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EVANSVILLE, IND. — A group of not-so-ordinary tourists lined up Tuesday morning at Marina Pointe to board the USS LST 325.
These were Navy veterans, some of whom remembered being on a similar vessel during a typhoon in the South Pacific. Others recalled scary times during the Tet Offensive, the 1968 campaign waged by North Vietnamese forces against South Vietnam, the United States and allies.
Those memories and many others came flooding back for the veterans who served on the USS Henry County, also known as LST 824. It was built in 1944 at Evansville Shipyard. Another group visiting Tuesday served on the USS Holmes County, LST 836, manufactured in Pennsylvania.
“We were a very diverse group of guys from all over the country,” said Robert Perez of Novato, Calif., a 19-year-old youngster during his service. But long-lasting bonds are forged in war zones, and on Tuesday at Inland Marina, it was time to reminisce.
The USS Henry County saw action in World War II and Vietnam. “A workhorse of a ship,” Gary Deweese of Ellenboro, N.C., called it. During one of its three Vietnam tours, it ran across violent wind and waves while on a return voyage to the Philippines.
“You could look down the length of the ship and see it twisting,” Deweese told the Evansville Courier & Press.
“I was looking out the window and all I could see was water. The whole ship shook … it was a ride,” added Art Terracio of Wampum, Pa.
Perez remembered the crew sharing a few sips of brandy when the danger had passed.
The Henry County came under attack during the Tet Offensive. Deweese recalled hearing mortar fragments pinging against the vessel.
“It was really rough. Nobody thinks about the Navy taking small-arms fire, especially a ship as big as the LST was. But we were taking small-arms fire from every direction.”
Veterans of the Henry County credited their captain, Bill Mackay, for skillfully leading them to safety. Deweese said the ship had no casualties or injuries.
“There’s not a man here who wouldn’t do a thing in the world for him,” said Deweese.
Mackay smiled and deflected the praise. “When you’ve got a good crew, you can do anything,” the Newport, R.I., man said.
The group of 70 said the LST 325 looked much like the vessels they remembered. Some had toured the ship before; the same reunion met in Evansville in 2008.
They smiled upon seeing the sleeping area, with three lines of stacked cots against either side of a corridor. “Luxurious living quarters, huh?” Perez said.
Veterans passed around mortars the ship could fire. Metal trays and crowded conditions in the mess hall also looked familiar. “When you hit rough water, your tray would be flipping all over,” recalled Perez.
Ron Bouchard of Show Low, Ariz., served on the Holmes County for 31 months and did 22 months on the Henry County. The Evansville-based vessel mostly resembles what he remembers. “Skip all the new additions and it was my home,” Bouchard said.
The LST will leave Evansville on Aug. 30 for an Ohio River tour to Charleston, W.Va., Huntington, W.Va., Madison, Ind., and Owensboro, Ky. It will return to Evansville in late September.
Officials with Evansville city government and the LST 325 have had occasional talks about keeping the ship moored at Marina Pointe beyond the current contract’s expiration in April 2015. Those conversations are to resume in August, said Mayor Lloyd Winnecke’s spokeswoman Ella Johnson-Watson.