The refurbished LST-325, whose crew includes several Legionnaiers, is traveling down the Cumberland River, stopping at ports along the way. (Photo by Martin B. Cherry)

Bringing LST's history into the present

As the Cumberland River winds through downtown Nashville, Tenn., it passes monuments to both the city’s past, such as a re-creation of Fort Nashborough, the original settlement built in 1780, and its present – LP Field, home to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. But history doesn’t just live in Nashville – it can visit, too, as in the case of a stopover made recently by a former U.S. Navy ship crewed by a group of veterans and civilians who are dedicated to maintaining both the ship and its proud tradition.

During World War II, production went into high gear on the Navy’s LST (Landing Ship, Tank), an amphibious craft capable of delivering vehicles, troops and supplies right up onto a beach, then putting itself back into open water. LST 325 was one of these ships. Launched from Philadelphia in October 1942, the ship participated in U.S. action at Sicily, Salerno, and Normandy on D-Day. It was also used during the Korean War and the Vietnam War before being transferred to the Greek navy in 1964. The Greeks renamed the ship Syros and used it until 1999, mostly for ferrying.

At the end of that year, Syros was decommissioned, and plans were made to scuttle it. A group of Americans had other ideas. The USS LST Ship Memorial, Inc., had been formed with the idea of bringing the ship back to the United States, restoring it and then – as the group’s president, Ken Frank, puts it – "take the ship to the people and tell them about the important role of LSTs in World War II, Korea and Vietnam." The group raised enough money to purchase LST 325 from the Greeks in 2000; in January 2001, members – the average age of whom was 72, and many of whom were Legionnaires – sailed the ship from Crete to Alabama themselves. Only one other LST is currently preserved in the United States.

The ship’s home today is on the Ohio River in Evansville, Ind., where LSTs were also built at a specially constructed shipyard during World War II. Evansville is also the home base of the memorial group, whose members live in 13 different states. Today, their average age is 70; several of the Crete trippers have since passed away, including the executive officer. Four members served on other LSTs, and there are multiple sets of fathers and sons among the members. There are a number of Legionnaires, and even a few civilian history buffs. Each year, the group undocks LST 325 from Evansville and takes it on a river cruise, stopping in various cities to offer tours to the public. The main goal of these tours, aside from displaying the ship’s history, is to raise money for maintenance and repairs, especially a dry docking planned for 2013 that is estimated to cost $2 million.

It was this pair of goals that brought LST 325 to Riverside Park in Nashville last week. Despite rain, Capt. Robert Jornlin – a Legionnaire who commanded the ship on its return journey from Crete – estimated that 1,100 people toured the ship on Sept. 19 alone. "We’ve had some great turnouts," he said.

The crew of 45 lives on the ship during these tours, rather than staying in hotels; they use the galley to cook and sleep in the bunking areas. As much as possible, LST 325 is operated the way it was during its wartime service. "A lot of these jobs were designed for 17-year-old sailors, and we have 60- and 70-year-olds doing them," Frank said.

The crew also served as the tour guides in Nashville, showing everyone from school groups to families to a procession of wheelchair-bound veterans around the ship.

The ship’s presence in Nashville did not go unmarked. On Sept. 21, Mayor Karl Dean traded the key to the city for a ceremonial key to the main bow on the main deck. And flying a Titans flag as it had all week, LST 325 landed on Fox’s coverage of the Titans’ home game against the Detroit Lions (which the Titans won for their first victory of the season). Legion Post 5 of Nashville set up shop outside the ship, dispensing information and soliciting membership; a mother signed up her two currently deployed sons.

LST 325 left Nashville on Sept. 25, and opened for tours at McGregor Park in Clarksville, Tenn., on Sept. 26. The ship will remain there through Sept. 30. Clarksville is on the Kentucky border, about 49 miles from Nashville, 180 miles from Louisville and 270 miles from St. Louis.

 Learn more about LST 325 here.

Read about the ship’s stop in Clarksville here.