Proud Sailors In A Rusty Bucket

A wildfire burns in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angels on Friday, March 30, 2007. The 24-acre fire started next to the Oakwood Toluca Hills, a corporate housing complex northwest of downtown, and spread up the north face of the hills.
A rusting warship with a crew of mostly 70-somethings and no safety equipment docked at Mobile's harbor Wednesday, capping a trans-Atlantic voyage the Coast Guard had urged them not to attempt.

"Bravery is ageless," said Bill Shannon, a veteran from Fort Worth, Texas, who joined a throng at dockside to welcome the LST-325.

With a fire boat spraying water canons and a Coast Guard patrol boat escort, the old warship sailed up Mobile Bay to the Alabama State Docks pier for a welcoming celebration.

Shannon said the trip was successful because the Navy and Coast Guard veterans aboard "knew what they were doing."

The crossing was the idea of the Toledo, Ohio-based U.S. Landing Ship Tank Association, a group of veterans who served on vessels used to transport tanks for the Normandy invasion and other U.S. landings during World War II.

"I think they're No. 1 for what they did," said Robert Bush, 74, a former truck driver from Perrysburg, Ohio, who wanted to be on the voyage but couldn't because his wife broke her leg at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26.

A reunion of shipmates
who served on the LST-325
during World War II:
(from left to right) Art
Cook of Bella Vista,
Arkansas, John Chooljian
of Carlstadt, New Jersey,
and Frank Conway of
Blackwood, New Jersey

The veterans found the nameless, dilapidated LST-325, or landing ship tank ship, in Greece.

About 150 sailors from a nearby U.S. Navy base helped fix it up, and it sailed on Nov. 17, but it suffered engine trouble in the Mediterranean, and the Coast Guard warned the crew not to go farther, at least not during winter. The crew persisted, however, and left Gibraltar on Dec. 12 for its 4,350-mile voyage.

A mechanical problem forced the crew to steer the LST manually, roaches infested the deck house, and malfunctioning toilets also complicated the passage, according to the captain's log.

Still, the journey was pretty smooth, said Capt. Robert Jornlin, of Earlville, Ill., who at 61 was one of the youngest crew members.

The trip brought back memories of World War II for veterans. John Chooljian, 75, of Carlstadt, N.J., recalled the English Channel crossings for D-Day and the beachhead landings of the LSTs in the Pacific and Mediterranean.

"I don't think the war would have been won without LSTs," said Chooljian, who had to pull out of the mission because of illness.

The salvaged LST was used in Normandy as well as North Africa, Salerno and Sicily during World War II. It was lent to Greece in the 1960s and was about to be decommissioned when the veterans acquired it. Crew members paid their own way to Greece and donated $2,000 to help cover expenses.

David Nickerson of Dayton, Ohio, said he's that his father, Clayton Nickerson, 72, of Margate, Fla., was included in the crew.

"It's a dream of his," Nickerson said.

The privately operated USS LST Ship Memorial Inc. will conduct fund-raisers to keep the ship operating as a museum that would eventually travel from port to port.

"I kind of thought they were crazy to do this," said Irene McCandrew, whose 69-year-old husband, James McCandrew of Sebastian, Fla., is a crew member. "I never thought it would materialize."

By Garry Mitchell © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed