“Somehow, when they should have been sunk in 15 minutes, this group managed to hold off the Japanese for two and a half hours,” said George Wells, gazing at a group of American ships sailing on a shelf on the second floor of Rockville Centre’s American Legion Post 303.
Seven-hundred times smaller than the original ships, the stationary models were flanked by “angel hair” cotton — the wakes — to appear to be on the move. They were busy fighting one of the largest naval battles of World War II — the Battle of Leyte Gulf, near the Philippine islands in 1944.
Wells, 70, of Hewlett, served in the Navy from 1966 to 1972. Two years later, he began building plastic model ships from kits he bought at local hobby stores. “When I saw these come out, I said this is not something that you have sitting on a stand,” he said. “You can make fleets out of these.”
He continued building them through the next few decades, even constructing some from scratch, and now has about 140 American and Japanese cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers, along with a few British and German ships, which he recently added “just for effect.”
Joseph Scarola, past commander of Post 303, said he struck up a conversation with Wells at a fundraiser about eight years ago, and invited him to display his ships at the post. “He’s turned out to be a gold mine,” Scarola said, noting that he has helped bring attention to Post 303. “What George does, and what all of us at the American Legion try to do is make sure that we don’t forget the sacrifices made for us.”
Wells showed off the ships just minutes after the conclusion of Rockville Centre’s Pearl Harbor ceremony at Mill River Park on Dec. 7. As other Legion members could be heard downstairs filing into Post 303’s Maple Avenue headquarters for some post-ceremony refreshments, Wells was entrenched in warfare.
In a cluster were some ships attacked 77 years ago to that day in Hawaii, including the USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Pennsylvania and USS Maryland.
“I tried to come as close as I could to what they would look like,” Wells said, his eyes now on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Cotton protruded out of the sheet of ocean covering shelves as long as the room, representing the enormous splashes made by enemy shells weighing as much as 3,200 pounds. Some were pinkish, others orange, green, yellow, even blue. The Japanese had dyed the shells so they could see where they landed and adjust their accuracy.
Other ships fought other battles around the room. Wells pointed out the USS Enterprise. “The most decorated ship in the U.S. Navy,” he said. “Presidential Unit Citation, was in more combat than any other ship and was damaged by the Japanese three separate times.” He also highlighted the Yamato, perhaps the most feared Japanese battleship of them all. “Her 18-inch diameter cannon, 70-foot-long gun barrels would fire a 3,200-pound shell some 25 miles,” Wells said.
Wells noted the displays are meant for families and kids, in order to keep the memories of those who fought in the battles alive. A small television screen sat in the corner of the room, which he uses to show military history videos to visitors.
“It’s part of the Legion’s motto to talk about what has happened in the past,” Wells said. “Heroism, screwed-upidness, bullheadedness. Who knows, when they grow up they might encounter something similar to it.
“Be prepared for it,” he continued. “Some say this is what was done in the past by the greatest generation. You might be called upon to do the same thing.”