The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

William Tompkins

Added to museum: 4/17/12

William Tompkins of Oceanside, CA displays one of the 307 ships in his fleet. A modeler since age 9, he started in earnest in his teens and built an entire fleet that illustrates naval history throughout America's history. (Click on photo to view larger image.)

A Lesson in Naval History in 1:600 Scale

Bill's Fleet includes ships from the tiny H.L. Hunley, a 40-foot Confederate submarine built in 1863 to the huge aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan plus submarines, dirigibles, blimps and aircraft models. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

High School Student Attracts Military Attention with Ship Model Fleet

An article in the Evening Outlook newspaper of Santa Monica, California from March 26, 1941 shows a young 17-year old William Tompkins showing a navy captain the 50-plus model ships he had built starting at age nine. Captain G.C. Gearing was the commandant of the 11th Naval District in San Diego, and he was not the only one in the navy interested in Bill’s models. Rear Admiral C.A. Blakeley, who examined the models was quoted in the article as saying, “It is with considerable interest and pleasure that I, together with officers of my staff, examined several of the ship models. Craftsmanship such as you have evidenced shows that you are a keen student of detail and naval construction. Best of all, however, you are doing something worthwhile as a young American—you are helping to build into the American mind the importance of the nation’s first line of defense to each American, young and old.” Keep in mind, this attention was taking place only a few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when naval forces would take the lead in the war in the Pacific.

Amazing Detail of Models Panics the Navy

Though built at a tiny 1:600 scale, all the ships display an amazing amount of detail. This particular ship has what was called a "Cage" type mast that was only used for a short time by the navy. Note also the catapult mounted airplanes with the catapult mounted atop the rear gun turret. The models are all full hull models, not waterline models. Each lifeboat and airplane is hand made too. (Click on photo to view larger image.)

Mr. Tompkins’ first taste of attention from the Navy was a little more ominous. A short time before, his collection of models was first displayed in the window of the Broadway department store on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, CA. When representatives of the navy saw the ships, and particularly the accurate representation of details like radar antennas, armament and other things considered classified at the time, a panic ensued. Bill’s father was detained and questioned about how the data was obtained, as worry about spies was in a heightened state at that time. Finally convinced the young boy’s accuracy was the result of weekend tours of ships anchored in Long Beach harbor that were open to the public at the time and great memory for size, shapes and details they took another tack. Bill was eventually pulled from his second year of high school and inducted into the pre-wartime navy in San Diego.

Early in 1942, naval intelligence officer Lt. Perry Wood, understanding the technical capabilities and historic research necessary to create the ship models, put together a mission package that resulted in Bill's induction into the navy. After completing boot camp in San Diego he was assigned a position in naval intelligence on advanced technology projects. Though only a third class seaman, he replaced a Commander at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego. The mission statement read in part, "To compile and maintain a continuous survey of the activities of experimental research laboratories, other governmental agencies, educational scientific institutions, manufacturers and research engineers. To undertake upon his own initiative, or at the request of any bureau or office of the Naval Air Forces, studies of specific instrumentalities and techniques for the purpose of outlining research projects." In other words, he was to look for people who knew how to create and build things that worked. He was also assigned to the naval management program and a flight school for existing and future flight missions including flight pay. He ended up flying in almost every aircraft in the navy inventory, at times as the pilot. He also spent four years with access to technology above the level of top secret and was involved in some of the most unprecedented advanced scientific research on the planet...all as a result of building a few model ships.

After the war ended, Bill went to work at Northrop in their secret wind tunnel. While there, he became aware of a program of advanced penetration into aerospace being developed a Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica. He was convinced that's where his future was and got on board in their wind tunnel department. The senior vice president of Douglas was also aware of the ship model collection he had built and was looking for someone to build a model of Donald Douglas' sailboat Endymion as a birthday gift. The VP had a copy of Bill's resume and checked his naval background. No drawings of the ship were available, so Bill was called upon to document the large ship with sketches and then build the model. Even before the model was completed, they were impressed with his abilities and he was transferred into engineering as a draftsman. Because of his former security clearance the section chief reviewed his naval background and soon transferred him into the highly classified Advanced Design Think Tank at Douglas. Once again his ship model expertise had helped him be selected for special notice and advancement.

