Old soldiers enjoy memories aboard traveling ship
Bob Avery of Peoria will never forget the day he poked his head out the hatch of the LST 561 just in time to watch the Statue of Liberty go by after serving 19 months in the Mediterranean during World War II.
On Monday, more than 60 years later, he got to relive some of those memories.
"The smell of the diesel just takes me back," said Avery, now 81, whose job was in the engine room. The easy sailing of the Illinois River, however, didn’t fit with the constant tossing and rolling on the ocean that also transfixed his memories. "It’s so smooth, I just can’t believe it."
Avery joined more than 75 others, including a handful of former LST or "Landing Ship/Tanks" sailors, aboard the LST 325 for a voyage from the Pekin Lock and Dam to the Peoria Riverfront, where the former military ship — a sailing museum — will be moored for the next week.
More than 1,000 LSTs were built in the early 1940s, designed for stability on the open sea and capable of carrying as many as 20 Sherman tanks, delivering them directly at the beachheads. Once there, its bow doors would open, and a steel ramp lowers, allowing its lethal force out and into battle.
The vessel, as long as a football field and 53 feet wide, sailed nary a bump along the shallow Illinois River, the flat-bottom ship resting just 8 to 9 feet into the brown waters. It averages about eight to nine knots, a slow-moving ship.
The LST 325 was salvaged from a Greek shipyard by a group of veterans who purchased the ship in 2000, rehabbing it and returning it to the United States, where it now serves as a war memorial. She is berthed in Evansville, Ind., but travels to different ports around the country. Her next port of stop will be in Henry.
The LST 325 is the only ex-Navy vessel that travels and is in working order.
Its main deck still houses the original anti-aircraft weapons. A jeep and hospital truck have also made a home there. Below deck is the wide open cargo space that once held tanks, jeeps and just about anything needed in battle.
Dewey Taylor, 82, of West Palm Beach, Fla., is among the more than 30 volunteers aboard and one of the original men who went to Greece to restore the ship. "I’ve got it in my blood," explains Taylor, who served four years aboard an LST while in the South Pacific during World War II where he and his fellow shipmates made several beach landings.
During the last of those landings, Taylor said the man that relieved him was killed along with two other crewmembers and 25 Marines. Seventeen others were injured. "A lot of memories," he says.
But what also brings him back is the generations of others who learn just by coming on deck. "My daughters, my granddaughters and grandsons all come to see it … it’s a lot different than just learning from a book."
For Karl Schmidt of Peoria, it’s been 62 years since the Marine took a ride on an LST. "I forgot what a lot of it looked like," said Schmidt, a three-time Purple Heart recipient who fought at Iwo Jima. "After coming up from down below where it’s hot, it’s kind of nice."
Dave Haney can be reached at 686-3181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.