They say Necessity is the mother of Invention. Such was the case with the Independence class of light aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy’s pressing need for fleet carrier decks during the early stages of the Pacific War brought these vessels into being. The nine Independence class carriers were converted from Cleveland class light cruisers already under construction. Having already built a 1/700 U.S.S. Independence, I chose to build this model as one of her sisters. U.S.S. Belleau Wood was converted from U.S.S. New Haven, and commissioned as CVL-24 in March 1943, joining the U.S. Pacific Fleet four months later. She participated in numerous actions, including the invasions of the Gilbert Islands (Tarawa), Marshall Islands (Kwajalein), Hollandia, and the Truk raid. During Operation Forager (Marianas invasion) and the ensuing Philippine Sea battle, her air group sank the Japanese carrier Hiyo. In October, 1944, she was damaged by a kamikaze but returned to action within months to support the invasion of Iwo Jima and TF58/TF38’s final raids on Japan. With the end of hostilities, Belleau Wood carried U.S servicemen home in Operation Magic Carpet.
Following a period in reserve, Belleau Wood was transferred to the French Navy in 1953 as Bois Belleau. Under the French flag, she participated in the Indochina campaign and in operations off Algeria. In 1960, she was returned to the U.S where she was stricken from the Navy list and scrapped.
After building some of Hasegawa’s and Tamiya’s latest and largest ship kits, this is easily the most complex and complicated kit that I’ve yet to come across. One is immediately impressed by the level of minute detail that is incorporated into even the smallest of parts, and this kit is a testament to the model designer’s and mold maker’s art. The kit provides the modeler with a number of choices and options. Parts are included to build the Independence as she was commissioned, with a fore and aft mounted 5” gun, and a compliment of SBD Dauntless dive bombers to accompany her F6F Hellcat fighters and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers (six of each aircraft are included), or one can use additional parts to model the Independence or others of the class as they were seen later in the war. Other options include a full or waterline hull, as well as a number of PE parts, some of which can be used instead of the molded plastic parts and some of which are required since they’re the only parts included. Some of the optional parts include the roll-up side hangar bay doors, the radar antenna, hatches and the 20mm AA gun shields.
While we’re on the subject of photoetch parts, it should be noted that even with the three small PE sets included in the kit, covering nearly all of the “usual suspects” of photoetch commonly used, some things are still lacking. There are some rails, but not enough to cover all the necessary places where rails would be seen. Those that are included are rather thick and heavy, and I choose to replace them with Gold Medal Models railings. The heaviness of these rails is in contrast to other pieces, such as the 20mm and 40mm PE parts, which are extremely petite and detailed. And the kit provides flat PE anchor chain rather than a length of 3D chain, which is still better than molded-on-the-deck chain (I used a length of craft store chain from the spares box). These are certainly nits to pick, but be prepared to supplement the kit’s PE if you want to give your ship the full photoetch treatment.
Assembly starts with the decision to make this a waterline model (no surprise there). The hull above the waterline is basically done in two sections. The portion up to the main deck level (the original cruiser main deck) is one piece with a solid bottom, giving the model considerable strength and rigidity. The deck levels up to the flight deck are assembled as a box structure, and there’s a considerable gap where the upper and lower hull meet that’s hard to completely eliminate. That will have to be filled. There’s a lot of detail inside the hangar deck, and if one chooses to lower both elevators and open all of the roll-up side doors, much of it will be visible.
Working on the hull, one starts to notice that some things are slightly amiss. For instance, there are no capstans included among the parts. While mostly hidden from view when completed, their absence is notable and replacements will have to be scrounged. Also, the aft most bulkhead is missing, allowing one to see into the back portion of the ship’s spaces. This piece will have to be fabricated from sheet plastic. This is also where one also starts to see that the instructions leave something to be desired. The illustrations themselves are crisply drawn, but in many cases it is unclear or misleading just where or how some parts or assemblies are attached. Cases in point: catwalks are indicated on both sides of the aft hull adjacent to open hatches, but its unclear whether they go inside or outside (they go outside); the prop guards are shown but no part numbers are indicated; the wrong parts for the island supports are called out, which do not properly fit, and would cause the island to sit cockeyed if used. This kind of mislabeling occurs over and over, so pay attention and be sure to dry fit first.
