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World War II-era landing ship to visit Charleston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- St. Albans resident and U.S. Navy veteran Robert Harris admits he has nothing to do with the group of volunteers who keep a World War II landing ship plying up and down the nation's waterways.

But when Harris saw LST 325, a floating war memorial and museum, in Marietta, Ohio, a few years ago he decided he had to convince the crew to bring the historic vessel to West Virginia.

"It's an ocean-going ship," said Harris, who is familiar with LSTs from his service in the Navy from 1950 to 1954.

"How often do we get an ocean-going ship in Charleston?"

Harris gets his wish over Labor Day weekend, when the historic ship will dock in Charleston from Aug. 30 to Sept. 3.

LST 325 is a Landing Ship, Tank, a ship designed in the early days of World War II specifically to carry big loads of tanks, trucks, men and supplies across the ocean all the way to an enemy beach. American and British planners knew the big vessels would be vital in landing an invading army and keeping it supplied in the precarious opening stages of a major amphibious operation.

"The LSTs were the ones that could make an invasion work," said Capt. Bob Jornlin, skipper of the all-volunteer crew of LST 325. "They could come in and land Sherman tanks on the beach and not need a dock and not need a crane."

LSTs could load and unload through a set of massive hinged doors built into the bow of the ship. More than 300 feet long, an LST could carry dozens of tanks and trucks and hundreds of troops, and their ability to operate in very shallow water allowed them to come right up to the beach.

More than 1,000 of the vessels would be built by the United States, Canada and Great Britain during the war.

Jornlin, 74, served on LSTs during the Vietnam War. He said the vessels were vital during World War II for ferrying equipment, supplies and troops to the war zones, and in bringing wounded men out of the combat zone for treatment. The ships even had their own operating rooms to help save the lives of soldiers too badly wounded to survive the ship ride to safety.

LST 325 was built in Philadelphia and launched in 1942. The ship took part in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, and was part of the massive armada that invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944.

"You stand on the deck of something that was at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time I think about it," Jornlin said.

On her first trip to the D-Day beaches, LST 325 carried 59 vehicles, 31 officers and 408 troops. Between the invasion of Normandy and the end of the war in Europe, LST 325 made 44 trips across the English Channel, hauling everything from troops and wounded to fuel and supplies.

It was on her way to the Pacific Theater when Japan surrendered in August of 1945.

LST 325 wound up in the Greek Navy, where it served until decommissioned in 1999. A group of dedicated former LST crewmen found the old ship at a scrap yard in Crete, slowly rusting away, and decided to save it.

Jornlin said the group had been looking for an LST to restore for several years.

"Most of the guys who served on the LSTs wanted one back," he said. While it isn't uncommon to find destroyers, submarines, battleships and other World War II museums around the country, "there weren't any LSTs as museum ships," he said.

"The LSTs were forgotten," he said. "You can pick up a book on World War II and you're lucky if there's a picture of an LST on a beach somewehere down in the corner of the book."

Jornlin was part of a group of veterans who went to Greece to fix the LST up and bring it back to the United States. Jornlin, a lieutenant during his stint in the Navy, became captain when the job proved to much for the man originally picked to skipper the ship.

Following a series of setbacks and major repairs, Jornlin and 28 other men who sailed LST 325 home, arriving in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 10, 2001.

"I'm not a World War II guy," Jornlin said. "But I had 18 help me bring her back from Greece, plus nine from Korea."

Today, LST 325 is based in Evansville, Ind., where a group of about 40 volunteer crew members keep it operating. Many are former LST crewmen.

So far, tour admissions, donations and merchandise sales have paid for the operation and upkeep of the floating museum, Jornlin said.

Harris said it took three years of conversations and correspondence to get the LST 325 to come to Charleston. But Jornlin finally agreed to come.

"It's fascinating, because you can see how it actually works," Harris said. He said there are lots of floating ship museums, "but none of the rest of them move, except maybe the [U.S.S.] Constitution, which they take out every year and turn around."

The fact that LST 325 took part in the invasions of Sicily and Normandy "makes a celebrity out of it," Harris said.

LST 325 will be open for public tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 30 through Sept. 3. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children between the ages of 5 and 17 and free for children under 5. Family passes are $20.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

 


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