Enemy warships are closing in. The USS Iowa veers back and forth to defend the Allies as well as go on the offensive—a risky move. But Admiral Fox is new to the command. And it’s beginning to show.
The Axis combat boats play a game of cat and mouse, luring Admiral Fox further from the vessels it is his duty to protect. In an attempt to sink and destroy, he has left his own fleet of cargo ships open to enemy fire. Pummeled by artillery, three of the Allies’ ships sink to the deep. In time, others suffer the indignity of surrender, including the formidable French battleship Dunkerque.
The Axis of Evil wins this balmy September day. The victors, bragging rights and remote controls firmly in hand, let loose a hearty round of high fives.
“It’s a fight to the end,” says Rob Wood, second-in-command at Western Warship Club, a group of model boaters that meets at north San Jose’s Penitencia Creek to re-enact World War I and World War II battles with 3- to 6-foot-long replica battleships. “People love it. They’re having the time of their lives out there.”
But a greater battle is brewing—one with political implications and public safety concerns that threaten to run the club out of town.
“Someone out there has a vendetta,” Wood says ominously. “I don’t know what they stand to gain … but it puts our hobby in the crosshairs.”
Not long after the great Axis & Allies skirmish of 2013, someone sent an anonymous letter to San Jose’s city attorney warning of the pond battles, with their projectile fire and radio-controlled boats careening around in public drinking water. Batteries in sunken vessels could leach toxins into the percolation ponds, the letter warned. And BB-caliber ammo could peg someone in the eye or pelt a duck. (Skippers protest that cease-fires are called whenever waterfowl paddle through one of these maritime onslaughts.)
In January, the Penitencia ponds became part of the city parks system, shifting permitting responsibilities from the Santa Clara Valley Water District to San Jose’s parks division. Worried about the public safety risk and a municipal rule that outlaws projectile launching, the city held off on approving a permit to Western Warship. Wood lobbied Councilman Kansen Chu for an exception, since the ponds lie in his district.
The motion is being held up to give Steve Hammack, a deputy director in the parks department, time to study the issue.
“We want to make sure that if we go through the trouble of changing the ordinance that we protect against toxins in the ponds and make sure the wildlife and the public is safe,” Hammack says, hinting that the back-and-forth between the clubs only complicates matters.
It’s a moot point for the time being, because the water district drained the ponds to cope with the drought.
“But it would be nice to have access to this spot in the future,” Wood says.
The delay was a coup for Pacific Model Warship Club, an upstart faction that builds boats twice as long, twice as wide and, in some cases, several times as heavy as Western Warship’s. Deryk Haole, head of the new club and an embittered ex-member of Western Warship, accuses Wood’s group of jeopardizing safety for the thrill of hurling projectiles.
“What you have is a private group trying to gain a political favor while compromising the health and safety of the general public,” Haole says. “You know what I heard? I heard that they brag about having Councilman [Chu] in their back pocket.”
Wood scoffs at such a suggestion.
“Kansen wrote up a motion because he likes us,” says Wood, seemingly flustered over the allegation. “Years ago, him and his wife, Daisy, were walking around the park and ran into our club during one of our big events and they were impressed by what we were doing, seeing people of all ages enjoying the park and having a good time.”
When it came time to ask for help, Wood reached out to Chu, who obliged.
“Not only are their activities social and recreational in nature, but the club also provides educational outreach to the entire community, offering classes and workshops for local families who wish to learn model building, robotics and U.S. history,” Chu wrote in a glowing February memo, while also asking the city to allow Western Warship to continue its pretend warfare. “In addition, the club honors and seeks to provide integration help to returning veterans.”
Hammack expects Chu’s proposal to come up for discussion at an August council meeting.
“There’s an exception for bows and crossbows and an exception for firearms ranges, but not one for model warships,” Wood says. “The reason? An exception has never been necessary.”
He needs one now, though, or risks losing a rare spot to “play war” and cultivate an obscure hobby that’s actively recruiting. Radio-controlled (RC) warship combat originated in Texas in the late 1970s—just a few dudes, some of them Navy veterans, indulging in war fantasies and childhood impulses to blow stuff up.
Today, the hobby remains relatively unknown. Unlike many models, which can be bought in a kit of parts, scaled-down warships have to be built from scratch. Ships can cost upward of $1,000. Many of them get outfitted with pneumatic cannons and are modeled after early 20th-century battleships like the USS Des Moines, HMS Dreadnought or the infamous German Bismarck.
“All I want is for more people to learn about this hobby,” says Wood, who plans another Axis vs. Allies showdown before an audience of 1,200 at the Maker Faire in San Mateo this month. “I have nothing against any other club. … I just don’t want ours coming under fire.”
The feud between the two clubs goes back about a year and stems over a disagreement on the size of the boats and the level of artillery. Years ago, Haole and some of his colleagues in the Pacific Model Warship club were members of Western Warship. But the group splintered, and the new club formed with the focus on building larger-scale warships, with more modeling detail and fewer guns.
“Our emphasis was as much on the craft of building and the attention to details as the combat,” Haole explains. “You look at their ships and you’ll see duct tape and two or three times as many guns. One of their ships has 32 guns. On others you’ll see that the superstructure isn’t even built.”
Public officials have been hesitant to permit armed 12-foot model ships—basically the size of a manned canoe—on a small park pond. Pulling up sunken boats can also be a herculean task, as some weigh close to 400 pounds.
Last year, Haole and his Pacific Model Warship club rejoined Western Warship in hopes of jockeying for a permit to play. When that didn’t happen, and Haole saw the city working with Wood to come up with a plan that would permit only the smaller-scale ships, he quit and went on the offensive, firing off blog posts about political favors and stray BB bullets hitting folks in the leg.
“There’s kids, parents, animals at risk of getting hurt,” Haole’s Pacific Model Warship ally Gary Marshall says. “We don’t have a way to control that very well. If we’re firing those large bearings with 21 or more guns at one time, there’s bound to be some damage.”
Wood calls those lines of attack untrue and childish.
“This is about toy boats and these are grown men,” he wrote on a blog post. “Does [Pacific Model Warship] clamor to have these ‘dangerous’ activities banned from San Jose parks? No, of course not, because this is not about safety at all. It’s about personal feuds and vendettas.”