Benefield: Graton master craftsman’s work to be exhibited in South Pacific WWII Museum
Andy Werback is a master craftsman.
Fantastic model airplanes hang inside his workshop in the hills west of Graton. Some fly, some do not.
One plane he liked so much he created it again — the second time with just the internal workings showing so one can get a sense of its structure.
It points to Werback’s attention to detail.
And while Werback, 73, a retired software engineer, loves tiny details, he goes decidedly bigger too.
He was awarded the Grand Champion, or “Gold Lindy,” award from the Experimental Aircraft Association about a decade ago for a plane he built from a kit. He flew the winning plane home.
But Werback’s latest creation is decidedly smaller.
After years of study and months of hands-on work, he has finished a scale model of a section from the largest of the U.S. Navy’s Advanced Base Sectional Docks crucial to U.S. efforts during World War II.
“Andy’s workmanship is exceptional,” James Carter, project manager at the South Pacific WWII Museum in Vanuatu, wrote in an email.
Werback is planning to send his model around the globe to Carter, where it will be exhibited in the museum located on the South Pacific island nation.
“It’s to a real museum standard,” Carter wrote. “Andy’s model will be a stunning addition to our collection and I know will create much interest when it goes on display.”
And what makes the model, which is built to scale and is about 3 feet long and 1 foot wide, so masterful, Carter said, is it was a scratch build.
No kit. No instructions. Just Werback’s research and execution.
“Something like this has to be researched in immense detail and then you need to create your own plans, often just based on photographs,” Carter wrote.
Luckily, that is right up Werback’s alley.
A history buff, he’d long been reading about World War II.
Lately, though, his reading was not specifically about battles, but more logistics. Things like movement of goods and more crucially, how war ships were repaired, supported and serviced.
The ABSDs, or dry docks, were crucial to U.S. Navy efforts. Unsung heroes of sorts.
“That dock story seemed interesting and I liked to model,” he said.
Dry dock is an oversimplified name for a wildly complicated vessel.
The dry dock Werback modeled was the largest in the Naval fleet. It’s overall area was comparable to 18 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
This dock consisted of 10 separate pieces that were connected once they all arrived via tugboat or liberty ship in the South Pacific between the eastern coast of Australia and Fiji.
When they were not servicing a vessel, they would float on the surface of the sea. When they needed to accept a ship as large as a battleship, the dry dock would submerge, allowing the other boat to steer onto the deck area, then the dock would rise up, bringing the second ship out of the water and “dry.”
Then repairs could be made.
Floating dry docks allowed ships to be repaired closer to the front, saving months of travel to farther ports for repair.
Six hundred people lived and worked not on the dock but in it. And that is where Werback’s attention to detail is so illuminating.
His model has removable pieces that expose bunk rooms, engine rooms, the galley and ventilation systems.
It’s all in tiny miniature. Sailors stationed in a bunk room are about the height of a fingernail. Now picture the size of the urinals Werback lined up in the “head,” or ship’s bathroom, or the steps on the spiral staircase that took sailors from one level of the submerged dock to another.
“The inside is what is interesting,” Werback said.
These were floating (and sometimes) submerging cities. There were cobblers and dentists on board, there were machinists and engineers, equipped with knowledge and tools to fix massive fighting vessels in the middle of the ocean and get them back to the front as soon as possible.
"It’s the history and what people did during that time to make all that work and make the war go as it needed to go,“ he said.
But without a kit or roadmap, Werback had to do some investigating.
He reached out to the National Archives and arranged a visit in May. He came away with photographs of original blueprints.
He also found Carter, a partner of sorts in the project, who has provided resources, information and support as Werback sleuthed out details of dry docks.
“Mostly it was just for fun, but I started looking around for more information and I found James. He was very supportive with additional details,” he said. “That gave me a little more information to make sure I had things as right as I could get them.”
Werback started building in September.
The vessel is made from balsa wood and fiberglass. It’s meticulously crafted.
Even as the project was near completion, Werback studied on.
In February, he traveled to Portland, where his daughter Katie, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is stationed. She arranged a tour of the Army Corps’ dredge ship Essayons, which was being housed in an original WWII floating dry dock.
There are four of 10 sections in active use and, thanks to his daughter, Werback got the whole tour of those sections of dock.
I asked if on this tour, when his model was already complete, did he find any demonstrable differences between what he’d built and the real deal.
“One,” he said.
In one area where Werback, following the blueprints, had installed stairs, it was too tight in real life. On the real dock, there was a ladder flush against the wall.
Werback is set to give a local talk about the evolution of his dock project at 7 p.m. March 15 at the Pacific Coast Air Museum, One Air Museum Way in Santa Rosa.
After the second of his two upcoming local talks, Werback is set to send his model to Carter and the museum in Luganville, Espíritu Santo, in Vanuatu.
“It’s kind of a long way,” he said. “We are going to mail it.”
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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