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Veterans return to decks of World War II warship

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Seeing the weathered faces of men who served aboard vessels like the USS LST 325 during World War II are the highlights of the trip for the decommissioned warship's commanding officer.

Capt. Bob Jornlin, 74, didn't hesitate when he was called over to meet 88-year-old William Barger, whose daughter, Kathy Kitts, brought him to see the large vessel as it made its way up the Kanawha.

The ship had just docked at Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston Thursday afternoon after a long trip upriver. A towboat helped turn the ship around in front of the state's Capitol before it was moored downtown. Sailors from the Naval Operational Support Center in Eleanor helped tie the ship up.    

Barger, a Navy veteran who served in World War II, watched the ship come in from a wheelchair parked on the concrete landing. Kitts had given him an umbrella to keep the hot afternoon sun out of his face.

Barger, a resident of Mingo County, served on the Sea Runner, a supply and ammunition ship, and the USS Prometheus, a repair ship, in the South Pacific.

He said the Sea Runner and ships like her were targets for the enemy because of the barrels of oil they carried along with supplies and large amounts of ammunition. Barger recalled once volunteering to go along on a fighter plane during the war. He was aboard the plane when it crashed on Guadalcanal.

"The coconut trees were coming up awful fast," he joked. "First and last time I volunteered for anything."

He never served on any of the tank landing ships but wanted to see the ship Thursday because it's a part of history.

"I wanted to bring him because he is a World War II veteran and at his age it's hard for him to get out to see things like this," Kitts said.

As Jornlin disembarked the ship, shaking hands with people as he passed, another older gentleman asked him if he'd take a picture with Barger. He smiled and said he would. The white-haired captain found a place to set his lunch and walked back over to the concrete landing where Kitts and Barger were waiting.

The picture was snapped and Barger thanked Jornlin for making the trip. Jornlin thanked Barger for his service to his country.

"We take the ship to different places and bring people aboard," Jornlin said later. "We like to educate the youth and give the veterans a chance to look around.

"Seeing men like that gentleman there in the wheelchair (Barger), that's my pay for the whole year."

Volunteer Barbara Kuhns said the captain often helps out on tours and if he sees a veteran or elderly person needing assistance on the boat he'll go out of his way to help them.

Jornlin, of Earlville, Ill., said they were asked to bring the Indiana-based ship to Charleston for a visit. The ship is one of the last working tank landing ships in the U.S. and is one of the nation's only operational naval museum ships.

"It has a feeling of it being alive," Jornlin said of the operational vessel.

Jornlin said the tank landing ships were awarded the most battle stars during World War II. He would know, he served on one during Vietnam. The amphibious vessels were loaded down with tanks and other battle necessities.

USS LST 325, during its time serving in North Africa, carried Army General George Patton's officers to Sicily. The ship also made a wartime trip to Salerno, Italy.

The vessel also was one of thousands that participated on D-Day, delivering trucks, tanks, and hundreds of servicemen to Omaha Beach at Normandy. It made 44 trips between France and England, ferrying wounded soldiers to England and bringing supplies to those on the front lines.

In 1964, the ship was transferred to Greece where it served in the Greek Navy. It was decommissioned in 1999.

Jornlin was one of about 60 veterans who went to Greece in 2000 to retrieve the ship. They had been looking for an LST to turn into a museum and were excited when they found it, more so when Greece said they could have it.

The crew, made up of World War II and Korea veterans, worked for months to get it seaworthy but finally began the arduous trip across the Atlantic to Alabama in November 2000. The museum ship now calls Evansville, Ind. home.

Barbara Kuhns, a volunteer aboard the ship, said the average age of the crew aboard the LST 325 is about 72. They work aboard the ship doing maintenance, selling memorabilia in the gift shop and leading tours.

She said the public is welcome just about everywhere aboard the ship except in the bridge where the pilot steers the ship.

And they've had a lot of visitors. Kuhns said more than 28,000 people came aboard when they made stops in Tennessee.

It's open for tours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Tuesday. It's is set to leave Charleston Wednesday. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 5 to 17. Children under 5 are free. Family passes are $20.

The money goes toward the ship's upkeep and operational costs.

For more information on the LST-325 visit www.lstmemorial.org.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.


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