The other day I was sitting at a local eatery reading a WW II book,
one of the Time-Life series that appeared thirty years or so ago, sold on television in thirty five volumes, now out- of -print. The book is entitled RETURN TO THE PHILLIPINES and features on the cover the famous, iconic photo of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at the Leyte beach making good on his “I Shall Return” promise. A man walked by, saw what I was reading and asked: “”Can I see your book for a minute?” An odd request I thought but said “Sure. He took my book, walked over to a group of ladies sitting nearby and spoke to them pointing to the cover photo. Now even more curious I asked why he was giving this impromptu history lecture to a group of ladies who smiled and talked excitedly as he spoke. “The man you see here” he said pointing to the soldier walking beside MacArthur at his left, obviously an enlisted man, “was a friend of mine. He lived here in Nashville for many years and just died last year.”
Pretty neat tale. But there was something else worthy of mention in the photo, two very large guys behind the famous general on either side of him there on that famous beach: LST 814 & 840, two specially designed landing crafts manufactured in the United States during the war. Many scholars and WW II enthusiasts over the years have christened the LST as “the ship that won the war.” Others argue that the “Higgins boat” the LCVP, the much smaller, simpler boat just behind MacArthur in the photo, the boat that actually carried him onto the beach, the craft featured in that famous opening scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” demands that honor. Regardless of the outcome of this competition, the LST was clearly the bigger, more expensive, more sophisticated brother of the pair. But the two crafts had different purposes. One was designed to carry personnel, for the most part, and the other was designed to carry heavy equipment-for the most part. To seize an enemy held beach both were needed. Because nearly every major operation the US mounted in World War II began with an “amphibious” landing, this was no small matter.
A couple of years ago I visited the WW II museum in New Orleans and saw a real “Higgins Boat.” The museum was located in that city because those boats had been manufactured nearby during the war-about twenty-thousand I’ve heard. Knowing of the sheer volume and size of an LST, I was quite sure I’d never see one of these in a museum. It is not the sort of thing that can be put indoors unless it was housed in a building the size of a football stadium. It’s not a boat; it’s a ship.
Now I can say that I’ve not only seen but have actually been on one. A few days ago LST-325 came to Nashville and docked at Riverfront Park. About twelve years ago it was located having just been retired from a thirty-five year stint in the Greek navy, saved from the scrapyard, purchased, repaired, and brought back home to the USA. Of the thousand or so manufactured during WW II, it is now the only functioning LST in existence-a national historic treasure.
“Large Slow Target”. That’s the affectionate nickname the GIs, frequent passengers, applied to this plain-jane, not-so-pretty naval vessel that appeared in the early days of World War II, a craft designed to efficiently deliver men and material onto an enemy-held beach. “LST” simply stood for “Landing Ship, Tank.” No, the proper government name was not an ear-catching, dignified, heroic name, just a simple designation of its’ role with a three-digit identification number. And yet, as the conflict rolled on, this vessel was used time and again by US forces in both the European and Pacific theatres of that great war. Later, the remaining LSTs, those that had not been sold or scrapped, were used In the Korean and Vietnam conflicts-an enormous, expensive piece of equipment that would be used, so it was believed ( at first), only once or maybe twice before being scrapped or sunk. It was an odd thing. In this the LST was similar to the jeep, the M-4 Sherman tank, and the DC-3 airplane. None of these were very sexy, sleek, or state-of-the-art but they all found post-war uses. All were workhorses practically designed, easily maintained, and versatile-adaptable to different situations. While other seemingly high-tech, state-of-the –art, sexy, tools of war were declared obsolete or unneeded and sent to the scrap-yard at wars’ end, the LST with these others, became like the cat with nine lives.
Nevertheless, as time passed, time caught up with it and the LST slowly passed into oblivion. Of the thousand or so manufactured in the US during WWII, and none were manufactured after the war, only a handful that had escaped the metal salvage wrecking ball were still in use by the nineteen-seventies. By this time our military had been issued an updated model and the remaining old WWII era LSTs were sold or scrapped.
There was nothing unexpected about this. Like so many other pieces of heavy equipment manufactured during the war, the LST was not designed for long-term use. It was designed to win the war and little if any thought was devoted to what would be done with it afterward. And within the broad context of winning the war, the LST had a very specific “raison d’etre”, or role. It was designed to hit the beach with the “grunts” and quickly unload heavy equipment , principally tanks, to support their tactical objectives. And it worked pretty well in this task.