The upper hull construction is where one begins to work with some of the insanely small parts that have to be assembled. I discovered early on that I’d need to devise some sort of containment system when handling and cleaning up these minute parts, some of which aren’t much larger than the trimming crumbs that eventually litter the workbench surface. Needless to say, a high percentage of these miniature bits and pieces were tweezer-launched into oblivion, providing the carpet monster with an abundant (but ultimately not very filling) snack. The good news is that many extra of these small fry are often included on the sprue. If nothing else, the assembly process for this model will keep you on your toes. One “tool” that I’ve found particularly useful during this construction process is a rubber eraser, cut into various shaped pieces to act as a spacer and/or pad when holding or clamping hard to get at pieces.
The single-piece flight deck (less the separate elevators, which were temporarily set into place) was airbrushed a Flight Deck Blue custom mixed from Model Master Enamels. Decals are included for either white or yellow dashed deck stripes, as well as black flight deck numbers (only digits “22” for USS Independence are provided). I chose instead to make my own stripe and number masks and paint them on. These were first drawn on the computer and printed on paper, then laid over sheet vinyl and cut out with a very sharp No.11 blade. The flight deck number decals appeared to be too small, based on photos that I found, so I increased the size accordingly. The dashed stripe masks were aligned along the flight deck with thin strips of Chartpak tape, and then sprayed on. Even with the texture of the deck planking, the vinyl masks worked well. Painting also allowed for more control to weather the stripes and numbers, and lessen the intensity compared to what the decals would have given. The catwalks and gun sponsons were then attached to the flight deck, again, leaving off small or protruding parts until final assembly.
Knowing that this ship would be painted in a multi-color, splinter camouflage pattern (measure 33/3D), a number of the smaller parts (like the boat cradles and catwalks) were left off the hull, to be applied and hand painted after the hull was masked and airbrushed. The assembled hull was painted and masked in a succession of colors, lightest to darkest, starting with Pale Grey, followed by Haze Grey, then Navy Blue; all custom mixed Model Master Enamels. The horizontal surfaces other than the flight deck were painted a custom mixed Deck Blue. The same process applied to the walkways and gun tubs along the flight deck edge. The deck was temporarily placed so that the color edges could be aligned and masked, then the edges, tubs and catwalks were painted the appropriate hull colors. I left off the four funnels and the island assemblies for now, since these structures, as well as the hull itself, are much easier to paint separately.
The assembly sequence of the island structure and mast is particularly tricky. The parts breakdown seems overly complicated (although in fairness, that mast structure is a nightmare - it makes some of the piping on those Japanese cruisers seem tame by comparison). Just study the instructions and dry fit carefully. Dragon mixes plastic and PE here, though I have yet to determine the reasoning for the breakdown of metal vs. plastic. The PE parts are not optional, and just add a layer of complication to the process. It seems as though making the majority of this mast structure purely from PE would have been the better way to go. Regardless, these parts are very small here, and even with tweezers, getting everything properly in place and aligned will take patience. A Measure 33/3D pattern drawing was downloaded from shipcamouflage.com. and was particularly helpful in figuring out how to mask the complicated patterns on the island and funnels.
Before the flight deck could be glued down, all the interior details needed to be set. This meant that now was the time to paint and assemble the aircraft and deck gear. The aircraft are miniature kits in themselves. The six aircraft in each of the included Avenger and Hellcat sets are molded with parts for three aircraft with positionable, folded wings and three aircraft with straight, unfolded wings. The Dauntless did not have folding wings, so these six aircraft all have the same straight wings. Each aircraft type comes with its own set of options - separate bombs for the Dauntless, torpedoes for the Avengers and six individual rockets for each Hellcat. The Avenger has optional parts for an open bomb bay with a loaded torpedo, and each aircraft has options for open or closed cockpits. Each aircraft offers the option for raised or lowered landing gear, in case you want to pose some “in flight”. Again, the level of detail on these very small plastic parts is simply amazing. The only real drawback to these aircraft is the severely over-scaled trenches that represent panel lines. Even under a coat of dark paint, they really stand out. Too bad they couldn’t have followed Tamiya’s or Hasegawa’s example rather than Trumpeter’s. The kit also includes four jeeps, used as aircraft tugs, and four tow tractors along with two types of tow bars. Both of these vehicle types were a common sight on all U.S carriers during the later years of the war.
