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Sentimental Journey : Cargo Ship Veterans Set Sail for D-Day Events

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With flags flying, foghorns blasting and hundreds of well-wishers waving goodby, a restored World War II cargo ship and its crew of gray-haired former Merchant Marine seamen--almost all of them in their 60s and 70s--steamed out of Los Angeles Harbor on Friday on a voyage back into history.

One month and about 9,000 miles from now, the 49-year-old Lane Victory is scheduled to arrive in England for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing on the Normandy coast of France. For most of the 54 crew members, the oft-delayed voyage will be a sentimental journey back to the days when they were young Merchant mariners hauling cargoes on the hostile seas of a world at war.

“It’s a great day, a great day!” said Capt. Bill Tilghman of Fallbrook, a World War II Merchant Marine veteran and retired oil tanker captain who will be at the helm as the ship steams south at about 15 knots to the Panama Canal and then across the Atlantic. The Lane Victory is expected to rendezvous near Bermuda with another restored World War II cargo vessel, the Liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien out of San Francisco, and then proceed in convoy to England.

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At 77, Tilghman is the oldest member of the Lane Victory crew. But not by much. Chief Mate Bill Skinner is 76; Chief Engineer Peter Jacobelly is 72. From the bridge to the deck to the engine room, the 455-foot freighter is being run by men who lived through the terrible and momentous events of half a century ago.

Their average age is 68.

“You’re never too old to do something if you want to do it badly enough,” said John Struyk, 71, of Downey, one of hundreds of veteran Merchant seamen who helped restore the ship over the past five years. Struyk’s wife, Mary Anne, is one of five women crew members, all married to World War II Merchant Marine veterans, who are making the trip.

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For several hundred friends and family members who gathered at Berth 53 in San Pedro to watch the Lane Victory depart, it was a exciting and, for some, slightly worrisome event.

“I’m happy for him,” said Andrea Elias of La Puente, whose 62-year-old father, Jim Pelot, is one of the crew members. “But I’m his daughter, so I’m always worried.”

Although there is a doctor on board and the crew members had to get approval from their physicians to make the trip, the voyage will be arduous.

In a pre-voyage meeting last week, Tilghman told his crew that “considering our maturity, there’s a good chance we might lose one or two of us before this thing is over. If somebody snaps the twig over there, he better decide right now if he wants us to ship him home or fill his pockets with scrap iron and dump him over the side.”

But Coast Guard Capt. Ed Page expressed confidence in the crew and said the ship had been thoroughly checked out.

“They may be twice the age of the average sailor, but they have twice the enthusiasm, too,” Page said.

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Built in 1945 on Terminal Island, the Lane Victory was one of 531 Victory ships that hauled troops and cargo to far-flung war fronts around the globe. The ship saw service at the end of World War II and in the Korean and Vietnam wars before being mothballed in 1973. In 1988, Congress gave the ship to the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II, a San Pedro-based national organization, for use as a seagoing museum and memorial to the more than 6,000 American Merchant seaman who died during the war. The ship was designated a national historic landmark in 1991.

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Although their heroics were seldom depicted in movies and books, the quasi-military Merchant Marine had proportionally higher losses in World War II than any U.S. service except the Marines.

The Lane Victory’s departure was delayed several times the past few weeks as the veterans group struggled to raise the more than $1 million in fuel, equipment, food and cash needed for the four-month, 18,000-mile round trip. Finally, a $250,000 contribution by the Norris Foundation of Long Beach put the crew over the top.


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