"Fly fishing is my passion, hunting is my weakness, and mules are a perplexing addiction."

Saturday, August 11, 2012


"Build ‘em faster than the enemy can sink ‘em."  And they did!

This weekend past I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel back in time.  Albeit only for the day, I got to travel back to a time shortly before I was born and peek into the lives of what my parents, aunts and uncles, my childhood friend’s parents, and their aunts and uncles experienced and lived through.  I got to go back to World War II for a day to observe and even experience a tiny bit of a day-in-the-life of what The Greatest Generation did to give me what I maintain is the greatest gift; the birth right of being an American.  
It was a time when young men left the farms of America to serve their country.  It was a time when women hung up their aprons and took up wielding torches.  It was a time when Americans rationed everything from food to fuel to the tires on their automobiles and sacrificed much for the war effort; and it was a time when so many Americans sacrificed all.
To set the stage, during WWII the United States was at war on two fronts; the Germans in Europe, and the Japanese in the Pacific.  Now when armies are at war, an often overlooked part of that war by the casual observer is the supplying of those armies with everything they need to do what it is armies do, continue to fight.  Troops have to eat, sleep, travel, shoot, drive, fly, etc, etc, and to do this effectively they need a continuous supply of food, tents, ammunition, arms, fuel, and all those things armies need to keep them going.
America, in the midst of a depression and woefully unprepared for any war at all, let alone one on two fronts, had to come up with a way to get all these supplies to our troops who were fighting thousands of miles away and doing their level best against two, combat hardened armies that were bent on world domination and teaching the rest of us German and Japanese, so we began cranking out ships to transport all these goods and troops to the front.  
In the beginning of the war they were called Liberty Ships and were pretty bare-bones vessels.  Later, we began building the Victory Ships; leaner, and a bit faster copies of the Liberty ships.  This is where another, often overlooked, group of individuals entered the picture; the Merchant Marines.
The Merchant Marines were civilian companies and sailors that engaged in commerce or transportation of goods and services in and out of waters of the United States.  Sea truckers, if you will.  With the country now at war, the Merchant Marines suddenly found themselves an auxiliary of the U.S. Navy whose task it was to transporting fuel, ammunition, tanks, jeeps, cargo and troops wherever needed in the world.  Kind of a tricky task considering enemy battleships have made your ship a prime target. If that isn’t enough to get your adrenaline pumping, submarines are lurking about trying to intercept you and enemy fighter aircraft are searching high and low for you, all with one goal in mind; to give you swimming lessons by blowing your ship out of the water.
According to the War Shipping Administration, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest rate of casualties of any service in World War II.  Officially, a total of 1,554 ships were sunk during the war, including 733 ships packed with over 1,000 gross tons.  Hundreds more of these ships were damaged by torpedoes, shelling, bombs, kamikazes, mines, etc.   9,521 Merchant Marines were killed during World War II, and one in every 26 died.  By comparison, the Marine Corps were next with one in every 34. 
Enough for the moment about the Merchant Marines; you probably already know as much about them, but if you don’t, look them up further.
At any rate, a couple of friends of mine, (Steve and Cheryl Silkotch) had been prodding, poking, and pestering me for several years now to visit San Pedro and spend a day on the S.S. Lane Victory, only one of two Victory ships surviving that are operational.  Steve, who retired from the tugs at San Pedro and now volunteers his time in the engine room on the Lane Victory, while Cheryl works in the gift shop on board.  So alas, to placate Steve, I agreed months ago that I would take a day and venture down to San Pedro Harbor to take the Lane Victory tour.  Not really my thing, but it was the only way I was going silence big Steve and get him off my back.  It wasn’t that I was against going, it just always seemed to be bad timing and I always had something else to do.  
Steve and Cheryl set aside two tickets for me at will call.  Since my wife, Cathy, and I have this little arrangement; I don’t fly and she doesn’t do boats, I called my oldest friend in the world, Mike Higgins, and informed him he was going on a boat tour with me mostly because I don’t do well around crowds of people, and I am even less stellar in congested freeway traffic and big cities.
We arrived at the dock around seven in the morning and were promptly checked in and allowed to board.  A continental breakfast was provided and following a cup of coffee and a couple of pastries, Mike and I proceeded to show ourselves around the ship.  As we wound our way through narrow corridors, past tiny sleeping quarters that seemed slightly larger than a hummingbird’s purse, history was everywhere.  The corridors were lined with plaques and pictures of past seamen and photos of the Lane Victory in its heyday.