I knew that I wouldn’t be using the SBDs, so I picked up an extra set of six Hellcats to populate the carrier deck, and allow for a few aircraft to be seen on the hangar deck. By the time of Marianas campaign that this model of Belleau Wood represents, the CVL’s normal aircraft compliment was nine Avengers and 24 Hellcats. I cut and folded the “straight” wings of three Avengers so as to have enough folded-wing TBFs to position some in the hangar, along with a couple of Hellcats preparing to be carried up on the forward elevator. The remaining aircraft were spotted on the flight deck, or being towed into position. Each of the aircraft had their canopies masked with Elmers glue, then first sprayed overall white. The upper surface two-toned blue was then brushed on (overall Glossy Sea Blue hadn’t come into usage by the time of Operation Forager) and decaling and weathering was completed much the same as a larger scale aircraft. Wing and fuselage star or star/bar decals are provided for each aircraft, whether it’s for the early war period of star-in-blue-circle, the mid-war star and bar with red outline, or the later star and bar with blue outline. That goes for the extra set of Hellcats, as well. There is no overlap on the carrier film, so these very small decals fit the very small aircraft perfectly. However, no additional markings, such as numerals or G-symbols are provided. Fortunately for me, Belleau Wood’s air group in mid-1944 used minimal aircraft markings. Altogether, a considerable amount of time was spent on the 16 aircraft that were used, easily a couple of hours on each. Its tedious work, but a deck full of aircraft really brings the ship to life.
Dragon includes a new set of their marvelous figures in this kit (actually, two sets of nine new figures). They’re molded in a variety of positions, and include aircraft maintenance types as well as aircrew figures. The disappointment is that there are only a total of 18, not nearly enough to even hint at a busy flight deck. Not wanting to intermix the anemic photoetch skeletons with these truly manly figures, I scrounged the half dozen figures from my unbuilt Dragon Buchanan destroyer to add to the Belleau Wood’s compliment, but I’ll have to wait until Dragon sees fit to release these guys as sets separate from their ship kits before I can give this model the ship’s crew it really deserves (they’ve got to know they’re sitting on a gold mine with these guys. I can’t imagine what they’re waiting for). I did cheat, however, and place a few PE crewmen on the hangar deck.
Now was the time to fix the model to its base, before many of the protruding and highly breakable parts were attached. Holes were drilled into the 10” x 30” plywood baseboard, with matching holes drilled into the bottom of the ship’s hull. The water effect was created using Liquitex Super Heavy Body artist acrylic paint in the same method described in my earlier Japanese cruiser builds. The hull was then screwed into place, and the assembly process continued. The black picture frame was added at the end of the build.
The attachment of the flight deck to the hull is a little tricky. There’s a lot of detail molded on to the underside of the flight deck and along the upper hull, so care must be taken when fitting the deck down on to the hull to ensure a clean, tight fit. The attachment of the island and the funnels came next and often required three hands. Getting the four side funnels with their attached truss work to fit flush and all line up was a chore, as the fit, when the instruction sequence is followed, is problematic. The funnel support trusses would have been a prime place to use PE parts, but none are included. As they are, these plastic parts are best left off until this point (instead of being attached early on, as the instructions indicate) to facilitate painting, if for no other reason. I needed to add a shim where the island assembly meets the edge of the flight deck to enable a good perpendicular alignment. The complex mast, with all its attached radar, was one of the last parts fitted.
Final construction consisted of attaching all the small parts and subassemblies that were left off to facilitate painting or prevent breakage. Assembling and painting the antiaircraft weapons - the 20- and 40-mm guns - was, like the aircraft, a tedious and time consuming process. You’re given the option of plastic or PE 20-mm gun shields, and are even provided with PE gun sights and shoulder rests. The guns, when assembled, are all absolute gems, very detailed and realistic, although handling all of the minute PE that really brings them to life will put your patience to the test. The aircraft were then arranged on the flight deck, and what few figures I possessed were added to give the ship some life.
Make no mistake; this is not an easy build. This is a highly complex kit with a level of detail that is a notch (and in some cases, many notches) above just about anything seen on previous models, which may also explain why there are numerous cases of parts that have been over-engineered (couldn’t the 20mm gun and ammo drum have been molded as a single piece, instead of two pieces the size of a wood splinter and a poppy seed?). The most noticeable problem with the kit is the instructions, which are sometimes inaccurate or misleading. I lost count of the number of times where parts were incorrectly numbered, or not called out at all. Basically, however, everything that you need is right there in the box, and given enough time and patience, the modeler is rewarded with a stunning representation of a USS Independence class carrier.
Thanks to Dragon and IPMS/USA for providing the kit for review.