The SS Lane Victory, plucked from the U.S. Navy's reserve fleet in Suisun Bay, near San Francisco, is a monument to persistence and luck.
In the late 1980s, a bunch of retired merchant seamen -- organized into the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans, World War II -- decided to try to establish a memorial to those of their number who had perished in war.
"What better memorial for a seaman than a ship?" said John Smith, 85, of Seal Beach, the group's vice president. The group thought it would be a simple matter to offer to take a rusty old ship off the government's hands.
"Everybody thought we were crazy," said Joe Vernick, the organization's president emeritus. "The government never gives a ship away." But a lobbying effort paid off: Congress voted in 1987 to give the group a ship.
The group picked out the Lane Victory from the mothball fleet, then faced the challenge of finding a home for it and restoring it. They persuaded a tugboat commander to tow the ship to San Pedro Bay for free, but met unexpected opposition when they prepared to enter the harbor.
"The whole ship was rusting, terrible," recalled Smith. "The Harbor Department said, 'You can't bring that old rust-bucket in here. Anchor it outside the harbor.'
Bluffed into harbor
"Well, we knew if it went to anchor, we could never get anything done. So we bluffed. We said, 'If we drop the anchor, we don't have the ability to raise it again. It could become a hazard to navigation, block the harbor entrance.' They found us a berth."
A telephone and letter-writing campaign to former seamen, chambers of commerce and big corporations raised about $2 million to buy paint and other materials. More than 1,300 tons of gear -- such as the big guns mounted fore and aft, once used to fend off attack by ships and planes -- were "scrounged" from other rusty ships or from warehouses of government surplus equipment.
All restoration work was done by volunteers. Some retired seamen -- like Chief Boatswain Dale Kelly, who coordinated the rerigging and restoration of cargo loading and unloading mechanisms -- used their skills to bring the ship back to life.
In the summer of 1992, the restored ship sailed out of the harbor with its crew of veterans.
"This was the first time that a Victory ship in Southern California took a cruise under its own power," said Robert C. Lace, 76, of Rancho Palos Verdes, the group's president. "Everybody had worked so hard. There were guys aboard in their 60s and 70s who absolutely cried."
It still takes a lot of money to keep the ship afloat: Utilities, plus fuel oil to keep it cruising, cost about $20,000 a month, and the Coast Guard requires that it be drydocked for maintenance every two years, at a cost of about $250,000, said Lace. Funding comes from membership dues, gift shop sales, cruises offered three times a year, and from rental fees paid by movie companies who want to use the old ship as a movie location. (Among the movies and TV shows filmed on board are "Outbreak," "The Relic," "General Hospital," "Jag," "Murder, She Wrote" and "MacGyver.")
The group also got a $250,000 grant from the Norris Foundation to sail the Lane Victory to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. The ship and its crew of veterans made it all the way to Acapulco, Mexico, before mechanical problems forced its return to San Pedro.
Still belongs to government
Technically, the ship still belongs to the U.S. government and could be reclaimed if there were a need for it. During the Persian Gulf War of 1992, the vets volunteered the Lane Victory to ferry supplies to the fighting forces in the Mideast -- complete with a crew of World War II veterans. The Pentagon refused the offer, with thanks.
"They considered it, but it didn't have the speed they needed," Smith said. "The Lane can only travel about 16 knots, and they needed ships that could make 20 to 25 knots."
The men who saved the Lane Victory are now in their 70s and 80s, but they credit their work on the ship with keeping them agile, mentally and physically.
Kelly, 70, a widower who moved from his own boat in Marina del Rey to live on the Lane Victory as an unpaid caretaker, clambers up and down ladders and rigging with the agility of a man less than half his age. "I still climb, not as rapidly as I used to, but I still climb," he said. "The ship keeps me going. When you've got nothing to do, you're going to go down the tubes in a hurry."
Loring Bigelow, 79, of Laguna Hills functions as signalman on the Lane Victory, as he did on Victory ships during World War II. He credits the old ship with saving his life. "I had three surgeries and three heart attacks, and I was waiting to die," Bigelow said, adjusting the white sailor cap he was issued in the 1940s. (His uniform still fits.) "I heard this veterans' organization was going to restore a ship, and I came to see what it was all about. I got involved, and I haven't been sick since."
Isaac Givens, 81, of Wilmington was a cook and baker on board the Lane for 2 1/2 years in the late 1940s and returns on cruise days to bake pastries for cruise passengers. He has a simple explanation for the group's enthusiasm and youthfulness: "That ocean never gets old. If you want to stay young, join the ocean family."
PTC But the retired seamen are worried. Their numbers are dwindling, and what will happen to the ship when the last of them is gone?
"Probably our biggest challenge is to find young people to take an interest in the Lane," Smith said. "The ship could last 100 years, easily. But we've got to get the people to keep it going."
For information on joining the veterans' group or in volunteering to work on the ship, call (310) 519-9545.
Pub Date: 9/08/96