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WWII Navy veterans aim to land ship

George Heron doesn't have to watch old World War II newsreels to see Gen. Douglas MacArthur wade through the Philippine surf at Leyte. Heron watched it from the beach aboard an LST.

Harold "Dick" Lawson says the big American battleships sat miles off shore from the Pacific islands, firing shells the size of oil drums that sucked the air out of your lungs as they roared overhead. Sailors on the beach watched them sail overhead from their LSTs.

Ray Gates says these lumbering LSTs, so slow they were dubbed Large Stationary Targets, chugged along about the speed of a jogger. After WWII ended, it took weeks to cross the Atlantic in his LST.

The LST, or Landing Ship Tank, played a decisive role in America's modern-day naval wars. First developed in WWII, they brought ashore thousands of troops and tanks in amphibious assaults, helping turn the tide against well-entrenched enemy troops.

Heron, Lawson and Gates take deep pride in these ungainly looking vessels. Now the veterans are part of an effort to bring one of the last remaining LSTs, the USS Sphinx, to a permanent home along the Lake Erie shore for use as a floating museum.

But time is running out.

They have until April to raise the money to bring the Sphinx here from Virginia, where it has been mothballed after 50 years of service.

And none of the former LST sailors, many in their 80s, is getting any younger.

"I just hope I'll be alive to see it sail into the harbor," said Lawson, 77, a member of the Western New York Amphibious Forces Association, and a Korean War veteran. "The LST vets from World War II are passing away in a hurry."

Ten years ago, when the effort first began to bring the Sphinx to Dunkirk, there were 40 some members in their group.

Now there are roughly two dozen. They're mostly white haired, some with canes, some who have had to give up driving. They were Old Navy years before the retailer took their name.

"The problem is," said Gates, 80, a retired Postal Service worker from Hamburg who serves as the group's president, "we're running out of enthusiasm at our age."

But they're making one last push to raise an estimated $1.2 million to get the Sphinx to a dry dock, and then have it towed to Dunkirk.

They already own the ship, turned over by the U.S. government to the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse, and hope to build a pier by the 1827 lighthouse at Point Gratiot for the ship's permanent home.

"We can't give up on this ship, fellas," Lawson, who also serves as the lighthouse keeper, told fellow members last week at their December meeting. "We've only got four months to get it here."

The group has hired a fundraiser, Patrick R. Martino of Kerns Associates in Orchard Park, and is trying to drum up funding support from corporations, foundations, and the general public.

They know the odds are against them, but then, it was no different when they first shipped out in their teens and 20s, heading to battle in Europe and the South Pacific.

Heron, now 87, left his home on the Seneca Indian Reservation in Salamanca in 1941 for Navy boot camp in Newport News, R.I.

He was just ready for his first leave when Japanese bombers struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. He never did get that leave.

Heron, who returned to the reservation after the war to become Seneca Nation president during the fight against the Kinzua Dam, recalled his WWII service at last week's meeting of the Sphinx group.

He was in North Africa and Italy aboard amphibious ships before coming back to the States and being assigned to one of the first LSTs. He and the crew watched as it was built before heading to the South Pacific.

The massive LSTs, more than 300 feet long, drew only three feet of water in the bow, allowing the ships to be driven ashore. The bow would come down as a ramp, and out would come a steady stream of battle-ready tanks, up to 14 on a ship.

Heron had years of harrowing service, but nothing compared to the day in the Philippines when a squadron of Japanese kamikaze pilots swarmed down on their fleet.

"They looked like a bunch of flies coming at us," Heron said. "None of them left, of course, that was their job to fly into us. We shot the one down that was going to crash into us. It landed in the water just before our fantail."

Next to Heron at last week's session sat Nelson Huff, 82, a former Seneca Nation tribal councillor from Gowanda who returned to the reservation to become one of the top lacrosse players in the country.

Huff served on two LSTs during WWII, and despite the danger, recalls his service "as a lot of fun."

Stanley Witczak, 82, of Buffalo, came to the meeting with a volume of a World War II encyclopedia that his son gave him years ago. He never opened it for years.

Stacy Mosser, 83, a retired Fisher Price employee from East Aurora, served on an attack transport, another kind of amphibious ship during the beachfront assault on Okinawa. He ribbed his fellow sailors about how slow their bulky ships were.

Top speed on an LST was 13 knots at best, said Lawson, the lighthouse keeper. The usual cruising speed was about 8 knots.

"They were great ships," Lawson said, getting nods of agreement from his fellow sailors. "It's a great honor to try and save it."

The April 7 deadline for the Sphinx funding was set in October by the U.S. Maritime Administration, after Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Rep. Brian Higgins petitioned for an extension.

"You guys sailed these tubs," Lawson told the group. "I want to preserve the history for you guys and every other LST veteran."

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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