WWII landing craft will dock here in September

Some LSTs built at Neville Island

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A ship that delivered supplies to Normandy for the D-Day invasion will arrive in Pittsburgh in September and take on a different kind of cargo -- tourists.

LST 325 -- one of the Landing Ship, Tanks designed to float right onto enemy beaches and unload materiel through a pair of giant doors -- will dock near Heinz Field and be open for tours Sept. 2-6. Sept. 6 is Labor Day.

The ship still looks much as it did on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Even the anti-aircraft guns are intact, Bob Jornlin, the captain, said.

Mr. Jornlin, a Navy veteran who served on LSTs during the 1960s, was part of a nonprofit group that obtained the ship from Greece a decade ago and sailed it 6,500 miles to Mobile, Ala., a voyage that attracted international publicity.

"A lot of people said we couldn't do it," he said.

After extensive restoration, LST 325 is a "ship museum" in Evansville, Ind. Mr. Jornlin and a crew of about 40 -- including farmers, firefighters and veterans -- take the ship out twice a year.

This is the ship's first visit to Pittsburgh, a city with deep connections to LSTs.

Mr. Jornlin's ship was built at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, but the Dravo Corp. plant on Neville Island manufactured 146 LSTs during World War II, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. LST 325 will pass Neville Island on its way to and from Pittsburgh.

In all, Mr. Jornlin said, Pittsburgh and a handful of other cities, including Seneca, Ill., about 325 miles northwest of Evansville, made about 1,000 LSTs during the war.

LST 325 will depart Evansville on Aug. 21; dock in Wheeling, W.Va., Aug. 26-30; and leave for Pittsburgh on Aug. 31. Provided the ship can clear the Wheeling Suspension Bridge on the Ohio River, it will arrive in Pittsburgh on Sept. 1 and dock at North Shore Riverfront Park, owned by the Sports and Exhibition Authority.

Tours will be $10 for adults, $5 for children 6 to 17 and $20 for families -- parents and children 6 to 17. Children under 6 will be admitted free.

On Sept. 7, the ship will depart Pittsburgh for Marietta, Ohio.

About a year ago, former McCandless resident Kathleen Thomas took her mother, Ann Thomas, and aunt, Jul Kurtek, to see LST 325 in Evansville. The pair had worked on sections of LSTs at Neville Island but had never had an opportunity to admire the finished product.

"It was a real treat for them," said Ms. Thomas, president of a Tigard, Ore., engineering firm and author of the self-published book, "Don't Call Me Rosie: The Women Who Welded The LSTs and The Men Who Sailed On Them." She wrote the book because of her mom, Ms. Kurtek and a second aunt, Vera Drab, who also worked on the ships at Neville Island.

Mr. Jornlin said LST 325 may be the only intact LST in the United States. He said he knows of a couple that have been converted to ferries and one that was modified for dredging.

LST 325 is 328 feet long and 50 feet wide, with enough space to hold 20 Sherman tanks. As with all LSTs, its most important feature was a shallow draft that enabled the ship to beach.

Mr. Jornlin said LSTs were the brainchild of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who recognized that Allied forces would have to avoid heavily mined ports and deliver troops right to Nazi-occupied beaches.

Launched in 1942, LST 325 supported the invasions of Sicily and Salerno in Italy. Twice, crew members were injured during attacks by enemy warplanes.

But the ship's most historic duty came as part of the huge flotilla assembled for the Normandy invasion. Mr. Jornlin said it delivered its first load of equipment on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day.

From then until April 1945, it made 44 more trips between England and France, many to the Normandy beachheads. On return trips to England, the ship carried wounded soldiers, according to a history compiled by Mr. Jornlin's group, the USS LST Ship Memorial.

One moment of gallantry stands out. In December 1944, the crew helped rescue 700 sailors aboard a troop transport torpedoed off the French coast.

In the 1950s, LST 325 helped to install radar posts along the coasts of Greenland and Canada. In the 1960s, it was transferred to the Greek navy under a lend-lease program, Mr. Jornlin said.

Mr. Jornlin, who lives in Earlville, Ill., said he and other veterans began their pursuit of an LST in 1990 and eventually received congressional help in obtaining LST 325 from Greece.

About one-third of the way back to the United States, the ship developed mechanical problems and had to find a port to put in for repairs. At first, a helpful country was difficult to find.

"We were a nonregistered ship, in essence a pirate ship," Mr. Jornlin said.

Finally, Mr. Jornlin said, England offered Gibraltar as a repair station, saying the heroic LST was welcome in any British port.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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