A Warm Morning at the SubBase in New London... Three Fleet Boats sit moored to a finger pier...That was the scene I had in mind for this diorama. Three of those good ol' Revell GROWLER / FLASHER / LIONFISH kits in 1:178 scale were put to use, with each one of them detailed to represent a different class variation. I'd guess probably every submarine hobbyist has built at least one of these popular old Revell fleet boat models. In the early 1970s, the kit was issued as USS GROWLER SS-215. A few years later, with the box art and decal sheets changed, the same kit re-emerged as USS FLASHER SS-249. Through the mid-80s and into the '90s, the same kit was re-issued yet again, this time as the USS LIONFISH SS-298. I've even seen an odd variation of the kit boxed up as USS DRUM SS-228. A pretty impressive record for a cheap model kit. As everyone already well knows, that model kit's hull was fairly accurate. The fairwater, the guns, masts, and screws were obviously and blatantly awful. And it's those kinds of inaccuracies that serve as catalysts to bring out the best in us as model builders.
During those dark years before there were any sorts of aftermarket kits or custom parts made to accommodate these Revell kit hulls, any detailing apart from what the box offered had to be kit-bashed and / or scratch-built. The more adventurous among us would cut open all the limber holes along the deck casing, shave and carve into proper shape those thick blobs of plastic that were supposed to be propeller blades, and maybe drill open the end of the 4" deck gun barrel. The more we could achieve, the more we'd attempt to correct. And finally, it would come down to performing "plastic surgery" in an attempt at correcting that woeful joke of a fairwater. These endeavors usually achieved satisfactory results, though, enough so that many of us ended up building more than just one of these kits. At the time, it was about the only U.S. Fleet Boat model available to the vast majority of us who weren't up to the task of scratch-building an entire ship. The best efforts, nonetheless, could yield only that style of a mid-war GATO-class variant. Attempting some slightly more adventurous plastic surgery, I tried cutting down one of the Revell kit fairwaters and managed to "cheat" it into a fairly good-looking early BALAO-class variation. A spark of new life for an old and tired model kit! With that little inspiration, I soon found myself attempting what seemed a fairly easy idea to scratch-build - an early pre-war GATO-style fairwater. The endeavor paid off with a pretty nice little pre-war fairwater to grace one of those hulls. Proper detailing, however, would require a lot of research. A lot of photos to stare and compare, some line drawings, and a sense of confidence launched me into a journey of detailing like I'd never done on these models before. Each variant had its own unique detailing fore and aft, and I had only so much material and so much scratch-building skill. But the challenge had allured me, and I embraced it. To a point.
Each one of these three fleet boats was a unique challenge unto itself, and the results were rewarding enough that I wasn't going to cheapen them with a lazy, less-than-equally-detailed diorama setting. As always, I used clear waterglass, painted on the flat underside with a few coats of high-gloss enamel, to represent the water in the scene. This diorama measures about 18"x30" or so. And, as always, a 12"-tall plexiglass dustcover was made beforehand to protect the project during and after. I built this diorama in 1993, commissioned by a fellow submarine historian and aficionado, a co-founder and the first vice-president of The Subcommittee, Lester Palifka, who loaned it out for display to the U.S. Naval Submarine Force Library & Museum (USS NAUTILUS Memorial) just outside the sub base in New London, Connecticut. It has since made a round of displays at various libraries, schools, hobby shops, and museums. A lot of detailing was accomplished with the vast range of great odds 'n' ends available at model railroad shops. I always prefer stretched sprue for use as antenna wires, cables, ropes, hand rail cables, etc. I just love that stuff ! Thin brass wire, plastic card stock, Plastruct I-beams, and Evergreen plastic stock always serve as basic staples in diorama projects. Stained and weathered balsa wood planks and dowels served for a realistic wood pier. Various gauges of solder serve well as hoses and sometimes for cables - it's easy to make it conform to snaking patterns, up and over objects, draping, hanging, or even in a flat coil. Paint it up, and it's a done deal. I didn't use any model railroad figures, since N-scale would have been too small, and HO scale would have been too large. I like having people in a diorama scene, because they add that sense of life to it. The Prieser brand from Germany is probably the best in model figures in HO, N, and Z scales.
With the help of a Bic lighter and a sharp X-Acto blade, they can be perfected in any poses you like. But those little things are such a pain in the ass to paint, and they have to be painted properly if they're gonna lend any sense of realism instead of detracting from it. Trying to get anything even close to a face painted on them, forget it ! And the lack of that tiny little detail can easily detract from that sense of realism. They need to be painted with ultra flat paints, too - any shine on the clothing detracts. In a diorama, even the smallest details all count. At a glance, I can always spot every little flaw and error in my detailing, and I'll work to make corrections. Trouble is, I too often spot a lot of them after the project is done, and has already been photographed and published. Perfection is ever so elusive. So I've learned to live with all the little flaws and errors I find in myself, however, with a Bic lighter and a sharp X-Acto blade...
|1. FD1 -- A bow oblique view of the diorama
2. FD2 -- Starboard bow view of boats and pier
3. FD3 -- Close-up of mid-war GATO-class bow detailing
4. FD4 -- Starboard side low oblique view of diorama
5. FD5 -- Starboard side high oblique view of diorama
6. FD6 -- Close-up starboard view of boats and pier detailings
7. FD7 -- Bow high oblique view of diorama
8. FD8 -- Close-up of boats' conning towers
9. FD9 -- Close-up of early GATO-class forward deck detail
10. FD10 -- Port side low oblique view of diorama
11. FD11 -- Starboard overhead view of diorama
12. FD12 -- Drawing of conversion steps for transforming kit conning towers into different class versions
|13. FD13 -- Scratch-building an per-war
GATO-style fairwater framework, upon which a thin
plastic card-stock skin will be affixed
14. FD14 -- With the outer skin attached, details were added
15. FD15 -- A soon-to-be periscope sheer for the pre-war GATO fairwater
16. FD16 -- A view of the three different fairwaters for the boats
17. FD17 -- The different fairwaters and different scratch-built deck guns
18. FD18 -- Another view of the scratch-built deck guns
19. FD19 -- A preview of the soon-to-be diorama layout
20. FD20 -- Main lobby of the Submarine Force Museum, New London, where the diorama was placed for display in 1997
-- Ken Hart --