Left to right, operations officer William Gollan; engineering officer James Edwards; US Ambassador to Greece Nick Burns; and commanding officer Robert Jornlin pose before departure from Greece.
The pilot nodded and stepped back as the 61-year-old former U.S. Navy officer gave orders to his helmsman and lee helmsman – directing the 58-year-old LST 325 west out of the harbor toward the beginning of its more than 6,000-mile journey across the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, Alabama.
Jornlin, now a farmer from Illinois, had never had command of an LST, nor command of any vessel, but he had handled LST 825 as a watch officer during the Korean War and was familiar with the LSTs’ cumbersome characteristics. The vessel’s radar and GPS were operating well, as were the gyro and magnetic compass, which allowed Jornlin and the pilot to navigate through the patchy fog. But the fog soon closed in, and the pilot departed early, at the mouth of the harbor, leaving Jornlin and his crew, average age 72.5, to navigate the vessel to sea. Jornlin described himself, at age 61, as the “baby” of the group.
LST 325 was not the grandest vessel the U.S. Navy ever employed. At 328 feet and with a 50-foot beam, it and its 1,050 sister vessels built for service in World War II did not receive as much fanfare as the impressive aircraft carriers and battleships that were the celebrities of the war. Its 900-hp GM 12-567 engines pushed it along at a meager 7 to 8 knots – on a good day. The LSTs’ narrow beam, high freeboard and shallow draft (10 feet aft and 3.5 feet forward) resulted in the vessels’ having poor handling in a seaway and gave them a homely appearance. It was said by those who served on them that LST stood for “Large Slow Target” and not the official Navy designation “Landing Ship Tank,” and they were often referred to as “ugly ducklings.” The vessels were never named, just given numbers.
A member of the crew of LST 794 who served in the Pacific in World War II summed up the affections LST crews often had for their vessels:
I think that I shall never see
A worse ship than an LST;
A ship with graceful lines resemblin’
A mud scow fashioned by a gremlin;
A ship whose paint disintegrates
From salt and lesser phosphates;
A ship whose steering engine works
With grunts and groans and nervous jerks;
A ship that doesn’t run, but trots;
That labors doing seven knots.
Most any ship will try to please
But only God loves LSTs.
And this was written in 1944 when the vessel was brand new.
Nonetheless, LSTs were a key component in the Allied forces’ victory, since they could come into shallow water and deploy onto a beach hundreds of well-armed troops as well as large amounts of mobile equipment like tanks and trucks. So it is not surprising that the vessels would have their share of enthusiasts, mainly those who served aboard an LST in three of the 20th century’s major wars. The United States LST Association, based in Oregon, Ohio, boasts 9,000 members of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
LST sailors have been honored at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., with a section on the Wave Wall in 1990 and with a bronze sculpture dedicated Oct. 26, 2000, both financed by membership of the United States LST Association. However, there was interest by former LST sailors to have a ship memorial and that lead to the eventual formation of USS LST Ship Memorial, Inc., the group that brought LST 325 home.
Those interested in a ship memorial began looking for a suitable LST as early as 10 years ago. A group in Michigan has been working to restore LST 393 that worked on Lake Michigan for 55 years. It was donated by Michigan Sand Products along with $100,000 for restoration. It is in the process of being restored and becoming a part of the USS Silversides & Maritime Museum in Muskegon, Mich.
Several other LSTs, mothballed by nations that had received the vessels as hand-me-downs from the U.S. Navy, were located and even surveyed, but none appeared to be in a condition that would allow them to return to the United States without a major refit. In 1995 an LST was discovered in Greece by a former LST sailor on vacation, but an investigation revealed that it had been flooded and was in no condition to cross the ocean to return to the United States. But four more LSTs were slated to go into mothball storage in Souda Bay, Crete, and the Greek government said that the USS LST Ship Memorial would be welcome to one of those. Thus, over the protestations of the U.S. State Department, in the fall of 1999 the association began in earnest to mobilize a team to bring the vessel home. In July 2000 a team of seven retired Navy veterans now referred to as the “Magnificent Seven” arrived in Souda Bay with their luggage full of tools and their spirits high.
Crewmembers Jim McCandrew and Rocky Hill inspect a leak in the starboard engine’s exhaust manifold. The vessel limped most of the way across the Meditteranean under power of only one engine before repairs could be effected in Gibraltar
“When we got there the ship was in sad condition. The vessel had been stripped of anything of value; the fire pumps were gone, the liferafts. It was really dirty and deteriorated,” Jornlin said in an interview shortly after returning to his home in Earlville, Ill., after the voyage. “But the Greeks decided to help us. They allowed us to move the vessel from what they called the boneyard to a position to get shore power, and they let us strip the other three LSTs they had there for parts. I think they felt sorry for us.” When Jornlin arrived in late August he was expecting to find the vessel 80 percent complete.
