Building the S.S. LaCrosse Victory
In April 2005 I got to see a real, live Victory ship, the S.S. American Victory, when Dad and I took a cruise on her in Tampa Bay, Fl. As soon as I saw her massive gray bulk moored next to the Tampa Aquarium, I knew in my heart that the model I had just finished was wrong - not in any huge, glaringly obvious ways, but in a lot of little ways that made my effort, to me, not complete.
So deciding, I took advantage of the day in more ways than one - I took a ton of reference photos and crawled over, under, around and through the American Victory, noting big things like how many ladders there were on each deck and where they were located, and little things, like whether the bridge deck had 3-bar or 4-bar railing. I asked Dad casual questions about the two Victory ships he had served on, the LaCrosse Victory and the Atlantic City Victory, like what kinds of deck cargo they carried on various Atlantic crossings, did he remember the colors of the hatch covers, specific paint schemes of the ships, and anything else I could think of, all under the guise of enjoying the day.
By the time the American Victory returned to the dock that day, I had a clear vision of what I needed to do. First thing was to order another Victory ship kit from a rather bemused Dave Angelo at Loose Cannon Productions. Second was to do research - a LOT of research. I was going to get it right this time!
I zeroed in on the LaCrosse Victory for two main reasons, 1) Dad spent several months on her during the war, and 2) He remembered that one time they carried a deck cargo of tanks over to Europe. I thought that would look really cool on the finished model. I also thought it would be really cool to model a specific ship at a specific moment in time, in this case mid-1945. Plus, the LaCrosse Victory had a gray paint job, which I thought would be a lot easier to paint than the black hull and white upperworks scheme of the Atlantic City Victory.
So deciding, I started scouring the Internet for all the little bits I would need. One thing about 1/700 scale, it defines tiny. I found one company in England that makes resin tanks, trucks, jeeps, etc. in that scale and ordered enough to cover the decks. Loose Cannon Productions came through with resin boxes, crates and fuel drums on pallets. Other sources in the US and Japan gave me life rings, fire hose racks, watertight doors, hatch covers, life rafts and a host of other things.
My research efforts uncovered a lot of little details, like the fact that two of the lifeboats had motors and two did not. Off went inquiries about who made oars in that scale. The number and location of the fire hydrants and fire hose racks required calls or e-mails to the organizations that have the three functioning Victory ships. Where all the life rings were located was deduced from wartime photos and my time on the American Victory. By that time of the war the U-boat submarine threat was almost nil, so the American Victory did not have any of the 20mm gun tubs or bow cannon so prominent on earlier Victory ships; based on Dad's recollections, I decided she probably had either a 4- or 5-inch cannon on the aft deckhouse. Another search to find out who made the correct kind of cannon in that scale.
The construction of this model was both faster and slower than my first effort. Faster because I knew what I was doing, more or less, and slower because I was adding a lot more detail to this model. If it was on the real Victory ship, I wanted it to be on this model! A few notes on construction:
Building model ships in this scale does not require the use of photoetched detail parts, but it sure makes all the difference between ending up with something that looks like a pool toy and something that resembles the real thing. A few things I learned the hard way:
Always cut the photoetch on a firm surface. I use a hard plastic cutting board with a smooth top.
Always keep one fingertip, a pencil eraser, something, on a corner of each part as you make the final cut, or else you will launch said part into space, never to be seen again.
Always use a sharp hobby blade or razor blade to remove and trim the parts. It may be brass (or steel) and it may be thin, but it's still pretty tough stuff. I usually use a No. 11 or No. 12 X-acto blade to remove the parts, and trim the edges flush with a new single-edge razor blade.
It's usually best to paint the photoetch parts before you remove them from the fret (the framework that holds them all together) because being so small, it may be impossible to get at them once they are glued on. If you use spray paint from a can, make sure you hold it far enough away from the fret so the paint doesn't clog the details up.
Before you paint photoetch, you need to give it some 'tooth' so the paint will stick. I do this by giving it a brief bath in ordinary household vinegar, which is acidic enough to mildly etch the metal, followed by a thorough rinse off in water and air drying.
You can use ordinary white glue (Elmer's) to put some parts on, provided those parts are never going to be subjected to any stress - like having a larger part glued to them. Some modelers use white glue for placement, then come back and flow a thin line of superglue around the base of the part to make sure it stays put. I tend to superglue items that require a lot of bending, like railings, since they may try to resume their original straight shape at some point. Detail parts like hose racks get put on with a tiny drop of white glue.
A piece of fine wire, 24-gauge or so, makes a dandy superglue applicator. Just trim the tip off when it gets too big a blob of dried glue on it. You can use this to put tiny dots of superglue precisely where you want them.
My favorite tool for installing detail parts other than railings is a wooden toothpick. Put glue on the model where you want the photoetch part to go. Wet the end of the toothpick with your tongue, touch it to the part to pick it up, and then guide it on in to where it belongs on the model. The part will stick to the glue and release from the toothpick, which you can then use to nudge the part into final alignment.
Buy a good set of dividers before you start installing railings - that is the only practical way to measure how long a segment needs to be, or how far it is between bends.
