Belle Vernon woman visits ship like lander she helped build as WWII welder
Helen Filak ran her fingers along an inside wall of LST 325, the only restored World War II-era landing ship tank still operational, which is visiting Pittsburgh through Tuesday as part of a traveling tour.
Filak, 89, of Belle Vernon helped build LSTs as a welder for American Bridge in Ambridge during the war.
She and her daughter, Andrea Filak of Spring Hill, were among hundreds who toured the ship Thursday. It was the first time Helen had been on a combat ship since the war ended 70 years ago.
“Who thought I'd be back here all these years later?” she said.
Filak didn't help build the LST 325; it was built in Philadelphia. But she was among those at American Bridge and places like the Dravo shipyards on Neville Island who helped build hundreds like it among about 1,050 commissioned by the Navy. Each LST could carry 700 tons — including more than 20 tanks and trucks, 160 soldiers and other cargo.
LST 325 landed at Sicily and was among 173 used by Allied forces in the D-Day landings at Normandy. More than 340 LSTs were used during the Marines' invasion of Okinawa, according to Navy historical records and ExplorePAhistory.com.
Filak began working for American Bridge at $1.20 an hour after graduating from Donora High School in Washington County in 1943.
Women typically didn't work in the shipyards. But during World War II, the company hired a number of women to help build warships.
Filak said she reported to work in the morning and worked five, sometimes six days a week.
“We were told to go to dock so-and-so, and that's where we worked,” she said. “You would sit on the ground there and weld ridge after ridge. You had a certain section you had to do, and I would weld my share.”
Filak lived in an apartment a few blocks from the American Bridge shipyard along the Ohio River. She often walked to work.
“We got so used to being on these ships it was like being on the sidewalk,” she said. “It was just part of your daily routine.”
She worked for American Bridge until the war ended. She met her husband, Andrew Filak, a short time later.
Filak said she didn't realize the significance of her work until Thursday, when she toured the LST 325, which is docked along the North Shore near Pittsburgh's World War II monument and Heinz Field.
Bill Bigalow, 67, of Greensburg served in the Navy during Vietnam. When he heard that Filak helped build warships as a welder, he thanked her for her role in the war effort.
“Thank you,” Filak replied, then thanked Bigalow for his service.
Afterward, she said the compliment was flattering but added, “I was just an employee doing my job.”
Tony Raap is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7827 or email@example.com.