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'Wee Vee' model a 17-year labor of love

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.

"It just wasn't worth the effort to launch," he said.

Instead, Toler's battleship found a home in the Raleigh County Veterans Museum at 1557 Harper Road in Beckley, a short distance off the West Virginia Turnpike. The ship, surrounded by memorabilia from the full-scale USS West Virginia, is on display in a picture window-equipped room facing busy Harper Road.

"At night, it's all lit up, making it sort of a Statue of Liberty for Beckley," Toler said.

The retired teacher, who became affiliated with the museum in 2003, two years after it was founded, now serves as its director.

A dedication ceremony for the USS West Virginia model and its accompanying display was held in 2009.

Several former crewmembers of the battlewagon visited the museum during the dedication, and several more have toured the exhibit since then. Former crewman Chester Fitzwater of Beckley, who died not long after the 2009 ceremony, used Toler's ship to point out the anti-aircraft gun he manned when the West Virginia was attacked by Japanese suicide dive-bombers during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.

"He showed me the starboard quarterdeck quad-40mm gun he was loading, and where the plane came down into the 20mm gallery at midship," Toler said. "He said he could see the fuse get torn off the bomb" just as it came in contact with a railing, which explains why the bomb, which penetrated two decks, did not explode.

Five men were killed and several others were seriously wounded in the Okinawa kamikaze attack.

"For some of the old World War II sailors who come here," Toler said, "seeing this ship can be an emotional trip."

In addition to the room housing the 20-foot version of the West Virginia -- nicknamed the "Wee-Vee" by its crew -- the museum has a room dedicated to more items from, and about, the battleship. "We have the biggest collection of West Virginia items anywhere," said Toler.

The collection includes the hat worn by Lt. Claude Ricketts during the Pearl Harbor attack, in which the West Virginia was struck by seven torpedoes and two bombs. Ricketts tended to the ship's mortally wounded commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn Bennion, on the ship's bridge, and then went below decks to counter-flood and stabilize the Wee-Vee when it began listing dangerously, preventing the ship from capsizing.

Other exhibits include a "disabled" signal flag that few above the battleship immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, uniforms worn by crewmen, menus from holiday meals served aboard the battleship, copies of the ship's newspaper, deck logs and certificates issued to crewmen admitted into the "Order of Neptune" after crossing the equator for the first time. There are silver trays presented to officers during the 1930s, including one issued to Ensign John Hewitt of Bramwell, and thousands of photographs of the ship from its launching in 1921 to its participation in the Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay in 1945 and its decommissioning in 1947.

"They eventually scrapped her, turning her into beer cans and razor blades," said Toler.

A chance to see the painstakingly created 20-foot version of their ship was a primary reason why 11 surviving members of the ship's crew will hold their 2012 -- and possibly final -- reunion in the state for which their vessel was named.

During their three-day stay here, which begins Friday, the Wee-Vee veterans and their families will tour the Culture Center in Charleston, where a number of artifacts from, and photos of, the battleship are housed. On Sunday, they will travel to Beckley, where they will attend a luncheon in their honor at Pasquale's restaurant and then tour the Raleigh County Veterans Museum and its USS West Virginia exhibits.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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