on their basis map. They would just draw little squares and compare a similar grid, so instead of working with the whole thing you’re working with maybe a half an inch.
“That was my standard thing. I just based my techniques on what Civil War mapmakers have done, but … there were more roads and interconnecting things.”
McElfresh’s map began to take shape, using pin pricking to denote minor details from other maps along with a host of other photos and vantage points. He noted, however, the document was one of the few he had to restart from scratch, as certain locations didn’t match.
“It was so complicated,” said McElfresh, who opened McElfresh Map Co. in 1993. “With Civil War maps, there’s like a road here and another road coming in and a stream. This was like roads and hangars and runways. It was way too complicated for the process that I normally use.”
An abundance of color photos available from around the time of the attack brought depth and perspective to the fields and hills near Pearl Harbor, he said. The mapmaker rounded out the rear of the map with postcards depicting military history of the time.
“I think even the Japanese were taking color photographs as they were bombing away, and those were available, too,” he added. “I tried to recreate as best I could what I saw.”
There once was a time History Book Club and the Book of the Month Club boosted business with box packages including history books and maps crafted by McElfresh. In a dying art, those relationships “faded away” as technology advanced, he noted.
“It’s a nice, little development for us,” McElfresh said. “It’s always good to get attention, and from somebody like that, it’s really nice to get that attention.”
(Contact City Editor Kelsey Boudin at kboudin@olean
timesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)