Although he had still not accepted command of LST 325 – the effort was being headed by another LST veteran – he was expecting to be the ship’s executive officer and had brought with him a large supply of tools. “I was told that it was six days away from sailing. Well, there were no batteries, no lube oil aboard, the generators and engines had not been started, there was no hot water, there were no compasses and no liferafts,” Jornlin said. Two days later the man who coordinated much of the effort and who was to be the vessel’s captain left, the culmination of personal differences with the crew. Jornlin then assumed command of the group. “All 35 guys were looking at me and asking what we should do. I realized I had ended up with the whole thing in my lap. A lot of the guys had already left. A lot had expected a Caribbean cruise, I think. Or they had remembered their brand-new LSTs from the war. Some were in bad health. Some people who couldn’t climb their stairs at home came over. Well, if you can’t climb stairs in a house how can you climb ladders on a ship at sea? We had to walk one mile into town three or four times a day for meals and supplies, and when we first got there a lot of people couldn’t make the walk. But soon everyone could walk the whole way. This was like training, and it was good for them,” Jornlin said.
“We pirated a lot of stuff off the other vessels,” said Bruce Vogas, a retired boatswain’s mate for the Navy. “We pulled out pumps and motors from these dead ships, which we did using flashlights. I would help the engineers haul these things, which weighed between 150 and 400 pounds, out of one ship and into the 325.” A factor that complicated repair and operation of LST 325 was that all the name plates were in Greek, but the crew overcame these and other challenges.
With significant help from the Greeks at the navy base in Souda, the veterans eventually installed new generators, got the main engines operating, fixed the radar and gyro and by October had had the vessel out for a five-hour sea trial. “At that point the State Department said, Ã”Oh my God – these guys got this thing running and now want to come across the Atlantic,'” Jornlin said. “And that’s when phase two began – the paperwork.”
The crew needed to absolve both the Greek and U.S. governments of all liability. They agreed to take ownership of the vessel “as is, where is.” But with the support of the workers at the Greek repair facility and growing attention by the U.S. media, the crew of LST 325 had enough momentum to begin their voyage. An hour and a half after signing the appropriate paperwork they had thrown lines and were steaming for Athens to pick up some donated landing craft that they were to bring back to the United States as cargo.
Not all of the 35 men who helped prepare LST 325 for the voyage home made the trip aboard the vessel. Several returned home because of health complications. William Hart, 74, of Reading, Penn., never made it back. He died of a heart attack in New York at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way home. LST 325 sailed for Athens with a crew of 28.
The 160-nm voyage to Athens was uneventful, according to Jornlin. Waiting for LST 325 in Athens was 52,000 gallons of diesel fuel donated by BP Oil. BP donated the fuel after the company was approached by Mike and Linda Gunjak, the president and corresponding secretary of the United States LST Association. They made contact with Dan Waterfield, a BP public relations specialist in Oregon, Ohio, and that led to the fuel donation. Phillips Petroleum donated $20,000 for help with vessel maintenance. This donation came after Jennifer Galvin, a Phillips employee, went to the company with the request after her father, Val Baker of Purcell, Okla., who was going to be a part of the LST 325 crew, passed away before going to Greece. Phillips made the donation in Baker’s honor.
After two days in Athens, the crew departed, expecting to take LST 325 through the Corinth Canal, a shortcut that would trim hundreds of miles from the voyage. But the canal was closed due to high winds. Undeterred, Jornlin turned the ship around and steered the ship around the Greek peninsula, with plans to reach Gibraltar nine days later.
The crew of LST 325 line the rusted rails upon arrival in Mobile
“That’s when our troubles began,” Jornlin said. The starboard engine lost power off Sicily. The gyro failed. The steering failed. And the weather was typical of the Mediterranean in winter: 15- to 20-foot seas and gale-force winds that sent the vessel into 20Â° to 30Â° rolls. The vessel’s original hydraulic steering system was scrapped and an electric jury-rigged steering tiller was installed. The vessel and crew limped on under power of its port engine, the wind and seas blowing constantly against them.
When the bow would get blown off course it could not come back through stays and was forced to wear about like an old square rigger. “If your bow got a little bit off we couldn’t get it around. We’d have to make a complete circle,” Vogas said. Since the steering often failed, the bridge crew developed a well-rehearsed routine for dealing with the emergency: “When we had a steering casualty, which happened frequently, I would lean on the horn. The skipper would run to the bridge and I would run to the aft steering station and use a system of cables and pulleys with another guy to control the rudder. We had a great two-way radio system worked out, which allowed us to communicate around the ship,” Vogas said.