It was a revolutionary idea at the beginning-a ship that would purposely run aground on a beach. Traditionally ships tried to stay afloat and ran aground only by accident or misfortune. When they needed to unload they would go to a harbor to unload large items or simply unload men and a limited amount of supplies from small boats. A ship designed to run aground and unload large items directly and quickly onto the beach? A pretty novel idea. Of course it was also important that the ship be able to get OFF that beach & back into the water, that is if the enemy cooperated! Through the creative use of tides coupled with an extended anchor out in the water used to pull the ship backwards, the LSTs could usually get back into the water without too much difficulty. At Normandy the LST 325 made several round trips back and forth to its’ base in England carrying soldiers and equipment forward to the front and wounded and POWs on the return trip to base. It was always loaded either way-a real work horse.
There is no question that without the LSTs and the smaller LCVP or “Higgins” boats, the second front in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) could never have been established and the seizure of numerous islands in the Pacific theatre would not have occurred. Necessity is the mother of invention and the demands of the conflict made the development and manufacture of such vessels necessary. Nothing like it existed before World War Two.
This particular ship, LST-325, was manufactured in late 1942 and was later among the first convoy of LST’s to sail for the Mediterranean in early March, 1943. No LST’s were used in “Operation Torch”, the invasion of North Africa in late 1942, but quite a number including the 325 were used in “Husky”, the invasion of Sicily in July, ‘43. Later, in September, the 325 took part in the Salerno operation, the invasion of Italy, making three trips to the beachhead. Then it sailed to England and from that point in early June 1944 took part in the Normandy invasion delivering men and equipment to Omaha beach-the most famous amphibious assault of the war.
I took the nine stop ten dollar tour. At each point a guide would say a few words and cheerfully answer questions. Most of these guides were older gentlemen who had actually served on an LST in either WW II or the Vietnam conflict. Stop #1 was the “Tank Deck.” Everyone entered through the bow forward, the business end of the vessel with the enormous double doors that would open to release it’s payload upon touching the enemy beach. The interior/hold or “Tank Deck” is enormous, 230 feet long,30 feet wide and 14 feet high with the capacity to hold 20 Sherman tanks or a mixture of various vehicles. Various shops, electric, machine, etc. line the sides. Other tour stops took us to engine rooms and mess deck (crew tables and quarters) In this room is a plaque honoring those who brought LST325 from Greece in 2001 back to the US. Then we walked through and past the mess deck, galley and up onto the main deck where most of us took a photo op in the seat of a revolving 20mm anti-aircraft gun. Then we passed through the officer’s quarters and dining room to the forward portion of the upper “main deck” where additional vehicles, artillery, and personnel were carried when headed toward an enemy beach. Pictures of these vessels when in action (headed toward the beach) taken during the war show the main deck packed with vehicles and supplies. This was also the case on return trips back to base when the ships were often loaded with wounded or prisoners-of-war or both. To and fro there was alot to carry. Before heading back downstairs to the Tank deck we passed through a troop berthing area where up to 300 troops-passengers (usually soldiers) could be quartered. Then there was finally, the inevitable gift shop, with lots of things for sale: books, souvenir caps, shirts, sweaters, etc. and an opportunity to make a donation for the general operating fund and join the LST Memorial Membership. It is all privately owned and operated and they do need money. After a few days in Nashville, the ship, being fully operational, headed back up the river to its’ home in Evansville, Ind. on September 23.
It one thing to see photos and read about these vessels that played such a key role in liberating the world from tyranny in the nineteen forties. But it’s quite another to really walk inside one and speak to LST vets. One old fellow I spoke with said that it was very emotional for him. When he walked aboard the 325 a few years ago, it was the first time since WW II that he had been aboard an LST. And it sure brought back some memories for him. I’ll bet.
History truly comes alive aboard the LST 325, the closest thing to being there. Standing on that main deck looking toward the bow, I tried to imagine how it would have been on June 6, 1944, crowded with men and material, the choppy English channel bouncing us up and down, salt spray in the air, hundreds of boats and vessels of all kinds all around us, and the deafening roar of the naval guns upon nearby battleships pounding the beach up ahead where the enemy awaits our arrival. Gives you goose bumps and makes you proud once again of the men, our vets who stood aboard this ship and boldly and bravely moved toward the sound of the guns into harm’s way and in doing so made this world a much better place. Did they “make a difference”, not only the vets of WW II, but the vets of Korea and Vietnam? You bet they did. I know I’m grateful.
For more information contact: lstmemorial.org