ASHLAND — In many museums around the country and throughout the world, there are items on display that are exact replicas of artifacts that made history, helping to bring an event to life.
But when it comes to the USS LST-325 tank landing ship — which will visit the Port of Ashland from Sept. 15 to 18 — this historical vessel is the real deal, with the ship and its crew having taken part in the most important and deadly land invasions of World War II.
While thousands of similar tank landing ships were made during that conflict 80 years ago, only a handful now survive — and the story of how the USS LST-325 evaded the scrap yard all these years later is an amazing, true tale of American ingenuity.
When it comes to ships that have seen action in a war, not only do the memories of being on those crafts stay with the crew members for as long as they are alive, but some also believe the vibrations from those experiences are forever imprinted on the metal and wood of the ship. In the case of the USS LST-325, it not only delivered war vehicles, personnel and supplies to the shores of Europe during one of the deadliest wars in world history, but it also brought back badly injured soldiers on its returns to base, where it reloaded its cargo bay and headed back to the beach.
On Thursday, Sept. 15, the US LST-325 will dock at 50 15th St. in Ashland, with an opening ceremony that will begin at 9 a.m. After that, this historic ship will be open for visits by the public daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets for the 45-minute, self-guided tours cost $15 for adults 18 and older, $7.50 for kids 6 to 17, and children 5 and younger are admitted free. The vessel will then leave Ashland at 8 p.m. on Sept. 18.
When you walk aboard the USS LST-325, the metal walls and walkways are the same ones that were surrounded by the chaos of war eight decades ago. To learn the history of the ship is important.
The US LST-325 was built in 1942 in Philadelphia and set out for open seas in 1943 to face the enemy Axis Powers during World War II. Before the ship became a part of the D-Day Invasion in 1944, it helped to bring troops and supplies to the invasion of Italy two years earlier. Although a lesser-known true tale from WWII, the Invasion of Italy was a crucial point in the deadly push for victory. During that incursion, the USS LST-325 landed on the enemy-filled shores of Sicily and then Salerno, Italy.
Many times, the USS LST-325 would have to wait until it was stranded on the beach at low tide before it could unload its cargo. As our troops moved forward into Italy, the ship continued to come ashore and bring in the supplies that the soldiers counted on far ahead as they fought past enemy lines and marched inland.
Along with its impressively large cargo bay, which could handle up to 1,900 tons of gear, the 328-foot-long USS LST-325 operated with 13 officers and 104 enlisted men. For protection and to help with shoreline battles, the ship sported an array of 40mm and 20mm gun mounts.
By 1944, the USS LST-325 had made the voyage from Italy to England where it began to take part in the pre-invasion drills that preceded D-Day, which is still to this day the “largest amphibious invasion in military history.” After it would deliver troops and tanks onshore, the empty cargo bay of the vessel was then quickly loaded with injured American and Allied Forces soldiers who were carried back from the cliffs and the inland war zones of Normandy, France. As for how many injured combatants died on the USS LST-325 on its slow, 12-knots-per-hour trip back across the English Channel, the number is unknown.
After WWII, the USS LST-325 was decommissioned. It was brought back to life, however, with a stint in the Arctic as a troop and supply transporter and a 30-year run in the Greek Navy after being sold to Greece.
Then, in the year 2000, an organization of U.S. Navy veterans working together under the organizational title of USS LST Memorial Inc. bought the vessel from Greece, began the hard work of repairing it, and then attempted to make the 6,000-mile trip to American shores at an even slower pace of 10 knots per hour.
The average age of the sailors on the rescued ship was 72, and out of the 35 chosen to get the craft back home, seven had to withdraw due to health reasons and one died en route at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City.
The sluggish and ponderous LST ships were known in the Navy as “Large Slow Targets.” The ship was not cool in appearance like other Navy vessels, which meant they were viewed as the ugly ducklings of the fleet, and they were identified with just numbers instead of the names of historical figures. Yet, the sailors who worked on the LSTs loved them, and the thousands of veterans who are members of the United States LST Association (www.uslst.org) can attest to this.
So, after raiding other old LST ships in Greece for parts and getting the USS LST-325 seaworthy again, and despite the rumblings of the U.S. and Greek governments, the crew headed out to sea with 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel donated by BP Oil company as the media around the world began to follow their journey.
One of the two 900hp engines onboard the USS LST-325 as well as its gyroscope and steering system failed shortly after launch. The ship also failed Coast Guard inspections as it left Gibraltar for open seas, and it was up in the air whether it would be cleared to dock once it returned back home because it was an unregistered vessel.
The perseverance of these veterans, however, struck a nerve, and with the help of the press, their journey moved the nation. Those men who were the mechanics on the ship back in WWII brought their tools along and they fixed and rigged the ship as it rolled on.
After slowly chugging along on the Atlantic Ocean with only 11 out of 12 cylinders working in the one remaining diesel engine, by the time the vessel reached the port of Mobile, Alabama, the tired crew was greeted by 5,000 people onshore, fireboats shooting multi-colored water into the air and literally hundreds of citizen boaters on hand.
By 2005, the USS LST-325 was permanently docked in Evansville, Indiana, where tours now happen over 350 days of the year. On occasion, however, the ship makes a trip either down the Mississippi River or up the Ohio River, and on this run they have chosen Ashland as one of their stops on Sept. 15-18. If you cannot make it onboard then, the USS LST-325 will also make a stop at 600 Kanawha Blvd. East in Charleston from Sept. 21-25, and at 435 East Mehring Way in Cincinnati, Ohio, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 3.
More information can be found at www.lstmemorial.org.