War memories on the river

Saturday, June 21, 2003

The gray ship no longer carries tanks or troops. But the 60-year-old vessel still has its share of World War II memories of combat on the beaches of Normandy and the invasion of Sicily.

On Friday, the ship LST-325 docked in Cape Girardeau before a crowd of onlookers that included many veterans who served on similar ships during the war.

The partially refurbished ship's docking brought together two sailors who hadn't seen each other in 57 years. Gene Cox, 78, of Quincy, Ill., and Jack Jackson, 79, of Humboldt, Tenn., had talked on the phone, but they hadn't seen each other since they served together on board a similar LST, short for Landing Ship Tanks, in the South Pacific during World War II.

Jackson and Cox eyed the floating war relic and its turreted anti-aircraft guns with pride as it tied up at Cape Girardeau Riverfront Park.

"It's a wonderful thing. It brings back memories to so many people," said Jackson, who planned to tour the ship today.

The vessel will be open for public tours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today through Tuesday, before it continues on to St. Louis.

Awards ceremony

An awards ceremony honoring three World War II veterans will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. aboard the ship. Veterans Edward Grebing, Al Hoskins and the late Bill Cayse, all of Cape Girardeau, will be recognized. Grebing, Hoskins and Cayse's widow, Virginia, will be on hand to receive the service medals under a program created by the state of Missouri to honor World War II veterans.

LST ships hauled tanks and troops to the beach-front war zones in Europe and the South Pacific.

Cox and Jackson said such ships helped win the war.

But they also were inviting targets for enemy aircraft. Jackson said sailors had their own name for LSTs. "Everybody called it a large slow target," he said.

The LST that docked in Cape Girardeau is traveling up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers from June to August as a floating museum, including the four-day stop in Cape Girardeau.

The trip began June 3 in Mobile Ala., and is expected to wind up there on Aug. 19.

The LST-325 is one of more than 1,000 such ships built for beach landings during World War II. The flat-bottomed, 326-foot-long ship with its mammoth bow door was designed to land quickly on beaches, where it would unload its cargo of soldiers, jeeps and tanks.

Such vessels with their thin metal sides weren't designed to last, according to James Edwards of Canton, Texas, a 77-year-old Navy veteran who serves as executive officer on the LST-325.

"It was meant for two landings and then was to be junked," he said.

But such ships not only lasted through the war, they were used in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

The LST-325, commissioned in 1943, is the last such ship of its kind operating in the United States, he said.

Given to Greece

The U.S. government gave the ship to Greece in 1964. The Greek navy used it for about 35 years before it was decommissioned and fell into disrepair.

In 2000, it was turned over to a group of American veterans who wanted to restore it, including Edwards, who himself had served on LSTs.

Edwards and other volunteers have continued to work on restoring the ship after sailing it back from Crete over the objections of the Coast Guard, which felt the ship wasn't up to the journey.

The 6,000-mile trip took 47 days, Edwards said.

The success of the journey, however, didn't change the minds of Coast Guard officials, who still worry about the ship's fitness for travel. The ship is being pushed up and down the river by towboats at the insistence of the Coast Guard, crew members said.

But Capt. Bob Jornlin, an ex-Navy man who served during the Vietnam War aboard two LSTs, said the ship could have made the trip upstream without any help.

In World War II, LSTs operated with crews of over 100 men and carried hundreds more soldiers and tons of military equipment. In its bowels, it could hold 20 large tanks.

There are 33 men in the current crew, many of them veterans like Jornlin and Edwards who have been working on restoring the ship at a pier in Chickasaw, Ala., upstream from Mobile.

"We are trying to raise money to keep this ship running," Jornlin said. The group needs about $500,000 to replace the bottom of the ship, which has been worn down by years of resting in salt water. Other needed improvements are to the steering system and interior piping.

Amid the vintage World War II equipment in the ship's cabins, this crew makes use of more modern conveniences such as computers and synchronized digital clocks.

But the ship, which still shows its age with tell-tale rust and peeling paint in places, isn't a cruise ship.

Edwards said it can be rough ride in heavy seas.

"It's kind of like riding a bull."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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