Sunday, December 10, 2006

 

Muskegon-based LST gets more donations, 'role' in WWII movie

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Muskegon Chronicle
By Robert C. Burns
December 10, 2006


Attentive viewers might have noticed a local celebrity in the recently released Clint Eastwood movie "Flags of our Fathers."

LST 393, now undergoing restoration at its familiar berth at the Mart Dock on Muskegon Lake, was briefly shown unloading troops during the battle of Iwo Jima near the end of World War II.

"Every time someone sees that movie, I get a phone call," says Dan Weikel, president of the USS LST 393 Preservation Association, which is raising money to restore the ship and can use the added publicity.

It is one of the last two tank landing ships of that era still afloat of the 1,150 the Navy built for the war, and is now in the process of being converted to a World War II museum.

The ship won battle stars for service in the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach and others in Sicily and Salerno. After that, it was painted in the camouflage pattern it has today, and was en route to the Pacific when the war ended. Although this particular LST never made it to Iwo Jima, it nevertheless made it into "Flags of Our Fathers."

Because no one, to his knowledge, came here to film the ship, Weikel assumes the image came from an online source and was inserted into the scene through "computer magic." And, because the ship likely was shown in its Pacific Theater colors, it fit.

Instead of landing on an embattled island in the northwest Pacific, as the Eastwood film has it, LST 393 actually wound up on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan after the war. In 1948, it entered a period of unheralded and largely anonymous postwar duty transporting new automobiles across the lake as the carferry Highway 16. That use for the ship ended in 1973.

Restoration activity was started several years ago by the Great Lakes Naval Memorial & Museum, which has custody of the World War II Navy submarine USS Silversides. The work was taken over by the nonprofit USS LST 393 Preservation Association last year.

Today, the LST's exterior has been completely painted, exactly as it looked in 1945. The wardroom, 12 officer staterooms and passageway have been painted, along with the galley and several port side berthing spaces once used by infantrymen.

Those spaces, along with the ship's tank deck and wheelhouse, are due to receive a fire suppression system, which in turn will enable the ship to host overnight stays.

That should enhance its revenue significantly. The USS Silversides attracts some 10,000 visitors -- mostly Scouts -- to its Overnight Encampment Program each year at a weekend rate set at $25 a head. The LST will have room for more than 50 overnighters this spring, and the money raised will expand the sprinkling system to other berthing spaces, adding 50 more bunks.

Work on the new sprinkler system, which is expected

to cost $20,000 alone, will begin as soon as the city issues a final permit, and is expected to be completed in May, Weikel said.

Luckily, various fundraising efforts have taken the association $50,000 further toward the ship's restoration just in the past year. Retired bank president Ron Gossett, a member of the association's board, recently donated $20,000 -- elevating him to Admiral/Founder, the top rank for life members.

Other large contributions have come from LST board member and ship's officer Bob Wygant, who also is restoring the captain's cabin himself; Elizabeth Eyke of North Muskegon; and Nowak Machined Products of Norton Shores, Weikel said.

Money also is being raised through tours of the ship, the popular summer Friday night "Movies on Deck," reunions, receptions and other special events.

Also, the group is planning to sell bricks for a planned "Walk of Honor" along the ship's dock. Bricks will bear the names of current, retired, discharged or deceased military service persons, at the rate of $25 each. For $10, anyone can send photos and personal information about service people. They will be framed and displayed on the ship's capacious 300-foot-long tank deck.

An auction will take place on board Feb. 17 of items donated to the ship, including military gear, sporting goods, various antiques and nautical items from the Great Lakes passenger ships SS Aquarama and SS Milwaukee Clipper. Both ships were once under the ownership of the Michigan and Wisconsin Steamship Co. That company, like the Mart Dock, are under Sand Products Co. of Detroit, which actually owns the LST.

Weikel said his group has the ship under a five-year lease, but is in negotiations with Sand Products to take over ownership.

Not all of the contributions have been monetary. For example, Gary Yakubowski of Coopersville has provided a restored 1943 Ford-built World War II Army Jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on it.

And last week, a 12-foot artificial Christmas tree arrived, complete with lights, and was promptly put up atop the ship's bridge.

The aim is to use the period artifacts to create a World War II museum in one part of the ship, and a Navy/maritime education center in another.

Weikel said the museum, which will include several hundred items from his own collection of World War II memorabilia, should be ready for visitors when the ship reopens next spring.

Even though winter is closing in, Weikel and his right-hand man, restoration officer Patrick Harker, are presently working with volunteers to complete the painting of the tank deck in fresh pea-green paint, a traditional Navy interior color.

The LST group's eventual goal is to open the now-welded-shut bow doors and lower the landing ramp as the museum's main entrance.


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