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WWII landing ship that carried 9,000 to war is rare floating museum

USS LST 393 (Facebook)

Many might not realize the magnitude of history that sits every day near Muskegon’s downtown.

USS LST 393, docked at the Mart Dock on Muskegon Lake, holds 76 years of history. The World War II landing ship that was launched in 1942 has gone through war, across oceans, ferried automobiles and is now in Muskegon’s backyard, as the USS LST 393 Veterans Museum.

“A tour of LST 393 is a journey through history,” said John Stephenson, who serves as secretary on the USS LST 393 Preservation Association Board of Directors. “You can see, feel, touch and even smell what it was like to go to war 75 years ago. It is an amazing learning experience for visitors of all ages, even the youngest.”

Stephenson said during World War II, 1,051 Landing Ship Tanks like the LST 393 were built.

Now only two are left in the United States in their original configuration. One is the LST in Muskegon, and the other is in Evansville, Ind.

The ship’s beginning

On Nov. 11, 1942, the LST 393 was officially launched — the date it was ready to be stocked with weapons and machinery. That also was the date the ship was christened with the crack of a champagne bottle over its bow.

On the wall of the ship’s tank deck, is a glass case filled with remnants of the champagne bottle and a celebratory ribbon, representing the christening of the ship. Stephenson said Lucy Sorenson Pape, daughter of coast engineer, L.R. Sorenson, was the young girl who officiated the christening in 1942 in Newport News, Va.

Last year, at 86 years old, Pape donated those remnants as a birthday present for “her ship.”

“This is one of our most precious artifacts,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said a family member was surprised Pape donated the remnants to the museum since it was her most “precious souvenir.”

Along with the prized christening remnants, there also is a framed battle flag that flew over the LST 393 on “D-Day” June 6, 1944, when the ship participated in the allied troops’ invasion of Europe on the shores of Normandy, France.

“You’d be amazed how many school-age youngsters don’t know anything about World War II, much less D-Day,” Stephenson said. “The service and sacrifice of their great-grandparents will be forgotten without vivid reminders like LST 393’s museum. People coming aboard don’t hear or read about the most important war of the 20th Century — they experience it.”

War time

The ship was officially commissioned in the spring of 1943. LST 393 carried tanks, military equipment and troops. Stephenson said the ship was first sent across the Atlantic to North Africa and also was involved in the invasion of Sicily, Italy.

During the war, the ship carried more than 9,000 troops, made 30 round trips to Omaha Beach and logged 51,817 miles.

At one time, the ship also transported President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters from England to France, filling the ship with desks, file cabinets and typewriters, Stephenson said.

On D-Day, the ship brought in tanks and gear, and then left with wounded soldiers, which is the purpose the ship would often carry out. Although none of the men working on the ship died while working on LST 393, many did die on the ship while being transported after war with injuries, Stephenson said.

After being at war for nearly two years, Stephenson said LST 393 was sent back to the U.S. in 1945 to be overhauled and stocked with updated equipment.

Muskegon’s gem

In 1947, Sand Products Corp. bought the LST 393 to use as a car freighter to transport new cars. The ship  was renamed “Highway 16” since the ship traveled from Muskegon to Milwaukee, Wisc.

Once semi-trucks began carrying new cars rather than ships, the LST 393 sat “rusting” in Muskegon for nearly 25 years, Stephenson said.

He said Sand Products tried selling it, and even thought about scrapping the LST though company officials didn’t want to. The ship ended up being used for storage.

That was until a preservation group stepped forward to restore the historic ship.

USS LST 393 Preservation Association began tours on the ship in 2005. It wasn’t until 2007 when the ship actually opened as a museum.

Stephenson, who is a retired former Muskegon Chronicle metropolitan editor, has been on the board of directors since 2009.

“I really love to talk to folks touring the ship and answer questions about (LST 393’s) remarkable 75-year-old technology,” Stephenson said. “I like to tell the stories of the men and women we honor there. Those who served are genuine heroes, and they’re ours — our grand-uncles or great-grandmothers. They are real people who achieved extraordinary feats at great risk and then came back to America and made us.”

Stephenson described the ship as “granddad’s basement” compared to other historical museums.

“All of the stuff that was here was donated and it all comes to us when people feel like giving it to us,” he said. “It’s not something we went out and got necessarily.”

Since the preservation association is a nonprofit organization, Stephenson said donations are tax deductible.

“That’s important (because) that’s how we get enough money to make this operate because we get no public money of any sort. We’re not a professional curated or funded museum,” he said.

Along the walls of the tank deck of the ship are photos and biographies of veterans. There also are uniforms from different military branches over the decades.

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© 2018 Muskegon Chronicle, Mich.

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