WWII Vets Sail Old Boat Across Atlantic

Thirty-one men, with an average age of 74, sailed from Gibraltar today in a ship that’s almost as old as they are.

Their ship is a veteran of World War II, an amphibious landing ship responsible for delivering thousands of tanks and troops to battlefields in Europe and the Pacific.

The ship’s crew — made up of veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars — wants to sail it 4,600 miles across a wintry Atlantic to Alabama, where they hope to turn the ship into a museum and monument.

Refurbishing an Old Treasure

The ship was a mess when these veterans found it in March in a naval yard in Greece. It was destined for the junk heap.

The hull was rusted and the battleship’s gray paint was peeling. The wheelhouse contained a collection of brass antiques.

The veterans have had to beg and borrow tools and equipment to fix up the ship. The project they had thought would take just a few weeks — to make the ship seaworthy — turned into months of work.

“That took a lot out of you at our age,” says veteran John Calvin. “If anybody had seen this ship when we first arrived they would never believe that it would look like it is now.”

On Nov. 30, the boat arrived at Gibraltar — the British colony at the gateway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic — after sailing 13 days from Greece.

But the U.S. Coast Guard says the ship is not safe enough to cross the Atlantic and had tried to persuade them not to continue the journey.

The Coast Guard says the ship lacks adequate lifesaving equipment and an emergency generator, and its engine and rudders are in questionable condition. Even when the ships were new, they were not easy to sail. Because of their shallow, flat bottom, they have a tendency to bob on ocean swells.

As one officer says, being on an amphibious landing ship in a storm is a little bit like being a pea rattling inside a tin can.

Now, there’s an adequate navigation system, and the captain and his crew say they can complete the voyage.

“So what? This is the last hurrah. We’re having more fun than a bunch of kids,” said Joe Sadler with a laugh.

Old Bodies, Young Minds

If the condition of the ship had not been discouraging enough, more obstacles came in the condition of the crew.

Four members of the crew have had surgery and at least one has had cancer.

There are also reports that one shipmate, identified in the ship’s Web site log as Bill Hart, became seriously ill while sailing from Greece and died after returning to the United States.

But crew members are staying optimistic.

“I consider myself a sentimental and patriotic old man,” says Harold Slemmons, 74, who is a diabetic, but is still pulling his weight around the ship. “I’m not half as agile as I was at 18. Ladders and bunks and things are more difficult now.”

Albert White is the ship’s laundryman. He’s now 73 and has lost a lung to cancer. “I can handle it OK, as long as I take my time,” he said.

WWII vet Donald Lockas said he has determination. “We have had so many people telling us it’s impossible, you better have it towed back,” he said. “And we said no way. Come on. We’re going to sail it back.”

“We’re just a bunch of crazy old men, let’s face it,” said veteran John Calvin.

A Multitude of Reasons

For the crew, it is a journey back to the world war they fought.

Albert White says the trip is a reminder to his family. “I’d like them to know that the old guy did his part to make their country safe.”

John Calvin says “it’s probably the biggest adventure I ever had in my lifetime.”

And he’s has had a few adventures. He’s 75. He was on a ship like this one in the Philippines in 1945 when a mortar hit his gun position.

“There were three that were wounded,” he says, struggling for composure. “One man died.”

That’s the reason, he says, why it’s important he does this.

“We’re proving something, that we can do it,” said Jim McCandrew.

Each veteran contributed $2,000 to cover meals and expenses, while British Petroleum Co. donated more than 50,000 gallons of fuel. The ship had originally planned to leave Gibraltar on Saturday but mechanical and fueling problems caused delays.

On its good days, the LST-325, as the ship is known, would have had a crew of 85.

But Capt. Bob Jornlin is not worried. “They aren’t plenty but they are enough to get there,” he said.

ABCNEWS’ Shiela MacVicar in Gibraltar and The Associated Press contributed to this report.