Read about the Raleigh County Veterans Museum here.
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- James Toler wasn't thinking small when he entered his Kopperston workshop in 1987 to begin a project designed to keep his mind and hands occupied after retiring from a 29-year career in teaching.
It took until 2004 for Toler to emerge from the shed with his completed project -- a painstakingly detailed, 20-foot-long, nearly 6-foot-tall, half-ton 1:32 scale model of the battleship USS West Virginia.
"I did this to keep from going stark-raving mad," said Toler, a retired high school teacher and adjunct history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
"I'm a research historian with no money to go anywhere and do anything," he said, "so I decided to work at home."
To make sure his model was accurate, Toler spent much of his time researching diagrams, blueprints and photos of the battleship that was severely damaged by Japanese torpedo planes and dive-bombers during the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The West Virginia lost 104 men during the attack, but was repaired, refitted and sent back into combat, serving in the Philippine, Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns.
Toler's friend, Darrell Adams, who is editor of Tar Heel, the newsletter put out by the battleship USS North Carolina's veterans' association, helped build the USS West Virginia model. He also assisted Toler in getting access to parts of the North Carolina -- now a tourist attraction in Wilmington, N.C. -- that are off the beaten visitors' path.
The North Carolina and West Virginia weren't the same class of battleship, the West Virginia being 19 years older, but their similarities were enough to help with Toler's project.
"I was able to climb all over that ship with a ladder, a tape measure and a ruler to measure things that I couldn't find on blueprints or in pictures," Toler said.
Once Toler had the calculated the accurate sizes and shapes of battleship components, he began to fabricate them from plastic, using lathes, Dremel tools and knives. He also incorporated ballpoint pen components, sections of hula-hoop and umbrella ribs when they matched the components needed for the model ship he envisioned.
In addition to being the world's largest model of an American battleship, Toler's USS West Virginia is seaworthy -- well, at least pond-worthy.
"It was built to sail. It has a keel, a rudder, and 36 air voids" to keep the vessel buoyant and navigable, Toler said. A hinge-equipped section of the model's superstructure allows a person to squeeze into its below-deck section, from which the pilot can peer through a panel of Plexiglas to see ahead.
Air vents disguised in deck components can be opened to allow air to circulate below. Plans called for electric trolling motors to be attached to stabilizing fins extending from the starboard and port sections of the hull, low enough to be underwater and invisible to onlookers.
Over the years, as the ship was taking shape, "I would take a cup of coffee and a cigarette into the shed every Pearl Harbor Day and say something like 'You'll sail again, old girl,'" Toler said.
But after Toler discovered how difficult it was to move the relatively fragile 20-foot long, 1,000-pound vessel, he scrapped his plans to become a model battleship skipper.