Today, the LST-325. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The LST was a WW-II vessel for landing troops and heavy equipment on enemy shores. LST was an acronym for Landing Ship Tank, because a tank could drive straight out of one on to an enemy beach. The people who had to use them in combat insisted that LST actually stood for Large Slow Target. They were 328 feet long, with a flat-bottomed hull, and their best speed was a vulnerable 11 knots.
The LST-325 was one of the 1,050 LSTs that were built. It came off the ways in October, 1942, and served in both the Sicily and the Normandy invasions. We decommissioned the ship after the war, but then we resurrected it and lent it to Greece in 1964. The Greek Navy used it until the 1990s before they retired it.
Then, in March, several veterans, members of a group called the LST Association, decided they should bring this ship home. They began negotiations with the Greeks and had, by August, made arrangements to begin reclaiming the old wreck. Thirty veterans formed the crew. Their average age was around 74. One was 78. Each paid his own way to Greece and contributed 2,100 dollars toward refurbishing the LST-325. It was, alas, in worse shape than they'd expected, but they went ahead with their task.
The LST-325 was ready for a shakedown cruise in October. The engines ran, and it didn't leak, at least not yet. Arrangements with Greece and the American State Department were completed after another month. But they ran out of money before they could buy fuel. So BP donated 50,000 gallons, and the old ship, with her even older crew, set out from Athens to Mobile, Alabama, on Nov. 17th.
Plodding along at a normal speed of seven-and-a-half knots, the ship left Crete for the first leg of the trip. It took eleven days just to reach Gibraltar. From there to Mobile took almost a full month. The winter weather grew bitterly cold. One crewmember suffered a heart attack, had to be taken off the ship, and died soon after. Once at sea they discovered a cockroach infestation. By the time they reached the warmer waters of the Bahamas, they had to hire divers to plug a nasty leak in the hull. These ships were meant only for a brief ride to some forbidding shore. They were not built for comfort. Nor were they meant for long-term occupancy. The trip turned into a real trial for those old-timers.
Yet the LST-325 made it into Mobile Bay on January 10, 2001. Now the LST Association will do some more work on the old ship and then send it from port to port as a living exhibit -- one more nearly-forgotten piece of history brought back to life. Unlike a grand battleship or aircraft carrier, this was a very specialized piece of equipment. It played a huge role during its brief life, but then it faded just as quickly from most people's memory.
The old men who sailed it here from Greece were also brought back to life. For they brought with them, not just a ship, but the feel of its rigors and a reversal of time. One 74-year-old sailor put it best when he said, "We were 18 again out on that ship."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Elderly Veterans Bring World War II Vessel Home. New York Times NATIONAL, Thursday, January 11, 2001, p. A16.
See the Wikipedia page on LST-325.
Houston listener, Dr. Berma Kinsey, daughter of Cdr. Ralph McDowell who was instrumental in getting the Navy to adopt the LSTs, provides the following web site about their development:
US Government photo of the LST-325 temporarily stranded during low tide on the Normandy Beach. (June 12 1944)