"This signalman's uniform was issued to me by the U.S. Navy in 1942. All I grew was older," 82-year-old Loring L. Bigelow confides to passengers boarding the only operational World War II Victory ship left on the planet.
Berthed in San Pedro, the SS Lane Victory is one of 5,600 specially commissioned transport vessels built between 1941 and 1945. Government owned and civilian run, these floating pack horses sustained the Allied war effort in major invasions from Okinawa to Omaha Beach and suffered a greater casualty rate than any branch of service except the U.S. Marine Corps.
Dedicated to the nearly 7,000 merchant seamen and 1,800 U.S. Navy Armed Guards attachments lost during the Second World War, the fully restored, national historic landmark offers six annual day cruises as well as self-guided daily tours when the ship is moored.
A celebrity in its own right, the SS Lane Victory has appeared in films ranging from "Titanic" (it provided the ship's wake) to "The Thin Red Line."
"Kids love coming aboard," notes 86-year-old Joe Vernick, president emeritus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II. "They like to move the wheels of the gunner's stations around and make believe they're operating it."
Boarding Ship Is Like Stepping Back in Time
They also delight in getting a close-up of a real PT boat engine and jeeps used in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. "We ask them not to go more than 55 mph," jokes 71-year-old Jim Baker of Hacienda Heights, who served in the Army Transportation Service during World War II.
Boarding the SS Lane Victory is, in fact, like stepping back in time. Its range of defensive gunnery (including a 12-mile-range rifle capable of sinking subs, and eight 20 mm anti-aircraft machine guns), signal bridge, engine room, berthing quarters and other spaces are identical to when the ship was first commissioned.
Named after Isaac Lane, a former slave who became a Methodist bishop and founder of a Tennessee college, the SS Lane Victory (which also served in Korea and Vietnam) was rescued from a Northern California-based ship graveyard in 1988 by a persistent trio of South Bay-based merchant mariners.
Volunteers--many of them World War II veterans--spent four years and thousands of hours restoring the 10,000-ton, 455-foot-long, rusted-out vessel. "It was a labor of love," Vernick recalls.
World War II Museum in Ship's Cargo Hold
The only changes are the addition of visitor restrooms and a World War II museum in the ship's cargo hold. Nine showcases display memorabilia of that era, including uniforms, wartime newspaper headlines and more than two dozen made-to-scale replicas of American merchant marine ships.
The best way to get a sense of the SS Lane Victory and the era in which it served is to take one of the ship's six annual day cruises to Catalina.
Throughout the narrated cruise, passengers are encouraged to roam the ship and interact with the volunteer crew, most of whom served in the merchant marine during World War II.
En route to Catalina, the SS Lane Victory also conducts a brief but moving memorial service dedicated to one of the 674 merchant marine ships sunk in World War II.
Down in the ship's museum, 72-year-old Thom Hendrickson of Seal Beach is using a blinker to show a curious child what his name looks like in Morse code.
Bridge and engine room tours are popular, too. "I never dreamed I'd be able to see a piece of living history like this one, much less learn to run it, but these guys taught me how," says a grinning Jim Topping, 36, a resident of Anaheim and one of the SS Lane's fireman water-tenders.
Having spotted a school of dolphins and circled Catalina Island (the SS Lane Victory doesn't dock or anchor there), the captain announces that an imprisoned Nazi spy has been discovered trying to radio the enemy.
A siren sounds and an order is issued to clear the gun decks.
Suddenly the drone of planes fills the air, and four German Cross-painted World War II-era planes swoop down, only to be chased away by U.S. naval cadets and former World War II gunners manning the ship's artillery. A dogfight ensues when a pair of U.S. flag-identified AT-6 planes show up and scare off the bad guys--leaving the entire ship cheering.
"I think it's a great day out," says 45-year-old Casey Crandall of Laguna Niguel. "They let the kids go everywhere on the boat and I personally enjoyed the museum." Crandall's 11-year-old son, Matt, loved the ship models; Matt's 8-year-old cousin, Dakota, liked the dogfight best.
"At first, I didn't want to come," admits Kristopher Pearson, 12, of Laguna Beach. "It's really cool, though."
"My kids will walk away from the day with a sense of how it was for their grandfather," says Kris' mom, Kim Pearson, 36. "We had such a good time, we're doing it again next year."
SS Lane Victory, Berth 94, Los Angeles Harbor, San Pedro (off Swinford Street at Harbor Boulevard). (310) 519-9545. Open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., including holidays, while moored. $3 per adult; children 15 and under, $1. Children 5 and under free. 2 hours free parking.
Day cruises: Six times per year, the U.S. Coast Guard-inspected ship offers narrated day cruises to Catalina Island, complete with live band and aerial dogfight (weather permitting); dates this year are July 17 and 18, Aug. 14 and 15, Sept. 11 and 12. Boarding begins around 8 a.m. and the ship returns about 4:30 p.m. $100 per adult; $60 per child age 15 and under. The day cruise includes continental breakfast, a buffet lunch with salads and entrees such as chicken and lasagna, free soft drinks, and limited free beer/wine for adults. The Dixieland-flavored Yellow Houn' Dawg Blues Band keeps things hopping to and from Catalina. Parking costs $8. No wheelchairs or strollers allowed for safety reasons.