The vessel’s stern anchor, which was used in wartime to claw the vessel off a beach after deploying or loading equipment, also caused the crew trouble on the crossing of the Med. “One of the flukes was bent, so when the ship rolled the whole anchor would roll around and keep the guys up back there,” Vogas said.
The crew considered calling at Sicily to effect repairs, but Jornlin was determined to press on, he said. “I finally decided that I wanted to go home, and the way to get home was to go west. So we kept going, knowing that if we lost our other engine we would have to have a tow.” LST 325 arrived in Gibraltar on Nov. 29, having been at sea since Nov. 14. Repairs to the engine were delayed because of an initial misdiagnosis. What had been believed to be a blown head gasket turned out to be a leaky manifold. After pressure tests they found three leaking cylinders, and one of the pistons had been damaged by water. The crew paid $18,000 for repairs, which included a new bearing in the crankshaft, a rebuilt manifold and a new piston.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard had visited the vessel, and an admiral in the United States advised Jornlin and his crew that they should not attempt the crossing. “They said we shouldn’t do this; we should wait for better weather or have it towed. But we had lifejackets, we had liferafts, we had all the equipment we knew we needed to be safe. But we weren’t officially registered and weren’t allowed to be registered U.S. if we didn’t make all these other adjustments like have light bulbs in every socket. They wanted us to have an equal number of lifeboats on either side of the vessel, but we rigged them in the middle of the deck so that they’d be available if the vessel was listing in either direction,” Jornlin said. Officially, an unregistered vessel is not allowed within 12 miles of any coast. Jornlin said he could have registered the ship in Panama or Liberia, but, as a U.S. Navy veteran, he didn’t want to flag his ship foreign. So they sailed unregistered and decided to risk being turned away when they arrived in the United States. “But by this time all the major networks had been aboard, CNN, NBC, ABC, and the AP, so we knew that we had a lot of support. Plus, because of the Internet, a lot of people were following us daily on our web site, which we would update from the ship,” Jornlin said. “There were all sorts of rumors, though, like the fact that we had turkeys running wild on the tank deck, that I would be put in leg irons when we pulled into port in Mobile. The crew liked to joke of themselves singing Ã”For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ while I was being carried off to jail. But we were safe and we knew we could make it. I was even accused of putting my crew in a dangerous situation, but when you think about it, they put me in a dangerous situation!”
Despite various weather reports predicting uncertain conditions in the North Atlantic, Jornlin departed Gibraltar Dec. 12 under escort of a Spanish patrol vessel, expecting a stop in the Canaries. Once they had been at sea for a few days and realized the vessel was holding up well, they continued west across the Atlantic instead of diverting south. The crossing itself Jornlin described as uneventful, despite being against head winds the entire way and having one of the starboard engine’s cylinders fail. It was isolated from use, however, and the vessel continued the voyage with only 11 cylinders firing on that engine. The engines were burning through and leaking 30 gallons of lube oil per day, and the lube oil purifier didn’t work, which meant they couldn’t recycle leaked oil. Subsequently, they stopped at Nassau to load more oil and fuel.
Weather conditions improved for the last leg of the voyage. “We were concerned about going against the Gulf Stream, but we ran close to the Florida side after crossing and we didn’t have any trouble.” Just after rounding the Dry Tortugas and turning north on the final stretch across the Gulf of Mexico, however, the starboard engine failed again. With speed down to 3.5 knots, the crew expected to be a day late for the fanfare awaiting them in Mobile. “The screw must have come out of the water, and the overspeed governor shut down the engine. We worked on it for nine or 10 hours and couldn’t figure out what had happened,” Vogas said.
Finally, an engineer discovered the problem and restarted the engine. “We arrived in Mobile one hour ahead of schedule,” Jornlin said. The harbor was closed in their honor when the crew of LST 325 shaped its final course for the seabuoy and boarded a pilot. The 58-year-old vessel and its 28 aged crew were escorted by fireboats spraying multi-colored streams into the air; a fleet of Coast Guard vessels, the crews of which had been instructed to show every courtesy to the veterans despite their operating an unregistered vessel; and hundreds of pleasure craft. Five thousand people stood on the dock as tugs guided LST 325 to its berth, cheering as a brass band pealed out tunes in honor of America’s latest – and oldest – heroes. “We blew the whistle a lot,” Jornlin said. “I can’t describe how great it was.”
For more information about LSTs, donations, the voyage of LST 325, the USS LST Ship Memorial, Inc., the United States LST Association and LST 393, contact: United States LST Association, P.O. Box 167438, Oregon, OH 43616-7438; ph: 419-693-0725; f: 419-693-1265; www.uslst.org.