With a blast of a foghorn, the blare of a band and nostalgic tears glistening in some old sailors' eyes, the World War II-era Victory ship, Lane Victory, steamed out of Los Angeles Harbor earlier this month for its first voyage in more than two decades.
It was a short trip--to Santa Catalina Island and back--but it marked the culmination of years of work by members of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II who restored the 47-year-old ship as a seagoing museum and a memorial to the thousands of American merchant seamen who lost their lives in wartime.
For many of the 800 guests aboard, men who had sailed on the Lane Victory or similar ships in years past, boarding the ship was like slipping back in time.
"I have to say it sends tingles up my spine," said former Lane Victory Capt. Ralph Moon, 71, a cattle rancher from Eureka, as he gazed at his old ship. From 1946 to 1948, Moon sailed the Lane Victory to dozens of ports of call, from Manila to Shanghai to Karachi to Finland, carrying everything from nitrates to copra to a deck load of locomotives.
"It just brings back so many memories," Moon said. "She was a good ship."
"She really hasn't changed that much over the years," said James Menlove, 65, a Salt Lake City resident who at 18 served as an engine cadet aboard the Lane Victory during the waning days of World War II.
The Lane Victory's story began in 1945, when its keel was laid at California Shipbuilding Corp. on Terminal Island. One of 531 Victory ships built during the frenzied days of World War II to carry supplies and troops to war zones around the world, the ship was 455 feet long--about 1 1/2 football fields--and 62 feet wide.
It was named after Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., which was founded by Isaac Lane, a former slave who taught himself to read and write and later became an Episcopal bishop and educator.
During the final months of World War II, the Lane Victory made a voyage carrying supplies to the Admiralty Islands; the war with Japan ended as the ship was heading home. Later, the U.S. government leased the ship to American President Lines, a private shipping company, and it made voyages around the world.
The Lane Victory was mothballed in 1948 but was again sent into service to carry troops and supplies when the Korean War broke out.
One memorable voyage in the grim days of December, 1950, when Chinese troops had American forces backed up to the sea, took the Lane Victory to Wonsan, Korea, where it took on 7,009 Korean refugees fleeing the Communist advance. When the ship arrived at the stronghold of Pusan the next day, however, there were 7,010 refugees aboard--a baby had been born during the night.
Later, the Lane Victory helped evacuate thousands of troops from Hungnam under Chinese and North Korean shelling and carried them to relative safety further south.
In 1953, the Lane Victory went back into mothballs. In 1966, it was put to sea again, hauling military supplies to Vietnam. In 1971, the ship sailed into San Francisco after a transpacific run from Yokohama and was put back into mothballs. Unlike many other mothballed ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which includes a number of old Victory ships, the Lane Victory was preserved in relatively good condition as a "show ship."
In 1988, Joe Vernick, president of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II; John Smith, vice president of the group, and other members of the organization were looking for a World War II-era merchant ship to serve as a museum and merchant mariners memorial.
Congress eventually voted to give the organization the Lane Victory, which was towed to the Port of Los Angeles--to the consternation of port authorities, who were reluctant to give the ship valuable berthing space. After considerable political maneuvering, and a period in dry dock for repairs, the Lane Victory was put in Berth 53 in San Pedro.
The ship, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark last year, is scheduled to be moved to Berth 94, near the World Cruise Center, in about six months.
In the meantime, volunteers from the merchant marine veterans organization, many of them in their 60s and 70s, spent thousands of hours refurbishing the ship, refitting it with a 5-inch naval gun and 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns, installing lifeboats, repairing the electrical system--and, of course, doing a lot of scraping and painting.
The cruise to Catalina was the payoff for all the hard work.
"I was a deckhand on Victory ships from 1945 to '47," R. Rorvik Johnson of San Pedro said as he waited for the Lane Victory to sail. "When I quit the sea in '47, I never thought I'd see one of these again. But now here she is."
The Lane Victory left Oct. 3, nudged out of the berth by two tugboats, and made for the Catalina Channel. After lunch and a cruise along the island, the 800 guests--most of whom donated $150 for the trip--witnessed a mock attack on the ship by World War II-vintage German planes flown by a Los Angeles antique aircraft club. The ship returned to Berth 53 at 4 p.m.
Don MacLean, office manager for the Lane Victory, said the ship will make about three cruises a year. The merchant marine veterans organization also plans to send the Lane Victory to Europe in 1994 to participate in the D-Day 50th anniversary observance.
The Lane Victory is open for tours from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.