A wartime department store window display like this that featured Bill's 50 ship models attracted the navy's attention. The signs in this display promote the sale of war bonds at Walker's Department Store. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

With No Photos Available, a Great Memory was the Key

But how did Bill, at such a young age, model such accurate detail when photography of the ships was prohibited at the time? Before the war, the ships anchored in Long Beach harbor could be toured by the public on weekends but cameras were forbidden. On weekends, Bill’s father would drive them to Long Beach to take the public tours of the ships, and he would walk the decks, pacing off locations and sketching them from memory on the ferry ride back to shore. By measuring shadows of antennas on the deck he was able to use his math skills to calculate their height and shape.

The navy’s initial suspicion soon turned to respect, and they ended up borrowing the model fleet for use in training and recruitment. A letter directed to President Roosevelt’s secretary, Stephen Early in April of 1941 describes the navy’s interest in the models to familiarize recruits with the different types of naval ships. Their family’s only request was that Bill be allowed to meet briefly with the president in Washington before the models were loaned. Unfortunately, the president was not able to honor this request, but Bill certainly did receive quite a bit of notoriety with the models. At that time it was still his goal to go on to become a naval architect. In fact, a March, 1941 letter from Alexander Lynch, of the Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park stated, “In my capacity as judge for work of this type and as Senior Preparator Model Maker for the Los Angeles County Museum, I am pleased to recommend his models as an outstanding exhibit of its kind.”

Seventeen-year old Bill Tompkins points out the detail on his models to naval Captain H. C. Gearing, commandant of the 11th Naval District in San Diego. Bill was soon inducted into the navy and is shown in the second photo in his uniform holding one of his aircraft carriers. He went on to help design com on the real ships. (Click on either photo to enlarge.)

By July 12, 1941 a copy of  The Hoist, the newspaper for the US Naval Training Station in San Diego was headlined, “Miniature Fleet Hailed by Naval Authorities Now On Display In Station Library.” Fifty-one (other sources say 52) of Bill’s warship models were transported to San Diego and placed in cases in the Navy’s library.

Bill went on to join the Navy, serving four years on the staff of Admiral Rico Bota assigned to naval intelligence and worked to conceive advanced designs of the bridges of some of the Navy’s most advanced ships. He went on to work in several highly classified think tank programs at various aerospace firms conceiving advanced future weapons programs. From there he went on to the Apollo Space Program and was instrumental in the major decisions needed to get America off the planet and to the moon and mars.

The Fleet Now Numbers Over 300 Ships

In 2012, his model fleet now numbers over 307 ships, from a tiny model of the H.L. Hunley—the first manned submarine to sink an enemy warship during the Civil War—to giant aircraft carriers like the Ronald Reagan, the collection also includes many dirigibles, aircraft and even space vehicles, all in the same scale.

A selection of models in Bill's kitchen show the size of the ships based on the 4" tiles in the countertop. Building the entire fleet in the same scale gives a realistic comparison as to how huge our largest ships really are. (Click to enlarge photo.)

Construction of the Ship Models

According to the articles, the student at Hollywood High School made the models mostly from balsa wood and sugar pine using a razor knife. Each is a full hull model in 1"=50' scale, or 1/600th of actual size. Each is also accurately painted and all details from deck guns to lifeboats are represented. Aircraft carriers have decks covered with many identical miniature aircraft. Seen as a whole, it is an extremely impressive fleet representing naval history from sail power to nuclear power.

Typical drawings done by Bill Tompkins contain the detail he needed to make accurate representations of the ships he modeled. The last drawing shows the USS Independence on the left and the USS Lexington on the right. (Click on any of the four drawings to view a larger version.)

Bill Tompkins went on to build many more models in his spare time over the years. Over 100 of his ship models were featured in a storefront display in the Puente Hills Mall Harris and Frank Men’s Store in 1977. It was sponsored by the local Navy Recruiting Station. Included in the display was a model of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp built by Bill’s 14-year old son Dean.

A significant part of the educational value of the collection is the use of a consistent scale for all the models. Comparing size of a sailing ship of the 1800’s to modern submarines, destroyers, battleships and aircraft carriers, one gets a sense of the development of naval design over the past century and a half. Naval aircraft and dirigibles also present an interesting contrast in size compared to the ships. He has put together an excellent PowerPoint presentation that helps illustrate the technology explosion that allowed us to go from a first flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 to walking on the moon only 60 years later. He now believes that electromagnetic drives will soon be taking us on further steps to other planets and the stars beyond. At age 88 he still has an enthusiasm for acquisition of knowledge and future travel to distant planets and stars. For him, however, the ship models have served their purpose, and he is willing to part with them to the right buyer to help fund other projects he has in mind.

