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Ship Finds New Life as Museum

June 21, 1992|SUSAN PATERNO

In a career of more than 60 years, John Smith has sailed to every port on every continent, defended ships in World War II and skippered Catalina's glass-bottom boat. Today, at 81, he helps run the Lane Victory, the only museum in Southern California dedicated to preserving the history of a dying breed: the American Merchant Marine.

Berthed in San Pedro and open to the public, the Lane Victory from the mid-1940s served as a transport ship in wartime and in peacetime as a cargo ship. It carries 10,000 tons of cargo and is 455 feet long. (Upended, it would reach 40 stories into the sky.)

"We're neither merchants nor marines," Smith said. "In peacetime, we're like a trucking company. We deliver cargo and passengers all over the world." But in time of war, the government conscripts whatever commercial vessels it needs and drafts its civilian sailors--the merchant marines--into the effort.

The Lane Victory is a hybrid: The government built the ship as part of the war effort but leased it to a commercial shipping company. After World War II, the shipping company used it to carry cargo, except during the Korean and Vietnam wars, when it was pressed into government service.

Three years ago, after Congress donated the Lane Victory to the care of a nonprofit war veterans group, it sailed out of a mothball shipyard in Northern California and into the hands of Smith and fellow merchant marines, who want the public to remember their deeds.

The Lane Victory, named for a college in Tennessee founded by a former slave, made only one run in World War II. In Korea, though, it spirited to safety 7,000 allies caught between advancing Chinese and retreating U.S. troops. On one of its final Vietnam voyages, the Lane Victory carried 10,000 tons of beer to thirsty troops.

The veterans group that runs the museum defrays the ship's $1,000-a-day maintenance cost by renting it to movie companies, soliciting donations from private companies and collecting $36 annually from its 10,000 members, mostly merchant marines.

Although the Merchant Marine is older than the United States, fewer and fewer jobs exist for today's mariners because of competition from airplanes and foreign shipping, Smith said. "It's not like it used to be."

Back when Smith was a kid, he said, "the only way an ordinary person could see much of the world was to join the merchant marines." Smith haunted the docks of the Chesapeake Bay and at 16, he landed a job in the engine room of a ship for $11.25 a week. It was 1927. He sailed until the '50s, when he decided to "lay down roots."

In the '60s, as Catalina's glass-bottom boat operator, Smith said, he stood in for Arthur Godfrey during the filming of "The Glass Bottom Boat" with Doris Day. He retired to Seal Beach Leisure World in the '70s but remains close to the sea. "My hobby is the Lane Victory, so I feel quite at home here."

The Lane Victory is at Berth 53 in San Pedro Harbor. Admission is $2, or $5 per family. The ship is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. All cargo holds are accessible; avoid wearing sandals or high heels. To arrange a guided tour, call (310) 519-9545.

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