Dana Wegner commands a battle fleet of some 1,500 cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers and other warships just like the ones deployed in Operation Desert Storm -- except they're smaller, some only 1 1/2 inches long.
Wegner is the Navy's model ship curator.
"The smallest ones are used as map models," Wegner explains. "But other examples are large and impressive." For example, the Gibbs and Cox model of the destroyer Mitcher, circa 1954. "It's 10 feet long and incredibly detailed. Gibbs and Cox was the Rembrandt of model makers; they only made 33 of them, and the Navy owns 32."
The models, often created as part of the design process, are displayed in government buildings and naval facilities worldwide. But periodically they're returned to the David Taylor Research Center in Carderock for refurbishing by Wegner and his assistants, Colan Ratliff and Michael Condon. A nine-foot model of the John F. Kennedy -- one of the aircraft carriers sent to the Middle East -- is there now. "The Kennedy was done in 1963, and the paint has gone bad," Wegner says. "When my assistants are finished with it, we'll send it back to the Naval Academy for display."
Wegner's team also occasionally creates models from scratch.
"We built a two-foot model of the guided missile cruiser Belknap for President Bush to give Soviet President Gorbachev at Malta," says Wegner. "The three of us completed it in only 10 days. We're pretty proud of that one."
The collection, dating from 1883, was stored in the old main Navy building on Constitution Avenue NW until 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered it taken to David Taylor.
"The president was a ship model buff, and he was afraid that the building was too tempting a target during wartime," Wegner says. "He figured that the collection would be safer in the suburbs."
The decades-old models sometimes hold messages from kindred spirits. A 1902 rendition of the battleship Virginia recently yielded a scrap of paper bearing the signatures of three craftsmen who worked on it. A WWII model of the cruiser Atlanta contained this message: "Dear sailor or officer. We helped build this model. We are 20 years old." Two names, telephone numbers and Chicago-area addresses followed.
Wegner thinks it would be interesting to talk with the 1940s ship-builders. "But we just haven't been able to locate them," he says.
So, Virginia Cardinal and Angie Queen -- if you're out there, drop a line.