From Model Trains to Space Travel

Bill Tompkins has authored a number of articles on converting and super-detailing locomotives. Here is a scene on his G-scale garage layout showing several of the engines that were the subjects of his articles. (Click on photo to enlarge image.)

Mr. Tompkins is also known in the model railroading community for his articles in Model Railroader and other magazines on constructing and super-detailing locomotives. Working in scales from N to G, he has build a number of beautiful models and passed on what he learned to the readers. For example, starting in the September, 1987 issue of Model Railroader, Bill had a 2-part article published entitled “Building a No.1 scale Cab-Forward” that described building a 3/8" = 12" (1/32 scale) articulated locomotive on an LGB mechanism. He has also built and operated several extensive layouts in several scales over the years. As you might expect, the same level of detail he demanded in his ship models was applied to the world of model railroading.

CLICK HERE or on the image at the left to read Bill's article in the 1987 issue of Model Railroader.

Mr. Tompkins has extensive experience in advanced space research* involved in spacecraft and space missions. This has led to his membership in the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), and he has done extensive research into extraterrestrials and unidentified flying objects. He is preparing a six-volume autobiographical study on the subject to be released soon to be entitled Selected by Extraterrestrials. Regardless of your opinion of the UFO phenomenon, Mr. Tompkins has attacked this subject with the same energy and detail he put into building his fleet of model ships, so this highly technical document should make for a very interesting read. Bill has also spent 47 years in the Navy League of California and was founding chairman and president of the Southern Oregon Navy League Council as well as State vice president of the Oregon Navy League of the United States.

(Left) Bill Tompkins in the right seat of one of the many Navy planes he flew as both co-pilot and pilot. (Right) Bill shares a moment in 2000 with Admiral Larry Marsh at the Southern Oregon Navy League Council. (Click on either photo to enlarge.)

*Mr. Tompkins technical experience is extensive. It includes four years in naval intelligence studying extraterrestrial threats, twelve years as engineering section chief at the Douglas Missile and Space Division, four years as corporate director of North American Advanced Space Research, founder and chairman of the Advanced Space Concept Staff at the think tank within the TRW Space Systems, four years as program directory of the 2020 advanced Anti-Sub Warefare program and was a member of the corporate headquarters Red Team at General Dynamics Corporation.

Some Thoughts on Craftsmanship

In speaking with Bill Tompkins for any length of time you soon find that he has a great respect for the ability of craftsmen and, like Joe Martin, feels that their contributions to our society are not valued as highly as they should be. He notes that the ability to take on a large project and stick with it to completion is a rare quality in a person and should be highly respected and encouraged. While working in a technical field he often heard the words, "Bill, you can't do that!"  He insists that attitude must change. The initial 50 ship models he built at a young age were perhaps unimportant in themselves, but they were the key that got him in the door to all the important and sometimes highly classified programs that he worked on during his life. Continuing to work on the model ships and trains later in life also offered needed relief from the stress of those jobs.

Here are several examples of Bill Tompkins' work:

(Click on photos to view larger images.)

Read an article from the Los Angeles Examiner from February, 1952 about progress Bill Tompkins had made on his ship models. At that time the fleet numbered 81 ships and Bill was working as an engineer at Douglas Aircraft.

These photos use common items to help illustrate the small scale of the ship models.

Bill's collection goes back to the navy's early sailing ships.

From old to some of the navy's most modern ships, the collection tells a story of marine progress from sails to stealth and on into space.

The navy is the only US armed service that has its own air force (naval flight operations) and army (the Marines). This pair of vehicles illustrates the amazing technological progress we have made in 160 years. As he notes, "How we see the future depends on how we understand the past."

Sailing ships were eventually augmented by steam. The bow-mounted ram below water level remained a favorite tool during the Civil War as "Iron-clad" tactics were learned.

Among the smallest models, the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley from the Civil War is about the size of a paper clip.  Built in 1864, it was the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. The nine-man crew turned the propeller crankshaft by hand. An explosive charge on the boom was rammed into the target. The hull was constructed from the boiler of a railroad steam engine and was 40' long and 4' in diameter.

(The younger generation may say, "What's that yellow thing on the left?" Remember when cameras used film?)

Compare a battleship from WWI, the USS Delaware (BB-28) to the USS North Carolina (BB-55) from WWII. Note also the difference in camouflage paint in the dark gray vs. light gray.

