The First Empire of France has always been one of the favorite periods for historians. Ruled by a gifted general who became Emperor Napoleon I, it may be argued that this period of 1803 to 1815 marked the high point of military strength for the country when measured against the strength of other European powers. This strength was based upon the use of mass conscription armies inaugurated in the early 1790s. The 1st Republic was threatened by hostile armies at all corners of the country, as the surrounding Monarchist countries were determined to end the rule of the regicides who had executed King Louis XVI and to restore the French Monarchy. Although the French Republic had mass armies most French soldiers had little experience and little training. This would change with Napoleon, initially as 1st Counsel and then as Emperor. Napoleon would take the most experienced soldiers and place them together in their own regiments, brigades, divisions and finally corps. They were known as the Imperial Guard.
The Imperial Guard eventually had three levels, the Old, Middle and Young Guard into which infantry and cavalry regiments, as well as artillery units were placed. The Old Guard was the most prestigious formation. Only the most veteran and combat proven soldiers were invited to join the Old Guard and as a consequence the individual member of the Old Guard tended to be older than the members on the Middle and Young Guard and were certainly older than the typical line infantryman. The members of the Old Guard came to be given the nickname of the Grognyards or literally Grumblers. The Middle Guard were also composed of seasoned, combat proven troops but had younger, less experienced veterans. To be a member of the Young Guard did not require a proven combat record but did require above average physical characteristics that could portend a above the average battle performance. It is still debated of the benefit of taking the best soldiers out of line formations to create elite formations, as it is argued that it reduces the fighting capacity of the bulk of an army, which is the line formation.
Now, you may ask yourself, "What does this have to do with model ship building?" Well this build up is for an analogy. I would submit that ship modelers are the elite of the model building community. In great part this assessment is based upon the nature of the topic. Although all modelers are interested in history, ships have individual histories with individual high points and typically have far longer operational lives than an aircraft or tank. Ships are produced in far smaller quantities than aircraft and armored fighting vehicles (AFV), which are fungible. Like an apple or orange, one Mk IVF1 was more or less just like another MkIVF1 and had a very short operational career until destroyed or rendered obsolete. Granted, modifications of a type did greatly extend the operational life span of a design, such as the Messerschmidt, which first saw combat in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and was still operated as a much later variant in 1945. However, the fact remains you could not take a Me-109E of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and convert it to a Me-109K of 1945. A ship on the other hand could have a far longer life span and could adjust to the changing requirements of combat. One only needs to look at the USN ships of World War Two. In 1940 they had no radar and only a limited number of machine guns for light AA. Yet by 1945 those same ships, if still surviving, had metamorphosed into far superior combat platforms, bristling with far more effective AA guns guided by radar.
The USS Enterprise CVN-65 has been operational for over 45 years. Can you imagine the RAF still flying the Lightning as an operational fighter or the USN still flying the Cutlass or Demon? OK, for all of you BUFFanatics, I will recognize the incredible operational history of the B-52, which really is an exception to the rule, in part because it has the size to accept changes.
Based on this premise, ship modelers can be placed into the three categories of the Imperial Guard, Old, Middle and Young. SteelNavy readers clearly fall into all three, based upon when they first experienced the thrill and satisfaction of building a model ship and the dividing point between the groups can be identified. First of all modelers building completely from scratch are creating a replication out of whole cloth. They are truly artists that fall outside the range of this analogy, which covers modelers who use a commercially sold kit. The Old Guard or Grognyards are those that modeled ships before the introduction of mass-produced injected plastic kits by Revell in 1951. These crusty crustaceans built ships composed of wood or composite materials. Then there is the Middle Guard that started in the age of Box Scale, when the size of a model was based upon box size not common scale. This covers the period of 1951 with the advent of Revell and ended with the introduction of 1:700 waterline scale around 1970 by the Japanese consortium of Tamiya, Hasegawa, Fujimi and Hasegawa. Lastly are the jaded Young Guard that are used to having excellent kits right out of the box without of having gone through birthing pains of pre-plastic kits or the hurly-burly anarchy and adventurous exploration of the Box Scale age.
I am a member of the Middle Guard, so I cannot truly appreciate the impact of the fundamental breakthrough created with the introduction of injected plastic kits. However, I am not far behind. The first ship kit that I can remember building was the box-scale Arizona, which is still produced a half a century after its introduction. Unlike those of the Young Guard, which castigate and throw this kit into the realm of outer darkness, I still relish fond memories of the garish red box art and to a young modeler at the time, the bewildering complexity of the kit. I could never get those tripods right. In that early age, more innocent age, I had no idea of what was accurate and what was not. I preferred the flat bottom Revell models for operational requirements, as they wouldn’t roll over on the carpet, as the far more accurate round bottom Revell models would. The flat bottom Revell kits were the products of the early 1950s with the Iowa, Midway, Fletcher, Los Angeles and others as the products of the first burst of injected plastic kits. Then in 1956 came the second wave of kits that were far more accurate with a far more realistic hull. Chief among these were the Revell Arizona, Essex, Forrest Sherman, Forrestal, and Norton Sound. Of course there were other companies other than Revell. Unlike the box scale Revell kits, Renwal used a constant 1:500 scale and held the reputation as being the most detailed and hence realistic with individual Oerlikons on their North Carolina in lieu of the blobs on the Revell Iowa kit. However, reality is far different from initial perception. Renwal may have featured small detail and a grid mat and calipers on their box art but in truth the actual flat-bottomed models were far behind the accuracy of the second wave of Revell Models. But wait, there was another company out there!
