Aging Vets Sail in WW2 Ship

Out in the middle of the Atlantic, 29 veterans — average age 72 — are bringing their aging World War II tank transport vessel home for the last time.

Their sailing skills may be almost as rusty as their boat, but the septuagenarian seamen set off on Tuesday from Gibraltar, determined to reach Alabama, and in so doing cross some of the roughest winter seas in the world.

They radioed authorities today, saying the crew was healthy and that all systems were operational.

“As far as we know, everything is going along great,” said Linda Gunjak, an official with the U.S. LST Association, a veterans’ group that helped organize the voyage.

“They’re on their way,” she said proudly.

So Far, So Good

The veterans’ boat, the 58-year-old LST-325, will take a month to travel 4,350 miles across the Atlantic. The LST, or Landing Ship, Tank, landed troops, tanks and other equipment directly onto a beach. The 325 was destined for a Greek scrap yard when the group of concerned Navy veterans stepped in.

The veterans hope to set up a floating museum once they reach Mobile, Ala.

“Everything’s good. We’re all looking forward to the trip,” said the ship’s 61-year-old captain, Bob Jornlin, as the boat prepared to start its trip Tuesday.

Asked about his comrades, who hail from 16 states, Jornlin, of Earlville, Ill., said: “They’re fine. A few of them have slight colds but nothing serious.”

So far, it looks like clear sailing for Jornlin and his crew.

“Right now, the weather is pretty benign for them,” said David Feit, chief of forecasting for the government’s Marine Prediction Center.

Weather, Health, and the Ship

Feit warned, however, that it is difficult to predict what weather they’ll encounter as their trip progresses.

“Generally speaking, the North Atlantic in the winter isn’t a place you want to relax in,” he said. “It’s one of the roughest areas in the world.”

Weeks before they set off, the U.S. Coast Guard warned that the monthlong voyage is too dangerous.

Vice Adm. John E. Shkor, commander of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command, warned the crew in a letter recently that the ship lacked necessary safety equipment. He said the vessel should be towed or the trip postponed until its equipment problems and other matters are resolved.

The crew had made several improvements to the ship, but some safety concerns remained, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Brendan Macpherson today. The Coast Guard is monitoring the ship’s progress and is standing ready in case of problems.

“We’re wishing them a safe voyage,” Macpherson said. “They really are an amazing bunch of fellows.”

Another cause for concern is the health of crew. 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.

Determined to Succeed

But the crew is determined and maintains the sailors and the LST are strong enough.

In a comradely gesture, sailors from the USS Arleigh Burke, a destroyer that docked Monday in Gibraltar, stood on deck and whistled farewell as the 328-foot-long LST-325 was tugged away from the port at the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea Tuesday afternoon.

From dockside, Gibraltar-based U.S. liasion officer Cmdr. Chris Melhuish addressed the veterans, calling them “an inspiration to all. You bring out the traditional values of the U.S. Navy.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.