WWII vet keeps his old ship alive in memory
By Donald Bradley | The Kansas City Star | Published: May 10, 2014
Most customers at Rosie's Cafe in Independence walked right past the World War II warship when they came in one morning this week.
It was waffle day — they were absorbed. As in syrup.
It was later as they walked to the counter to pay that the nearly 8-foot-long model of a destroyer mounted on a stand in the corner caught their eye. They glanced, put down money and looked again while waiting for change.
Then they headed to the USS Stormes and into the mussed-hair, big-smile, Pacific-tan days of machinist's mate Ralph Wegener. Lean close. He climbed those gray steel ladders leading from the lower levels. He stood at the rails, wind in his face.
Wegener built the model in his Raytown basement. He did the same for another destroyer he served on, the USS Lawrence, which conducted escort and patrol operations along the west coast and into the Pacific.
While diners at Rosie's admired his work, Wegener, 88, soaked up runny yolk with toast in the dining area. Rosie Whitehead, the owner, said Wegener and his wife of 63 years were longtime regulars until Kathleen died in October.
"I know he misses her," Whitehead said. "He sits alone sometimes now. He's not a big talker, just a real sweet man."
Wegener was young back then, like the others in his old photos. By mid-1945, some of the new guys were hoping the war would last long enough for them to get there while probably praying it would not.
It ended, soon. The boys on those ships came home and worked jobs and raised families and now are mostly gone. Wegener built his ships for them. Not all saw combat, but they were brothers nonetheless, banded by possibilities.
He liked that people at Rosie's get a kick out of looking at his model, but he doesn't need the praise.
Because he knows what he did is right. He was a tool and die maker, a career disciplined by a ruler's smallest lines. He went through the National Archives to get the blueprints for the Stormes, which launched in 1944 from a Seattle shipyard.
Wegener's model is 1:48 scale. Length, width, height. Even the ladders, manholes and doors. The gun turrets elevate and rotate. A working crane lifts the seaplane off its perch.
Hull and body from balsa wood. Propeller out of brass. The lights in the bridge work.
Oh, and his ship is seaworthy. Or at least lake-worthy — he's had it there. That propeller is connected to a trolling motor operated by remote control.
"But how did you do the little guns?" Hal Hale, a diner, asked Wegener of cannon no bigger than coffee swizzlers.
Wegener looked up and wiped his mouth.
"Lathe," he answered.
"Oh, gracious," Hale, a Korean War vet, told Wegener. "You, sir, are an artist."
Wegener actually built the ship more than a decade ago after attending a Stormes reunion. Someone had brought his own model of the destroyer.
"He had a lot of things wrong," Wegener said. "But I didn't want to tell him that. I just came back and built my own."
Over the years, he's built four other ships, too, including the cruiser USS Wichita, his older brother's ship, which saw 13 major engagements.
"He lives in Lee's Summit, but only came to visit when I started making his ship," Wegener said with a smile.
Wegener likes to dig out the old worn photos of his war buddies.
Smiling in the sun, proud of where they are and glad to have each other.
"These guys are all dead now," he said at the dining table, leaning close and slowly drawing a finger to the young faces.
He grew up in the little town of Corder, Mo., in Lafayette County, the second of seven children and the son of a coal miner. When he was 16, his father died in a mining accident. Wegener quit school and soon joined the Navy.
His brother, William, was already serving on the USS Wichita. When Wegener's ship, the Lawrence, was decommissioned — it had launched in 1920 — he was assigned to the Stormes, which had needed major repairs from a Japanese suicide bomber attack.
When the war ended, the brothers returned home and picked up where they'd left off — racing motorcycles down the streets and back roads of Lafayette County. According to family folklore, a preacher in town didn't like the Sunday morning racket and complained to the boys' mother.
"Well, Grandma waved a finger in front of that preacher's nose and told him what they'd been through, and she backed him up all the way to the sidewalk," said Wegener's son, Stephen Wegener.
Time passed and Wegener went to work in the Kansas City area. He met Kathleen on a blind date and they married in 1951 and raised three children. They have eight grandchildren and a dozen or so great-grandchildren.
Wegener has spent a lot of time in the basement since retiring in 1987. That's his workshop with the shaper, lathe and the ships he's built, each taking a year or more.
The biggest is the German battleship Scharnhorst, sunk by the British in 1943 in the North Atlantic. Because of a battleship's size, the scale had to be 1:64. It's 12 feet long and weighs nearly a hundred pounds. Also, because of the different scale, the little men had to be altered.
"I cut their legs off a little to make it right," Wegener said.
But, Ralph, does everything have to be so precise? Do you ever cheat?
"No," he said with cannon quickness.
His son thinks he knows why Wegener took the Stormes model into Rosie's last week.
"Ever since Mom died, he's been pretty lonely," Stephen Wegener said.
Kathleen's photo still sits in the middle of Wegener's dining table.
Michael Ferrin, a machinist, bent to inspect the Stormes in Rosie's.
"Wow," he said, "just amazing detail. The time this took. The patience. Beautiful craftsmanship."
Lots of veterans go into Rosie's, 10690 E. U.S. 40. Luis Mejia Jr., 92, was one of those Tuesday. He was a gunner's mate during World War II, serving in both Europe and the South Pacific.
"We escorted lots of ships," he said, looking at the Stormes. "Might have done this one."
Another man just shook his head in awe.
"I don't have the patience for model cars, and some of those snap together," he said.
Nearly 70 years have passed since Ralph Wegener came home from the war. So many of his buddies are gone they don't even have reunions anymore.
The Stormes is gone, too. It served in Korea and Vietnam before being sold to the Iranian navy and then scrapped.
Wegener took a spill while running a snowblower in January and broke a hip, but is still going strong. This is a guy who rode a motorcycle and water-skied into his late 70s.
He likes that people get a kick out of his ship. He did everything he could to make it real for them — short of adding cold steel and wind.
Those two things just don't show up on a tool and die maker's gauge.