In 2000, dozens of U.S. Navy veterans arrived on the Greek island of Crete to restore a former American warship and sail it home. All were volunteers. Several served during World War II.
Their average age: 72.
One of the younger vets (at 61) was Robert Jornlin, who recounts the story in Bringing Back a Hero, a Summer Book Series selection for 2015.
The "Hero" of the book's title is a Landing Ship Tank, Number 325, which saw action in the 1943 invasion of Sicily. A year later, LST-325 participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. During that first day at Omaha Beach, the ship delivered 59 vehicles and more than 400 men before returning to England with 38 casualties.
Two decades later, LST-325 was transferred to Greece and named the Syros. After the Greeks decommissioned it, Congress approved a plan by the non-profit LST Memorial to buy the ship and operate it as a traveling museum.
Jornlin landed in Crete six weeks after the first volunteers arrived. He was excited about rejoining an LST crew, having served on two of these ships in the 1960s. Before Jornlin left the U.S., the captain told him the ship was 80% ready and they'd get underway in six days.
Once he saw the ship, Jornlin knew they'd stay docked for weeks.
"The radar didn't work, the generators were a complete mess," says Jornlin. "Mechanically, nothing had been run, including the main engines." Also, there was no food on board because the refrigerator didn't work. For breakfast and dinner, crew members hiked to a restaurant in town, grumbling that they already paid the ship's cook for menu supplies. Each time they went out, they passed a bar where the locals placed bets on how soon the Americans would give up and go home -- without their LST.
Right away, Jornlin had problems with the captain, and he wasn't alone. The Greek Navy was upset at the demands the captain made, which caused the U.S. State Department to consider him a diplomatic risk. Soon the Greeks, the U.S. Ambassador and the crew recommended Jornlin as the skipper, and the demoted leader left for home.
This was in early September, and the temperature was 100 degrees in the shade. Jornlin realized the longer they stayed in port, the more men he'd lose from fatigue or health problems, or the need to return to families and businesses. Jornlin had a farm in Earlville, Ill., which his wife managed by herself during his absence.
The new captain immediately ordered fresh paint and a new refrigerator, while he repaired relations with the Greeks. Jornlin also worked to gain the confidence of U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns and U.S. Navy officials stationed in Greece. To accomplish the mission, Jornlin needed fuel, spare parts, and help with bureaucracy -- which meant he needed smooth relations with everyone he encountered. For this task, he relied on skills he acquired as a salesman.
"You have to get along with all kinds of people," Jornlin says. This was especially true when it came to the crew, since volunteers don't have to take orders. "You asked them to do something, or told them `This needs to be done,' and they'd do it. These men all wanted to bring the ship back."
Jornlin knew he finally had official support when Ambassador Burns visited the ship with top officers of the Greek (or Hellenic) Navy. Jornlin invited the VIPs for a cookout to see the ship and mingle with the crew:
I showed them the ship from top to bottom and from bow to stern. I had avoided the engine rooms, even though the engineers had done a great job removing their oily hand prints from the ladders and wiped the oil as best they could off the decks and engines. With the Hellenic Navy all in white uniforms, the engine rooms were not the place to go. However, when I asked them if they wanted to see the engine rooms, they all enthusiastically said yes. Down the twenty foot ladder I went with my whole tour group following behind. First, we visited the generator room, and then to the main engine room so they could see our successes.
Once in the main engine room, Ambassador Burns popped the question, "How about giving these veterans some help getting this ship going?" The officers of the Hellenic Navy looked at each other, and then at me. I held my breath. They might be thinking they had better say yes for fear of being shut down here!
The Ambassador then added, "Can we count on the Hellenic Navy and especially the Repair Base here to give these guys some help?" They all nodded their heads yes as they turned and looked at each other.
Jornlin credits Ambassador Burns as a key figure in making the mission possible. With help from the Greek and U.S. navies, Jornlin's crew progressed to engine tests and sea trials. By November, the LST-325 headed west across the Mediterranean. Off Sicily, where the 325 entered battle for the first time, the ship encountered a fierce storm. The chief engineer alerted Jornlin that water got inside a piston and they had to shut down the engine:
The loss of the starboard engine now made it very difficult for the helmsmen to keep her on course. They were still, should I say, a little rusty on steering the ship. If one did not apply enough left rudder to move her back on course before the next wave or gust of wind, the ship would be blown maybe twenty-five degrees off course. In this situation, with the wind flat on most of the port side, it was almost impossible to bring her back at all, even with full rudder! We had to throw the rudder the other way. So instead of left full rudder, you went to full right and made the ship turn a full three hundred-sixty degrees in a right turn using the wind instead of fighting it, a full circle. The problem was meeting that turn before the head of the ship came to its intended course. If the helmsman did not take off the right rudder and apply considerable left rudder, the ship would go right on past our course again sometimes twenty-five or thirty degrees! We would have to make another three-sixty!
The ship made 52 miles during the next 24 hours.
At this point, Jornlin made his first real decision as captain. One of his officers suggested they enter port in Sicily, travel inland to an American air base, and fly back to Greece for the parts they needed. Jornlin said no, arguing the 325 could sit in Sicily for weeks.
You'll have to read the book to find out where they stopped for repairs, because Jornlin says this part was cut from the screenplay.
Jornlin says he wrote Bringing Back a Hero after meeting a Hollywood writer at a Rotary event. The stranger suggested Jornlin write a book, and offered to adapt it. Jornlin talks more about this potential movie in the link below. And if filming ever starts, you'll hear about it on WNIJ.
Today, the LST-325 is based in Evansville, Ind., where shipbuilders made two of these ships per week during WWII. This summer, the 325 travels up the Ohio river to Pittsburgh, and then down to Cincinnati, to allow visitors to tour the ship.