World War II-era vessel gets some TLC from 2 Westmoreland County farmers
Rus Davies and Greg Clark have never served in the military, but each has taken a turn piloting a 3,000-ton retired Navy landing vessel.
For the past two years, the friends, who own Fairfield Township farms, have spent several weeks living and working with other volunteers on a restored World War II-era LST — short for Landing Ship, Tank, signifying that it could carry 20 Sherman tanks and up to 400 troops.
“It was a great experience,” Clark said. “It gives you an idea of what it was like to be in the service.”
Davies wanted to experience some of the conditions his father, Robert, endured while serving as a fireman on the USS Bassett, a high-speed Navy transport that rescued some survivors of the torpedoed USS Indianapolis in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
“After a few days, I found out what it was like to live on a ship, and I got the bug,” Davies said.
Davies and Clark signed on as volunteers after touring the LST while it was docked near Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. Operated by a nonprofit based in Evansville, Ind., the ship visited as part of a 2015 cruise up the Ohio River.
“They take it out in the fall because the rivers are low enough that they can clear some of the bridges,” Davies said, noting the ship is 328 feet long and five stories high.
The pair began their ongoing commitment to the ship by taking part in a spring 2016 workweek at Evansville. “You live on the ship and you work on the ship for a week,” Davies said.
Davies, 73, chipped off old paint and applied a fresh primer coat in a circular “tub” that surrounds a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun.
Clark's tasks included greasing fittings on a crane that was used to lower smaller Higgins landing boats into the water. “I'm 67 years old, and I can still learn something new,” he said.
The pair returned for two month-long working cruises, to Missouri and Mississippi in September 2016 and to Clarksville and Nashville in Tennessee this year.
With guidance from more experienced crew members, each man took a turn in the ship's wheelhouse.
“How many people get to run the throttles on a ship?” Clark said. “It's amazing.”
Davies had experience piloting sailboats and motorboats and passing through locks on the Erie Canal. “This is just a bigger version,” he said of the LST, which took part in the World War II invasions of Sicily, Salerno and Normandy and later saw duty in Arctic waters and in the Greek navy.
At ports of call, volunteers are stationed through the vessel to interact with touring visitors. “It's a long day, 12 to 15 hours,” Clark said. After boning up on the history of the ship and its parts, “You just do your best and try to help people if anybody has any questions,” he said. “I like history, and I like to learn everything I can.”
The volunteers, a mix of veterans and civilians, follow a military routine — reveille at 06:30 hours, lunch at 12:00, dinner at 17:00, and standing at attention to salute the flag, Davies said.
The ship has been restored to reflect its original 1942 design as much as possible, but Davies said there have been modern modifications, including a pneumatic steering assist.
Since the ship can be run by 50 volunteers — half of the original wartime crew — the berths are two bunks high instead of three. The bunks are only 18 inches wide and have thin mattresses, but the quarters are air-conditioned.
“That's a big plus,” Davies said. “When the sun hits the side and the deck of the ship, the metal gets hot. It's not insulated, and it heats the berthing area.”
The ship's tight quarters make for fast friends, including a Vietnam veteran who bunked above Davies.
The local men were inspired by two 91-year-old World War II veterans who took part in the Tennessee cruise. One of them was a Higgins coxswain who ferried the wounded and the dead at Iwo Jima.
During a field trip to a military base, the former coxswain and Davies took part in a challenge to rappel down a 30-foot drop. “I wouldn't do it,” Clark admitted. “I'm scared of heights.”
“We're all different, but you respect each other and you become shipmates,” said Davies. “It's a bunch of good guys joined by the common mission of keeping alive the story of what the men and women did in World War II.”
The pair plan to join in another workweek on the LST in April.
“As long as I'm capable, I'm going to keep doing it,” Davies said. “It's a unique experience.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer.