model train set on track

Lionel in WWII

e*Train Issue: Apr 2007   |   Posted in: ,

By Gordon L. Wilson (76-10233)

Lionel and the United States Navy have a history, together, resulting mostly from World War II.  Very early in 1942, or perhaps late in 1941, Lionel switched from making Toy Trains to producing “high tech” equipment for the U.S. Military, primarily for the U. S. Navy.  At York, and often times at Conventions, one will find such items as Compasses, Binnacles, Lifeboat Lanterns, Speed Keys, Telegraph Keys, and a host of other Military things for sale or on display.  The inside cover page of the 1942 Lionel Catalog also shows many of them, quite well and in some detail.  This is the catalog with the Red and White stripes on the cover, sort of resembling the American Flag.

Among the many Lionel items I collect are the non-train things they have made over the years.  Military equipment, fishing reels and equipment, hair combs, 3-D cameras, and Geiger counters are just a small part of my unusual Lionel “souvenirs.”  I strongly suspect that aboard the “Mothball Fleet” of old Liberty Ships, sitting at rest near Martinez, California, are a plethora of Lionel manufactured compasses and binnacles.  However, there is no ready-made or easy way to get on board these ships so as to search out and verify these suspicions.

Throughout the USA, however, are ships that are now Monuments, Museums, and Memorials to commemorate our Naval history.  Battleships, submarines, Liberty Ships, and Aircraft Carriers dot the landscape of the USA, notably near big cities situated on or near major bodies of water.  My first contact with these giants of WW II occurred in Wilmington, North Carolina while I was driving north from Florida on Route 17.  What a surprise to suddenly be staring at six 16” guns aimed directly at me from the Battleship USS North Carolina.  Since then, I’ve walked the decks of many decommissioned U.S. Navy vessels such as the USS Massachusetts, USS Alabama, USS Olympia, USS Yorktown, USS Enterprise, and most recently the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, HI and the USS New Jersey in Camden, NJ, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, PA.

The latter two ships contain items which show a distinct connection with Lionel.  While touring the Missouri’s Radio Room, I noticed a Telegraph Key sitting on a table marked “Do Not Touch.”  The curiosity of the piece could have landed me in Pearl Harbor – literally.  I turned the key over, despite the warning to “Not Touch.”

Sure enough, on the underside was a Lionel “L” embossed/heat stamped (?) in the black Bakelite base of the J–38, Telegraph Key.  Risking admonishment for violating a clearly marked “Do Not Touch” sign, I got the attention of our guide, a female U. S. Navy Ensign, and told her of my find.  She did not reprimand me, but neither did she have any idea of who or what Lionel was/is.  We moved on, but not before I took some photos of this Telegraph Key.

Not surprisingly, it is an exact duplicate of the one I have in my display case at my home in Arizona.  The “Speed Key” sitting next to it did not look anything at all like the one I have that was made by Lionel.  I did not bother with it, although it is in one of the photos because I didn’t want to risk ignoring the “Do Not Touch” sign a second time.  Then, just this past December I was visiting friends and relatives in the Philadelphia area.  Directly across the river from Penns Landing in Philly, is moored the most decorated ship in the better than two century history of the U. S. Navy, the Battleship USS New Jersey.  With 19 Battle Stars to its credit and service from 1942 through 1991, this amazing ship is moored in Camden, New Jersey’s Waterfront Park.

Two TCA members were a part of the dedication of this Ship, Memorial, and Museum on October 14, 2001.  Richard Bimmer (TCA #66-1588) and Edwin Avril (TCA # 65-1162) were and are members of the Original Hobo Band of Pitman, NJ.  Rich was the Business Manager who negotiated with the personnel of the New Jersey Battleship Commission to have the Hobo Band provide the music at the aforementioned dedication ceremony.  Surely over the 50 years of active service in the US Navy, the odds are quite good that some TCA members have served aboard the “Big J.”

On the morning of December 18, 2006, I took a tour of this memorable ship.  One part of this tour, that was not included on any of the other ships I’ve visited, was a trip to the Bridge.  As I entered the Bridge, my heart skipped a beat, maybe two, and my eyes nearly popped out of my head.  Sitting there was a large metal binnacle.  I interrupted the Docent to ask if he knew who had manufactured this binnacle.  Before he could look or answer, I was next to it.  Sure enough, both the Binnacle and the Compass were made by The Lionel Corporation, of Hillside, NJ.  Quite appropriate, no?  The Battleship USS New Jersey had been outfitted with material made in New Jersey.

Ironically, the ship is now a Museum in New Jersey, a scant mile or so from its birthplace, the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Naturally, I did inquire as to whether this piece of the “Big J” might be for sale.  That question only got me a stare reminiscent of a “deer in the headlights.” The answer was a very obvious and profound NO.  I do think the Docent thought he had a “nut case” on his tour.  I think my wife probably agreed with him.

To any TCA members who served on the USS New Jersey: Would you please send your remembrances of such service to the author, at [email protected]