LST 325 turned heads when it sailed up the Tennessee River through Guntersville to Chattanooga Tuesday morning.
Swimmers and boaters in the lake stopped what they were doing to gawk.
So did walkers on the Lurleen and Sunset Drive walking trails.
Guntersville Middle School teacher Tama Nunnelley took her social studies students down to the water’s edge to see the piece of history come through.
That the boat is cruising around rivers in the United States is rather remarkable in itself. It was designed as a ship that could land heavy equipment such as tanks right on the beach, thus the Landing Ship, Tank or LST designation.
LST 325 saw action in World War II at Sicily, Salerno and then at Omaha Beach in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. It was decommissioned after the war only to be pressed into service again during the Korean Conflict.
“After we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Russia said, ‘Hey, we want one too,’” said current LST 325 Captain Bob Kubota.
Russia had developed nuclear weapons and was in the process of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
LST 325 was brought out of mothballs to build radar stations for the “early warning line” around the North Atlantic. It was landing on beaches again, but delivering construction materials this time rather than tanks in a new war, the Cold War with Russia.
All the LSTs were decommissioned after Vietnam, Kubota said. 325 was given to Greece, which would use it another 25 years.
The LSTs were never named like other ships but simply numbered. More of them – over 1,000 – were built than any other type ship, Kubota said.
“I can’t prove it but I think the Navy numbered them rather than named them because they didn’t expect them to last,” Kubota said. “They thought they’d make a few trips to the beach and get all shot up.”
In 1999, a grassroots group comprised almost entirely of veterans decided it was time to bring an LST home and make a living museum out of it.
“There were half a dozen carriers around and 4 or 5 battleships as memorials and museums,” Kubota said. “There were even submarine museums, but no LSTs.”
They found another LST in Greece but it was scrapped before the group could get Congress to pass a law to let them go and get it.
“The hull is the most expensive part of the ship and they were trying to find the best hull they could find,” Kubota said. “It was roughly 50 guys. If it hadn’t been for them, it would not have happened.”
He said Greece had to offer the ship back to the United States and the United States had to agree to take it.
“The State Department routinely said no,” Kubota said. “It was an old ship. We’d given it away 30 years earlier and already scrapped ours. Why did we want it back? It took an act of Congress to accept the ship.”
The act Congress had passed was to accept the other ship, though, the first one found by what would become the LST Memorial Association. The law had to be changed, scratching out the number of the first ship and substituting LST 325.
“That went much faster than the original law went,” Kubota said. “It was a rider on an amendment of some other bill and was scratching out one number and replacing it with another.”
After that, the roughly 50 volunteers went to Greece and prepared to bring LST 325 home.
“Some of the guys were over 70 and got sick,” Kubota said. “Some went home. Others went over to take the place of the ones who came home.”
Their struggles weren’t exactly over, however.
“The Coast Guard said the ship couldn’t come into this country, that it didn’t meet pollution standards, lifesaving standards or firefighting standards,” Kubota said. “They said the ship wasn’t flagged by any country and didn’t meet the rules. The captain just said, ‘Okay.’”
A stroke of fortune happened for those initial volunteers. Former longtime NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw – a vocal supporter of “The Greatest Generation” – went to Europe, got on LST 325 and filmed for most of a day in the Mediterranean. It got the story of the ship and its volunteer crew out to the American people.
“Brokaw told about all the battles LST 325 had been in,” Kubota said.
“That got veterans groups active,” Kubota said. “One thing I’ve found out. Every Congressman has veterans. Some got farmers. Some got steelworkers. But they all have veterans. With the VFW, the Legion and the DAV, the veterans are pretty organized too. This was before the days of e-mail. It wasn’t long before they started flooding Congress with phone calls, telegrams and letters.”
The sailors who brought the vessel across the Atlantic recounted that there was the very real possibility they were going to be arrested when they got home.
“The vessel wasn’t registered and they didn’t meet the rules,” Kubota said.
Halfway across the Atlantic, they got word they were cleared to go to Mobile, Alabama, which is where they were headed anyway.
The ship’s permanent home port became Evansville, Indiana. While the LST 325 wasn’t built there, Kubota said, more LSTs were built in Evansville than anywhere else.
Every year, LST 325 goes on a cruise so people around America can experience the history. The crew taking the ship on the cruise is all volunteer.
“There are veterans and there are people like myself who are not veterans,” Kubota said. “There are people from every branch of the service, not just the Navy. It’s not a cruise ship. The crew sleeps in the same racks sailors slept in 70 years ago. That’s part of the attraction of it.”
Kubota spent 40 years on rivers running tugs.
“They were more interested in my license than they were me,” the Ohioan said. He’s been a volunteer with 325 for 7 years now.
The ship will do 10 miles per hour, but they did about 7 as they came through Guntersville the other day.
There were 43 crew members aboard.
“That’s a little light,” Kubota said. “We try to sail with about 50.
“The Navy crew was 120 enlisted men and 10 officers. We don’t have to man the guns though,” he said.
The ship still has her guns.
“The ATF wasn’t crazy about that but agreed they could be left if they were demilled,” Kubota said.
He said a lot of the guys who cruise together end up becoming really good friends. There are actually 2 cruises this year and they will be on cruise for about a month total.
Just like on river tugs, they eat pretty well aboard LST 325.
“We have 4 guys cooking 3 meals a day,” Kubota said.
Volunteers maintain the ship and keep it in running order.
“Surprisingly, we have skilled workers for any specialty we need,” Kubota said. “We do some recruiting. If a guy comes through on a tour and says he’s a welder or an electrician and mentions he might like to volunteer, he gets a follow up phone call.”
The twin diesel engines that power the craft are essentially train engines, Kubota said. He said the cost of the diesel to power the engines is not astronomical but said it is measured in “gallons to the mile, not miles to the gallon.”
The boat draws 9 feet at the stern and 4 feet at the bow. It can moor anywhere a regular tug can.
When told the Nina and Pinta were currently in Guntersville, Kubota said the LST 325 once docked alongside them while on tour in Cincinnati.
A small boat followed the LST 325 as it came through Guntersville.
Kubota said a World War II veteran was aboard that vessel. His family had brought him out on a private boat to get close once again to an LST like the one he’d served on.
“That is part of the mission,” Kubota said, “honoring and remembering all service members who served in World War II.”
The boat is expected to come back through Guntersville headed for Decatur on Wednesday morning, locking through Guntersville Dam a little after 9 a.m.