... a tour of the last LST (Landing Ship Tank) afloat
A classmate to the rescue
I almost missed the boat - and a chance to relive some special moments of sixty years ago.
A high school classmate of mine, Dave Ramsay, served on a Landing Ship Tank (LST) during World War II in the Pacific. He contacted me recently and said, "Jim, you won't believe this but the last remaining sea-going LST - the 325 - is headed up your way and will be docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard. You've got to get over and see it - and bring some of your family."
Click photo for larger view
The LST's were the largest of all of the ship-to-shore vessels and one of amphibious ships built to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I might add here that it was a miracle that they succeeded because they were slow, unwieldly, top-heavy and round-bottomed (no keel). In my opinion, all of the officers and crew deserved special medals for keeping these cumbersome - and remarkable - ships afloat. (I'm getting ahead of myself here.)
To be honest, if Dave had not contacted me, I may not have made the effort. I also served in the Amphibious Corp of the Navy and spent over two years on an LCT (Landing Craft Tank), a much smaller version of the LST, which could travel long distances along coastal waterways but not built for ocean travel. Then how did we cross the Atlantic? Why, on the top deck of an LST of course, along with two Higgins boats on our deck just to help the LST rock even more! Dave's call jogged my memory of the 18 day (I think) journey from Philadelphia to Oran, North Africa - a trip full of adventure, both ways, with every day a challenge.
The tour begins
And so the trip down memory lane began at 10 am on Sunday morning, June 12. I was joined by my daughter Sheila, son Jeff and two of his children, Andrew, age 10, and Claire, age 8. LST 325 was tied up at Pier 4 and my first reaction was that the ship was clean, recently painted and not looking its age. All of the crew were excited to see a good number of visitors that continued to come aboard. The tours were handled by guides who were actually members of the regular crew who run and maintain the ship. Our guide was the Chief Electrician, who obviously knew the entire workings of the sixty-year old warrior and loved showing it off.
As we went down a set of stairs - oops, ladders in the Navy - we went into a long narrow room where the guide said, "And here are the sleeping quarters for the enlisted men." I looked at the bunks - stacked 6 high and about 12 inches of space between them - and commented, "This is just like where I slept, on the top bunk." What I didn't voice were my flashbacks of memories - the constant rolling of the ship - sailors and soldiers alike trying to keep their balance - seasickness - just about everyone finding some type of ropes or belts to tie them into their bunks at night.
And so it went throughout the tour. Many areas brought out for me some long forgotten memory. I also began to realize that visitors to the LST 325 could not get the real feel of the experience with the ship tied up to port. Aside from enemy fire, the real challenges and dangers connected with landing crafts, and especially LST's in the open waters, are that they are top-heavy with cargo, have the rounded bottoms and continuously fight the rough seas.
There were two areas in particular that were examples of the danger of life on the LST. One was the simple task of getting meals prepared and served three times a day. The ship sometimes rocked so severely that the chefs could only serve sandwiches and beverages. It was a real effort for the crew to stay in line to get the food, balance the tray, and go down a flight of stairs where the mess hall was located. Add to the fact that coffee and milk were spilled on the stairs - you get the picture. Thank goodness there were some calmer days on the voyage.
The continuing battle was the actual steering and maneuvering of the vessel within a convoy out at sea. It so happened that I was the pilot of our LCT and I was "recruited" to take a turn at the helm for the ocean crossing. It was actually great for me at the age of 19 to have been a part of this adventure. I always had the officer in charge right with me and he was responsible for the proper course and speed. When the water was rough, however, and with a fair wind blowing, an LST absolutely "rocks and rolls". I still have the image of seeing the bow of the ship virtually leap up in the air, veer left and then right before coming back down - and then repeating the pattern a few times until the seas subsided.
When the tour ended, I realized that my family saw one vessel and I saw another.
Jim Driscoll takes one more turn at the wheel after 61 years; grandchildren Claire and Andrew approve.
LST 325 – the last survivor
One of the more than 1,000 LST’s built between 1942 and 1945, LST 325 is the only one still able to operate under its own power and in its original World War II configuration. As described in its published brochure, the 325 was part of the first convoy to enter into the Mediterranean (March 1943) and participate in the landings at Sicily and Italy. It was then on to England where it joined in the V-Day invasion, unloading men and supplies at Omaha Beach. On December 28, 1944, the crew helped rescue over 700 men from a torpedoed transport ship off the coast of France, for which the captain received the Bronze Star.
With its remarkable history in World War II, it is certainly fitting for the LST 325 to preserve the memory of these ships and the men who served and died on them. As a lasting gesture, the names of all who died while serving on LST’s will be prominently displayed on the 325,
If only I had known!
The majority of 1942 high school graduates had joined the military service within the next year. As a result, we lost contact with many of our classmates for years – and we knew very little of their war experiences. And it is interesting to note that the subject was not discussed at our reunions. As the years went by, I did manage to piece together that many of the class had stories to tell – battle injuries, prisoners of war, ship sinking, submarine duty, plane crashes, etc.
Here, for example is an excerpt from the e-mail that classmate Dave Ramsay sent me:
“My LST, the 767, carried LCT 749 all over the Pacific, along with 2 pontoon piers lashed port and starboard, finally off-loading both the piers and the LCT during the invasion of Okinawa. We also had a tank deck load of 155mm tractor drawn howitzers as well. While they were leaving the ship, we had to retract due to heavy weather and all that were still aboard and unsecured slid from side to side from the ship’s roll. What a job those Marines had unscrambling their equipment while we fought off Kamikaze raids. As you well know, all this stuff comes with the territory!”
July 1, 2005