Aurora of West Hempstead, New York marched to the beat of a different drummer. Always running behind Revell but appearing before Renwal, Aurora kit design used a different philosophy. When it came to aircraft kits it came in the form of bright colors. Bright metallic red Messerschmidts, metallic blue Spitfires, metallic green MiGs, yellow Zeros or black Focke Wulfs, all attracted the young modeler by garish color to overcome their abysmal accuracy and crude simplicity. When it came to ship models, Aurora held two philosophies, which separated it from the older and larger Revell. Aurora introduced the constant scale for their ship kits using a more or less constant 1:600 scale, well in advance of the use of the same scale by Airfix or the 1:500 scale by Renwal or Frog or 1:400 scale by Heller. However, there was a second very important difference between Aurora ship kits and the comparative Revell offerings. Revell was conservative in their choice of topics. As a US company, their product was naturally aimed at the US modeler. It was naturally anticipated that a USN topic would have more appeal to a US modeler than a ship from another country’s navy. Aurora started out this way with their own Iowa, St Paul and Forrestal, trying to take on Revell kit to kit. But some modelers did not want a salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and green peas with every meal. Many young modelers, including me, wanted something different, something exotic, something spicy, enchiladas or Mu Shu pork, instead of salisbury steak, frijoles or low mein instead of mashed potatoes or water chestnuts or jalopeno peppers instead or green peas. It was Aurora that provided the hot peppers that we craved.
Their first non-USN models appeared in the late 1950s with the Graf Spee and King George V. Aurora was far from a stickler for accuracy and both these kits were approximations, rather than accurate. The apogee of inaccuracy came with their USS Halford, which was a pure fantasy. The Aurora Halford looked like a Gearing class with four, rather than three, twin turrets and a catapult and seaplane thrown in to boot. However, foreign ship kit designs were not immune from Aurora designer brain freeze syndrome, as one of their next kit releases would show. This kit was the biggest of the big the Japanese battleship Yamato. At the time of the release of the Aurora Yamato Japanese model kits were not commonly available. As a consequence most modelers had never seen a model of an IJN warship. Few had even seen photographs of the actual warships. I still remember examining the plan views on the non-Yamato Japanese playing pieces of the Avon Hill board game Midway and wondering what their profile views would be. Just as kits of Japanese ships were unavailable, there must have been a shortage of accurate plans available for kit designers in the US. That is the only way to explain the design of the Aurora Yamato. As launched the Yamato had four triple 6-inch gun turrets, one fore and aft of the superstructure on the centerline and two wing turrets, one on each side of the superstructure. As is now commonly known the wing turrets were landed in order to greatly expand the AA gun complement. Well, the Aurora designers didn’t get the word or deliberately chose to ignore history in order to produce a crowd pleasing exotic. After all, those dumb kids would never know the difference. Aurora apparently used photographs of the starboard side of the early fit Yamato and photographs of a late war Yamato for their design of the port side.
The Aurora Yamato has a totally inaccurate three triple 6-inch turret fit. Both centerline and the starboard wing turrets are present but the port side had three twin 5-inch turrets. Another of the big-ticket items for a kid at the time was the inclusion of a seaplane. Big guns, many guns and aircraft all rolled into one kit, what more could any kid want? No kid would know that the seaplane appears to be a Seahawk rather than a Japanese design. With portholes big enough to park a Kate (with wings folded) and globular enclosed AA turrets, as Aurora specialized in globular AA turrets, the other smaller parts were a tad less than accurate but all of this was more than compensated by the fact that it was the only model of any Japanese warship available to the US modeler in the early 1960s, excluding the 1:1200 Pyro Yamato and Musashi, with the same three secondary turret defect and the Shokaku/Zuikaku carriers in pale green plastic. It would be several years later before I discovered the further joys of Imperial Japanese Navy battleship architecture, when I sent off hard earned paper route money to a California mail order hobby shop that imported Japanese kits. When they came in the large (around 1:450scale), Kongo and Nagato were more eye openers, but that is another story.
As I can not truly appreciate the initial modeling experience of my elders in the Old Guard, so too can no modeler in the Young Guard truly appreciate the wonders, glories of growing up in the Golden Age of Box Scale of modelers of the Middle Guard. Now, when I read one of these young guarders whining that this is wrong or that is wrong with a kit, I can only shake my head in wonderment. Granted, there are some new cheesy kits produced, mostly confined to that old throwback box scale but by and large the accuracy and detail of the vast majority of new plastic kit releases is so far superior to the "wow" kits of the box scale age, as to resemble complaining about the performance of a modern F/A-18 to someone whose flight background included flying a Brewster Buffalo. For all of you young guarders, chill out, as we are truly in the golden age of model warship building. It is getting close to 60 years since the introduction of the injected plastic model ship and we as a model ship community have never had it better. Sure there are inaccuracies with new kits from major manufacturers but most are correctable.
I still treasure the Aurora Yamato, three secondary gun turrets howler and all, as it was an experience in adventure. Aurora produced the exotic, the different, the spicy and yes, the bizarre grotesquerie but I still get a warm feeling every time I examine of those Aurora kits or re-explore one of the late 1950s kits from Revell that those young guard complainers will never experience. Although I was not a member of the Santa Maria with Christopher Columbus and Joel Labow in the pre-plastic ship modeling age, I definitely was a member of the Half Moon with Henry Hudson. Hudson was the European discoverer of Long Island, which coincidentally was where West Hempstead and Aurora existed in an earlier age.
The Aurora Yamato is the Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde of Aurora model ship kits with the port side of an early fit and starboard of a late fit Yamato. Yet, the kit is a historic model release, at least in the United States. The 1:600 scale Aurora Yamato was the first and only larger model of an Imperial Japanese Navy warship readily available for the majority of US modelers until the advent of the 1:700 scale waterline explosion of the 1970s. Come and enjoy this bizarre model design.