Standing on the con, the command post above the wheelhouse, last November 22, I saw lightning split the night sky above the Mediterranean. Waves tossed our 3,400-ton, 328-foot vessel like a toy. My skeleton crew and I were determined to sail this leaky seagoing relic, a World War II-era Navy LST (Landing Ship Tank), home to America to become a floating memorial. But we haven't even made it to Gibraltar yet, and already we've lost our starboard engine, I thought grimly. Not to mention that the average age of all hands on deck was 72. Maybe we were just a bunch of crazy old men, like people called us back when our journey began.
In 1995, a group of Navy vets at the US LST Association, headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, tracked down an LST at a boneyard on the Greek island of Crete. A boneyard is where worn-out ships go to be dismantled, and boy, had the LST 325 seen a lot of action. Africa, Italy, and one of the first to hit the beach at Normandy on D-Day. By the time the government approvals to return her to the U.S. came through in early 2000, more than 70 Navy vets had signed on to help bring the LST 325 home.
I got to know LST's serving in the 1960's, first as damage-control officer, then as engineering officer during the Cuban missile crisis. We crewmen jokingly called them Large, Slow Targets, but they were invaluable in wartime, run onto beaches under heavy enemy fire to roll out tanks, trucks and supplies. They even transported the smaller landing crafts that dropped troops at Normandy. LST's weren't built to last. It was amazing that one had survived at all-and for 58 years.
The Navy vets assembled in Crete last summer -- paying their own way and even donating money toward the cost of food and fuel for the voyage home. The men asked me to act as captain. It was an honor to accept.
The first order of business was making the 325 seaworthy again. We moved her from the boneyard to the repair yard and surveyed the damage. Her sides were rusted, what little equipment she had was either outdated or broken, debris clogged her passageways. The entire ship was infested with cockroaches. Undaunted, the volunteers set to work. One day under a blazing Greek sun, six white-haired crewmen carried a quarter-ton gear-shaft assembly into the ship's belly. "Take it easy," I wanted to yell. I was sweating just watching them!
Below, guys installed the generator and overhauled the huge diesel engines, their shirts off, and I could swear all the exertion was already melting away their civilian paunches. Are they pushing too hard? I worried.
On November 14, we shipped out aboard the refurbished LST 325, despite attempts by our families, the U.S. Coast Guard and even some Navy brass to talk us out of it. We had just 30 on board instead of the typical 110, but like one of the guys said, "This is the least we can do for the men who've served on this ship and given their lives."
I'm not looking for us to join them either, I thought when we hit this storm just eight days out in the Mediterranean. This has got to be the worst weather I've ever seen. The ship was rolling almost 30 degrees in the raging seas; shocks reverberated through the hull. And Gibraltar was still 900 miles away.
Up in the con, my executive officer and quartermaster suggested turning south into Sicily for repairs. "We've got thirty-to-thirty-five-knot winds right off the bow," the quartermaster said. "What if the port engine quits?"
There would be no telling what kind of repair facility we'd find in Sicily. I gazed westward toward Gibraltar. Nothing but dark, foreboding storm clouds ahead. I turned to my crew. They clung to the lines, not giving an inch as the salty spray pelted their faces. Never mind the waves crashing over the deck, the wind whipping our flag around, these sailors weren't about to leave their stations. It was as if this storm was their war, and they were all 18 again, ready to do whatever it took to bring their fallen comrade, the LST 325, home again. God, I asked, let me do right by these men. "Guys," I said, "home is west. Let's keep heading for Gibraltar."
I went below to check the ship's remaining engine. Our 77-year-old engineer was hustling down the ladder to the engine room. "What's going on?" I asked. "Air-compressor hose is shredded," he said. "Gotta replace her." "Well, let me give you a hand," I said. "No, sir." He smiled. "I've got it."
And so it went with all the men. At 61, I was the youngest, and I tried to help out where I could. But no one would let me. Despite the storm, the next day, our cook put together a Thanksgiving feast.
Everyone had seconds and thirds. I stood to make a toast. "Here's to our families back home." Someone added, "Here's to the 325!" Everyone joined in: "To the 325! God bless all who served on her!"
The storm stopped as we limped into Gibraltar. It took 13 days to repair our starboard engine and stock provisions. Finally we set out on our 4,200-mile Atlantic crossing.
As Christmas Day approached, spirits were high. One Sunday morning, a voice sailed up through the speaking tubes to the con. "This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." It was the helmsman singing.
Soon everyone in the wheelhouse joined in. Real rejoicing was on the way. At sunrise on January 10, I stood on the con, my eyes peeled for the lighthouse beacon at Mobile Bay, Alabama, our destination.
At last we sailed into the harbor, smaller boats surrounding us, tooting their horns and shouting congratulations. The radio in the wheelhouse crackled, "This is the United States Coast Guard. The shipping channel is closed. We're bringing LST 325 home."
The LST 325 had made her final voyage to become a floating memorial. Really, she already was to those who had given their lives to defend her in wartime and also those who were willing to do the same to bring her home, these good men I'd sailed here with, who truly know what it means to serve.