I bend photoetch railings and other parts with two single-edge razor blades, one to hold the part down and get a crisp (straight) bend, the other to slip under the railing or whatever and bend it up to the required angle.
NEVER assume you've bent a railing at the correct angle before you apply the glue - always check by dry fitting to make sure that it follows the curves and angles of the deck it's going to be glued to.
I don't own an airbrush, so I can't get a lot of those cool effects and crisp details that airbrush users can achieve. I am stuck with spray cans (aka rattle cans) and bottles of enamel and acrylic paints I get at my local hobby shop. She carries the Testors Model Masters line of military and naval paints, which fortunately comes in lots of different shades of gray, green and brown.
Most of my paints are enamels, which means the brushes have to be cleaned with paint thinner or something similar, and the rattle cans have to be used outside lest you fill up your abode with poisonous fumes. I learned pretty fast that anything you spray paint must be securely nailed down, lest it get blow many feet away by the force of the rattle can's propellant. I came up with the idea of using small squares of double-sided foam tape or doubled-over strips of low-tack blue painters tape to secure the hull to a piece of cardboard that was about an inch larger all around than the model. That gave me something to hold it with when I spray painted, and to hold at different angles when I was assembling parts and painting small details.
The system I came up with was to spray paint the hull and large superstructure elements after they had been sanded smooth and any holes or dips filled with modeling putty, check for mistakes and spray again so everything gets two thin coats. The hull and superstructure of my Victory ship were painted Flat Gull Gray (Testors 1930) because merchant ships in WW II were almost always painted gray, but the exact shade varied from shipyard to shipyard. All of the photoetch also got sprayed this color.
To avoid the agony of trying to mask off all the light gray areas, I hand painted the flat deck surfaces with Gunship Gray (Testors 1723). This darker gray was consistent with the few color photos I could find, and Dad's memory, plus it gave a nice contrast to the light gray of the hull and vertical surfaces.
One debate I had with myself was the color of the hatch covers. The actual covers are large, thick boards, which are then covered with a piece of canvas that is secured with rope and wooden wedges around the edges. But what color was the canvas? Dad wasn't sure, but seemed to think it was just a brown or 'dirty' color of some kind. Talking with a couple of Liberty and Victory ship historians brought out that, as I suspected, there was no standard color, just something so that the bright white canvas didn't act as a beacon for attacking aircraft. General consensus was for some kind of medium or cream green color. After - again - pondering the dozens of shades of green at the local hobby shop, I settled on RAF Interior Green (Testors 2062) as looking the most like new canvas. The LaCrosse Victory was a brand new ship when my Dad served on her; plus, the cream green color helped break up the large swatches of gray.
A few words about brushes - BUY GOOD ONES.
Because if you buy cheap ones, your models are going to look like crap. Don't ask me how I know this, just accept it as fact. If you're building mostly small stuff, as I do, then you'll need correspondingly small brushes to get the paint where you want it, in the quantity you want it. Here is my current selection:
No. 1, 3, 5, round bristle, for painting large areas, weathering, drybrushing.
No. 0, 2/0, 3/0, round bristle, red sable hair, for general small area painting.
No. 10/0, round bristle, red sable, for smaller detail work.
No. 15/0, round bristle, red sable, for very small detail work, like one teensie drop of paint on the tip of something.
No. 18/0, round bristle, red sable, called a 'spotter' for obvious reasons.
1/4, 3/8, 1/2-inch, flat bristle, camels hair, for general weathering, applying glue for groundwork, anyplace I can get away with just globbing on the paint and not having to worry about the finish.
It takes practice to get a good, smooth finish using brushes, but it can be done if you pay attention to your stroke technique, always paint with a wet edge, and keep the paint thin enough to flow but thick enough to cover with one application. Modeling is a learning experience, and every project will be better than your last one.
Here are some close-up pictures of the finished model. Hold cursor over each photo for more information:
The final touch was a brass plaque mounted in front of the ship on the base. It ended up costing almost as much as the model! It was engraved:
Loose Cannon Productions (Kit No. 14, Victory ship)
Today only three Victory ships in their wartime appearance remain of the 534 that were built. Both the S.S. Lane Victory, in San Pedro, Calif., and the S.S. American Victory, in Tampa, Fl., are operational and go out for occasional day cruises. The S.S. Red Oak Victory is currently being restored to operational status in Richmond, Calif. All three are open for tours, at a very reasonable cost.
One final note about the U.S. Merchant Marine in WWII - a lot of people at the time characterized these men (and a few women) as slackers, draft dodgers, or worse. But when all the numbers are added up, the Merchant Marine had a higher casualty rate than any branch of the U.S. armed services, including the Marines. In 1942, at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, 4,985 Merchant Marine and Armed Guard died at sea - a rate of almost 100 men per week. Looking at it that way, the saying "Freedom is not free" rings very true. There is a memorial in New York City that pays homage, in part, to the Merchant Mariners who met their end in the cold depths of the Atlantic Ocean and have no final resting place; it lists the names of 4,609 missing in the waters of the North Atlantic.
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This page was last updated Feb. 11, 2006.