Another comparison of generations of American battleships going back to the sail era

Early attempts at launching aircraft from a ship are shown here. On the left is the cruiser USS Birmingham (CS-3) from 1909. Pilot Eugene Ely was the first to manage a successful takeoff from a ship, flying a Curtiss biplane from the bow of the ship. It was a one-way trip, as landing back on the small ramp was not impossible.

The second photo shows the later cruiser USS Pennsylvania (CA-4) in 1911 from which Eugene Ely was able to both take off and land on the larger ramp mounted on the stern of the ship, making it our first "Aircraft Carrier."

The USS Langley (CV-1) became the first dedicated aircraft carrier, carrying Curtiss biplanes on the deck in 1923. Imagine trying to land a pursuit aircraft on the 50' wide deck, stopping in less than 200 feet before the invention of an arresting cable! Remember also that this was only twenty years after the Wright brothers first flew an aircraft on a flight that went only 120 feet.

With no superstructure above the deck, the bridge was in the bow of the ship below the flight deck. A quarter shows the small size of the airplanes.

Early naval flight history includes the use of lighter-than-air craft. Despite massive funding and manpower allocation, crashes of three of the four dirigibles due to foul weather doomed the program. Associated costs were far less with other systems, and blimps were less expensive.

Compared to an aircraft carrier you can see how large the airships were.

"Blimps" were basically painted canvas bags filled with helium and were referred to as Lighter-than-air craft, while "Dirigibles" (called "Airships" in navy parlance) with their rigid internal structure were properly identified as Heavier-than-air craft. This group of airships and aircraft supplied recon for the fleet.

Shown here is the carrier USS Ranger and airships Shenandoah and Los Angeles with a Curtiss NC-4 Flying Boat that made the first "Around the World" flight.

Common scale shows the size relation between hospital ship USS Solace and submarine USS Thresher (SS-200). The Solace was anchored in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and the first wave of Japanese torpedo bomber pilots used her to line up their route of attack on the unsuspecting sailors on "battleship row."

Naval aircraft of WWII are shown with the heavy cruiser USS Wichita. They include types Mars, Catalina, Privateer, PBN and XPB5Y-1.

The carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) is shown with heavy cruiser USS Wichita in 1939. This carrier illustrated the evolution of the bridge mounted on the flight deck. Note also the horizontal mounting of the exhaust stacks from the side of the hull below the flight deck.

The carrier USS Wasp carries 21 aircraft on its deck while the smaller USS Santee carries 14. Note also the "bridge forward" design on the Santee.

The first photo shows B-25 bombers on the deck of a carrier poised to make a surprise attack on Tokyo itself. Pilots trained specially for the takeoff on the short deck. There was not enough fuel for a return to a naval base, so after they dropped their bombs on Japan the survivors who could make it continued on to land in or bail out over China. The daring and successful mission was a huge psychological boost to American forces in the Pacific and a warning that even Japan's homeland was no longer safe from the reach of American carriers.

The other carrier is the USS Enterprise, the most famous and decorated ship of WWII. It returned time and time again from serious battle damage to fight and prevail against the enemy. It is depicted here with flight decks filled with F-6s, SB2Cs, and TBFs.

The USS Midway (rear) was the largest carrier of WWII. It is shown here in its 1951 configuration with the smaller escort carrier USS Santee and the destroyer USS Swanson.

From front to rear are carriers Boxer, Lexington and Reagan. They carry aircraft from the propeller craft of WWII to the jets of the 1960's and 1970's to the contemporary supersonic jets of 2000 and beyond.
The navy patrols not only the surface and the air above the sea, but also below it and has built a huge fleet of submarines starting in the Civil War era. Represented here are submarines from 1898 to 2001.
Modeled here are amphibious assault ships with VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) AVA-8 Harriers, helocopters and landing craft on the USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52).
The future of amphibious assault in the 21st century.

Look at the technological change in the last 150 years as technology has taken us from the Civil War "ironclads" to the stealth land-attack destroyer (SC-21) and beyond.

F-18s on the flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).

Common size gives comparison of the space shuttle and large Apollo program launch vehicle to an aircraft carrier. Also included is a conceptual "Aurora" space flight vehicle of the future.

Conceptual naval vessels of the future (not part of the Tompkins model collection) will take us into space, to the planets and to the stars beyond. What will the next 190 years bring?

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