Merchant Seamen, Port Officials Battling Over Floating Museum

Times Staff Writer

Joseph B. Vernick knows a thing or two about war. More than 40 years ago, he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, often braving enemy fire to ferry supplies and ammunition to his country’s armed forces. When the Japanese torpedoed his ship, he was taken prisoner and was interned for three years at a camp in the Philippines.

For four decades after World War II ended, Vernick and other merchant seamen lobbied the federal government to grant them status as veterans. They won that battle last year--and Vernick, who lives in North Hollywood, finally received his prisoner of war medal just two months ago--but their fight for recognition and respect isn’t over.

Today Vernick and the Long Beach-based U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans World War II, which he heads, find themselves battling a new adversary: the Los Angeles Harbor Department.


Vernick’s group is planning to convert a former cargo ship into a floating museum, a monument to their comrades who died at sea. The ship, the Lane Victory, is now at Suisun Bay, waiting to be towed to the Port of Los Angeles, where the seamen want to dock it at a berth in San Pedro, near the Los Angeles Maritime Museum and a statue that honors merchant seamen.

But Harbor Department officials say that site, which houses a container cargo terminal at a time when demand for such space is high, is unavailable. They want the veterans to put their museum in Wilmington, but the seamen will have none of that.

“They want to send us out somewhere where we’ll never be heard of again,” Vernick complained. “The people who made Los Angeles Harbor valuable are the Merchant Marine. . . . Through this harbor passed hundreds of thousands of troops. The least that we want is a central location for the vessel, which it deserves.”

Countered Ira Distenfield, president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners: “I am extremely supportive of them having the ship, and I’m also supportive of that ship being put on harbor property in a way that would give the community an opportunity to enjoy it. But we can’t put it on property that has the ability to be rented for the purpose that it was entrusted to us.”

For the merchant seamen, getting the Lane Victory was a battle in itself, one that began in 1982. The seamen began seeking one of the Liberty ships, which were dubbed the workhorses of World War II. But they were refused by the U.S. Maritime Administration, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s reserve fleet.

Ultimately, the seamen settled on the Lane Victory, a 455-foot-long vessel that was built at Los Angeles Harbor in 1945 and used at the tail end of World War II and in later wars. U.S. Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-San Pedro) took up their cause and introduced legislation asking Congress to assign the ship to Vernick’s group. Anderson’s bill passed last year, and former President Reagan signed it into law last October.


Since Congress gave its approval, the seamen--who have waged their campaign from a cramped office on the fifth floor of the U.S. Post Office in Long Beach--have concentrated on obtaining berths 87-89 at the Port of Los Angeles as a home for their floating museum.

Those berths, which front a cargo terminal, have traditionally been rented by small or medium-sized shipping lines, according to Mark Richter, assistant director of property management for the port. The terminal, which includes a giant crane that lifts containerized cargo on and off ships, was recently vacated by its last tenant, Evergreen Marine Corp.

But Richter said he knows of other potential tenants who are interested in the space. And, he said, the Harbor Department can hardly afford to relinquish the terminal at a time when it can barely handle the existing containerized shipping trade, not to mention what is projected for the future.

The seamen, however, argue that the terminal should be abandoned because it is the only industrial site remaining on a stretch of waterfront that includes the port’s World Cruise Center, Ports o’ Call Village and the Cabrillo Marina. The San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce has also taken up this position. It sees the Lane Victory as a way to promote tourism and ease the traffic generated by the cargo terminal.

“The ship would fit in well with what we’re trying to do in the way of tourism,” said the chamber’s executive director, Leron Gubler. “You’ve got this shipping terminal right in the middle (of the west bank), which isolates the World Cruise Center from the rest of those activities.”

Replied Richter: “Our feeling is that we certainly have not committed the San Pedro waterfront exclusively to tourist and visitor activities.”


Other Sites Offered

Richter said the port has offered the seamen space at two sites in Wilmington: one along the Cerritos Channel and another--the more desirable--at the foot of Avalon Boulevard, where the Harbor Department is planning a recreational and commercial complex for the residents of Wilmington.

Vernick, however, complained that the Avalon Boulevard site is years away from being completed and that the veterans, many of them senior citizens, are in no mood to wait. “Let’s face it,” said Vernick, who celebrates his 76th birthday today, “I want to see the ship down here before I kick the bucket.”

Vernick said he and his group plan to press elected officials for the San Pedro site, although it is unclear how much good this will do. Jeremiah Bresnahan, an Anderson aide, said the congressman is supportive of the seamen’s plans to berth the Lane Victory in San Pedro but “realizes that the Harbor Department has its own concerns to take care of.”

An aide to Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the harbor district, said the councilwoman too would like to see the ship berthed near the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. “But it is really up to the port,” the spokeswoman said.

And Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley--who, the seamen bitterly complain, has yet to acknowledge an honorary membership they bestowed upon him last December--wrote to Vernick last month to tell them that he is backing the Harbor Department’s decision.

Vernick and his fellow veterans, however, remain undaunted.

Said John Smith, the vice president of the mariners’ organization: “We’re fighters. We’ve been fighting for 45 years.”