Making our way through the mazes of corridors, through the ship’s galley and past the Captain’s quarters, we found ourselves in cargo hold #4 which now serves as the ship’s museum.  There, we marveled at day-to-day items from bygone days.  Jeeps, antiquated nautical items, and military items a ship of this kind might transport abounded the walls and floor of the cargo hold.  They even had the original steam engine, (operational I might add) from the old USS San Pablo.  You might better remember it from the 1966 movie, The Sand Pebbles, starring Steve McQueen.  
Making our way back up to the main deck and near the fantail we were met by Steve, who had just got off duty.  
“Want a private tour of the engine room,” Steve asked?
Steve explained the workings of the engine room in meticulous detail as we made our way across narrow catwalks, around huge boilers, and down the entire length of the bowels of this incredible ship.  I think what struck me most during our private tour was the intense heat and the conditions these volunteers work under where ambient temperatures commonly hover between 100 to 120 degrees.  They also have tours of the engine room throughout the day.  Due to the noise level and limited walkways, these are done with a guide in groups of six. 
About the time we completed our engine room tour the tug boats arrived and began the task of maneuvering the Victory ship away from the dock and out into the harbor.  Before we knew it we were under way.  
 Atop one of the cargo holds, a stage was set up and a band began playing swing music from the 40’s.  They were accompanied by three young gals dressed in uniforms who sang these songs in the style of The Andrews Sisters; all while young men dressed as soldiers and sailors in WWII combat gear roamed the ship to mingle with passengers and share the history they were recreating.  It was easy for me to envision my parents, for this is what they looked like.  Visiting youngsters aboard the ship were captivated at what they were seeing and a youthful gleam returned to the eyes of oldsters as they began smiling and shared stories from their days on ships such as this.
Mike and I sat up on the bridge as the old war ship chugged its way out into open water.  Along the way we saw a number of porpoise bobbing and swimming in the deep, blue waters; an added bonus, I suppose.  For at least the thousandth time in our lives we reminisced and shared stories of our own father’s experiences; the stories they had passed down to us about this remarkable time in our nation’s history.
Before we knew it, we were about a mile off the coast of Catalina Island with a spectacular view of Avalon.  As the ship set anchor, an incredible lunch was provided.  Tri-tip, Chicken, salads, rolls, and pasta were served, and no one was disappointed.  After about an hour, the ship weighed anchor and once again the cumbersome old vessel bellowed smoke from its stack and was underway. 
We hadn’t traveled very far when an announcement from the Captain came over the ship’s loud speaker.  “We have received word from Naval Command that an enemy attack is eminent. All hands to your battle stations,” he ordered.  All eyes scanned the skies, not quite certain what to expect.  Then suddenly a passenger near the fantail hollered, “There, over there; planes coming in off the stern!”
Quicker than you can inhale a gnat, the big guns located on the ship’s fantail began chattering away and soldiers shouldered their M-1 rifles and began shooting at the German WWII fighter plane that was bearing down on us.  Then, just as suddenly, another fighter plane appeared on the port side.  Then, another and another, and yet another plane appeared until six German fighter planes were swarming and diving upon us like yellow jackets at a bar-b-que.  We were under full attack!
 As we marveled at the sights and sounds we were experiencing one couldn’t help but be carried back to a distant time and imagine what it must have been like to go through such a battle and live to tell about it.  Many didn’t.
It was interesting to note that several large yachts were skimming across the water on their way to the island.  All of them shut their engines down to observe the mock battle as planes began spewing smoke and tipping their wings as if they’d suffered a hit from the gunners aboard the Lane.  One had to wonder what was going through the minds of the folks aboard those yachts as they watched the twenty-minute air-sea battle wage back and forth.
As the fighters disappeared to regroup, the crowd aboard the Lane Victory was a buzz.  A few minutes later the fighters returned, performing a final flyover and tipping their wings to those of us on board as they disappeared out of sight.  It was an incredible finally to a wonderful day aboard this unique relic from World War II.
The band began playing once again and folks began dancing nearby.  As we made our way back to San Pedro I think everyone on board had a smile on their face.  It had truly been a remarkable trip, one I’d brave the congested city and packed freeways of Southern California to do again.  I can’t say enough about the incredible crew of volunteers who work so hard to keep this bit of floating history alive.  Thank you crew of the S.S. Lane Victory for showing us a day-in-the-life of the “Greatest Generation” and reminding us of the “Greatest Gift” they gave us all; the gift of freedom.  Now, if only we can keep it!