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Restoring a 1/15 scale USS Nevada movie prop

John Stewart rebuilds the 38' Tora! Tora! Tora! prop
RELATED TOPICS: SHIPS
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The fully refurbished movie prop.
The battleship USS Nevada BB-36 was a “lucky” ship on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941: It got underway and fought back against the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. But it took a torpedo and at least five bombs before being beached at Hospital Point that bloody day, while its sister ship, the USS Oklahoma capsized in port from heavy damage.

The Nevada’s daring struggle became part of Navy lore and was brought to the movies in the dramatic 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! Film sequences for the movie that were shot at the “sky pool” on the 20th Century Fox ranch in Malibu, Calif., feature images of the 1/15 scale model of the Nevada created by the studio’s artists.

That’s where John Stewart comes in. Fate sometimes plays a bigger role in life than we may be willing to admit.

Stewart, of Culver City, Calif., turned 75 this year, the same as the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. He’s a former Navy seaman, a gunner’s mate, later loader, pointer, and finally in charge of the officer’s boat aboard the USS Helena CA-75. After his Navy service he became a successful sign painter in California and made architectural models. It was through that connection that Dave Rupp of the Quarterdeck Society found him and asked that he restore the 38'-long USS Nevada movie prop.

Stewart spent 11 months refurbishing the model, which had languished outside in the movie studio’s boneyard and later the Navy Weapons Center in Seal Beach, Calif., after the giant replica was purchased for $1 by Cmdr. Walter Ritter, a U.S. Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor. The Ritter family later donated the ship to the Quarterdeck Society.

All that outdoor time had done the model no favors. Its decks were plywood, its bulkheads pine, both now rotting. Its railings and cranes were steel, now well rusted. Boy Scouts had been allowed to slather paint on the big ship over the years, too.
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Wood rot was a serious problem with the movie prop, as it sat outside for years. Stewart replaced much with Plexiglas and covered it with acrylic auto spray paint.

A giant task

Stewart’s task was monumental, thanks to the wood rot, termites, mold, and rust that was consuming the ship. But he was honored to be asked.

“I fell in love with the damn thing,” he says, now that the ship is 90% restored. Just small items like life rafts and some figures are still to be added.

He hand-scraped at least half the ship’s paint off and had the rest, including the steel, sandblasted. Bulkheads were replaced with Plexiglas, as were superstructure decks. New plywood was used for the main deck, while the funnel, railings and cranes remained the original steel. Guns were rebuilt.
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Stewart used as much of the original metal as possible, having it sandblasted, but replaced brass railings.
Luckily, Stewart says, the fiberglass hull was in great shape, although he added props and rudders. “Nothing below the waterline was finished, since it wouldn’t show in the movie.

“I was just trying to save a bit of history, and modeling history, too,” says Stewart, who was blown away at the ship’s size when Rupp first took him to see it in an equally huge building at the Seal Beach facility.
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The ship’s 10 guns were cast in silicone molds.
“My biggest problem wasn’t the rehab but finding a building to use as a workshop,” he says. While the ship model is back there now, he was not able to restore it at the Navy facility.

Luckily, two months in, he found a spot within a few miles of his home. The owner was a military veteran who rented him the space for just $1 a month. Not easy to get a 38'-long, 12'-high model in and out of most buildings or through very many doors.
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Stewart made a master copy of a lifeboat, then had others vacuum-formed from it.
Meanwhile, the Quarterdeck Society, a nonprofit charity, acquired a trailer to transport the ship. That means Stewart’s hard work, often 10- to 12-hour days, can travel safely to shows for the enjoyment of Navy history buffs and modelers.

Stewart says the ship is occasionally in parades and displayed at three or four Southern California shows each year. The Quarterdeck folks who accompany it are all volunteers, so shows have to fit into their schedules.

The Quarterdeck Society paid for all materials used in upgrading the model, and Stewart was paid modestly for his efforts. But its refurbishing is never really done. The group continues to seek donations for its “Go Fund Me Nevada 36” program.

To donate, or for more info, go to: USS-Nevada.com


Behind the scenes photos


Restorer John Stewart stands next to his refurbished baby, the 1/15 scale USS Nevada prior to it being displayed in southern California. Stewart spent 11 months refurbishing the giant battleship model that appeared in the 1970 movie, Tora! Tora! Tora!, which recounted the attack on Pearl Harbor. This year we remember the 75th anniversary of that attack that drew the United States into World War II.
By the numbers

USS Nevada
  • $5.9 million to build in 1912
  • Won 7 battle stars
  • 2,220 man crew in 1945
  • 583' long
  • 95' 3" beam
  • 28.5' draft
  • Sunk by Navy July 31, 1948


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