- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Two months and 6,200 miles.

That’s the time and distance from the isle of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea to the Alabama coast that the LST 325 ship, with a crew of 29, had to sail to return home.

The trip was 15 years ago in January. The ship now moored at Evansville’s Riverfront first had to complete the trek back the U.S. where it was built to help the Allies win World War II.

Of the 1,051 built during the war effort, the LST 325 is the only fully-functional ship of its kind remaining.

While it wasn’t built in Evansville, the LST 325 represents the 167 of the landing ships that were. It also represents the full effort the city contributed to the war machine in the 1940s. The city’s industrial hub was transformed from appliances and cars to war ships, planes and bullets.

The floating museum has been docked at Inland Marina along the Ohio River for a decade. From World War II to Greece to Inland Marina, now LST officials are considering a move to the high-profile spot currently occupied by Tropicana’s casino boat.

The LST 325 was built in Philadelphia in October 1942. Historians cite the landing ships’ implementation in World War II as instrumental in helping the Allies secure victory. The ships deployed troops at several key battles, including Normandy, Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

After the war ended, the ship was decommissioned. In 1964, the Greek Navy took ownership. It served the European nation until it was decommissioned in 1999.

That’s when a group of veterans decided to bring the ship back to the U.S.

“They spent months trying to get this thing to run and make it seaworthy,” said Chris Donahue, an LST board member who lives in Evansville.

It wasn’t easy. As former LST Captain Bob Jornlin described in his book, “Bringing Back a Hero: Return of LST 325,” the ship was junk inside and out.

“Most people in their right mind would walk away from something like that, so it helps to be a little crazy,” Donahue said.

The group poured more than $100,000 into the ship simply to get it running. When it came back to the U.S., it didn’t much look like the painted and polished ship docked at Inland Marina today.

The crew spent the summer of 2000 working on the vessel. And it was a hard summer, by most accounts.

The average age of the crew was 72 and the summer was hot with several days over 100 degrees, according to the National Park Service’s 92-page application to secure the LST on the National Historic Register list.

“They took a financial gamble. They got their money back because it was a success, but that could have gone the other way, too.”

On Nov. 14, 2000, a crew of 30 left Greece for the U.S. About 6,200 miles later, the ship landed in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 10, 2001.

It was docked in Mobile while a permanent home was sought. Evansville, a key part of the industrial war effort, was selected through a bidding process, and the ship moved to its spot at Inland Marina in October 2005.

What helped push Evansville to the forefront, aside from its deep-seated World War II history, was the ship’s 11-day stint in the city in 2003.

“More people came out in Evansville than any other place - stood in the hot son. About 30,000 plus. After it was all over, that was one of the big things that influenced the board to vote unanimously for Evansville,” Donahue said.

While that was a huge showing for the ship, regular visitation at its Inland Marina spot has dwindled over the last decade.

Inland Marina isn’t difficult to reach, but it is hidden from the rest of Downtown, separating the ship from the regular - and future - commerce.

The ship is closed from Dec. 1 to April 1 except Saturdays now, meaning it’s missing out on 1/3 of the year.

“It’s a beautiful dock, but as you can see, it’s a ghost town,” Donahue said while on the ship last month.

The LST 325 Board has the option to move the ship to where Tropicana’s casino boat is now.

After land-based gambling became legal in Indiana in 2015, it didn’t take Tropicana long to announce its plans to move its casino from the Ohio River to land.

Along with a $50 million investment into a new facility, the casino offered its location to the LST 325 and an additional $1 million for engineering work to dock the ship.

“That saved me a lot of convincing to do. Being the local guy, I’ve got to paint a picture of what’s going to improve for the rest of the board,” Donahue said.

He and John Engrstrom, the only other board member who lives locally, met with Mayor Lloyd Winnecke last month to discuss the plans.

The city should have artistic renderings for board members by their April meeting. Donahue gave a brief update to the rest of the board during its meeting Saturday.

“Everything’s happening probably faster than we thought,” he told the board.

The $1 million is nice, board members agreed, but they also noted it cost $3 million to build a dock at Inland Marina; though, that spot had not held a ship the size of the LST like the casino boat’s dock.

“There’s way more questions than we have answers,” board member John Hatton said.

A four-person committee for the nine-person board is vetting the move.

Donahue remains positive about the ship’s move to a better spot on the river, but said there “definitely won’t be a decision until April, maybe June.”

Tropicana’s plans for a new on-land facility still need approval by the Indiana Gaming Commission. If approved, construction would start in the spring and would end by December 2017.

That means the LST 325 will stay put - except for its annual fundraising trip across the U.S. and performance during ShrinersFest in the summer - until spring 2018.

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Source: Evansville Courier & Press, https://bit.ly/1R39aYk

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com

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