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LST and veterans are getting close

The idea seemed simple enough to aging Navy veterans of the Toledo-based U.S. Landing Ship Tank Association.

Congress was willing to give members a decommissioned ship for a floating museum. But the ship was in Greece, and the group couldn't afford to have it towed to the states.

Why not sail it themselves?

Despite rough seas, mechanical breakdowns, and dire predictions from the Coast Guard, 29 veterans - with an average age of 72 - have taken the 58-year-old ship more than 4,000 miles. By tomorrow, they expect to sail into the harbor at Mobile, Ala., for a hero's welcome.

“We had a lot of opposition, and we had a lot of people say, `You're crazy and you'll never do it,'” a weary Capt. Bob Jornlin said during an interview by satellite phone last night.

“We're going to show them here [tomorrow] that we can do it,” Captain Jornlin, 61, said as the ship bounced along waves in the Gulf of Mexico.

It has been quite a trip for the 325-foot ship, dubbed LST-325.

The group of World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans spent months during summer and fall on the ship and refurbishing it in Greece. But they lost a crew member before it was complete. Bill Hart died of a heart attack after being flown back to the United States.

The crew set sail for Alabama on Nov. 14 at nearly 71/2 mph with plans to be home by Christmas. But when the 3,400-ton vessel reached Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain, it needed engine and steering repairs.

Then the Coast Guard warned the group that the ship wasn't safe enough to make the month-long voyage across the Atlantic. They asked that the ship be towed - a pricy option the group had long since discarded.

Last night Captain Jornlin, of Earlville, Ill., said the ship was about 160 miles away.

They had to fight a strong wind, strong current, and cold weather yesterday, he said, not to mention mechanical problems that forced the crew to steer the ship manually.

But the crew's spirits are high.

“Everybody's doing fine,” he said.

In fact, he said, the crew has held up well, considering conditions.

“We only had a couple guys that got a little seasick when we hit the real rough weather at the start,” he said. “It seemed like they got over that, and we haven't had a problem after that.”

It's not your typical cruise ship. LSTs were used to ferry troops, tanks, ammunition, and supplies to beachfronts during wartime. To land on beaches, their bottoms are flat.

That makes it rough to ride them on waves.

Toledoan Karl Petersen, a World War II LST veteran and the association's secretary, described the ships as “floating bathtubs.”

Mr. Petersen, who has a heart condition, did not make the journey on LST-325. Neither did other association members from the Toledo area.

But association officials are raising money on behalf of the museum, and many group officers flew to Alabama this week to meet the ship.

It caps a decade-long struggle for association members.

The LST association, headed by Oregon resident Milan Gunjak, formed in 1985 to help reunite old shipmates from the LSTs.

It quickly grew to nearly 10,000 members across the country. All along, members wanted to get an old LST for a museum. The 100 that hadn't been salvaged after World War II had been loaned to other countries.

About 10 years ago, some members formed a separate memorial association and eventually found an old LST in Greece that had seen action in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy. But they had to wait for an act of Congress to claim ownership of it.

In October, 1999, Congress approved. By then, the memorial association knew it couldn't afford the $500,000 to pay a shipper to tow the LST. So several members offered to sail the ship themselves.

On July 19, members arrived in Greece to begin refurbishing the ship, adding $25,000 in navigational equipment and other equipment.

BP Oil donated 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel, while Phillips Oil Co. pledged $40,000 for extra fuel costs.

Crew members paid their own way to Greece and donated $2,000 to help cover expenses.

Now, so close to success, Captain Jornlin said the crew has no regrets.

“It's been a long, drawn-out adventure,” he said.

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